The Missouri Valley Football Conference is a weekly grind, as reflected in just the second weekend of the truncated spring season. For South Dakota State and North Dakota, who meet Feb. 27 in Grand Forks, it's already the second pairing against a Top 25-ranked opponent from the league.
South Dakota State opened the unique campaign with a thrilling win at Northern Iowa, while North Dakota welcomed Southern Illinois to town and dominated the Salukis with an overwhelming second half.
The Jackrabbits, No. 4 in Athlon Sports' Power Poll, seek another high-profile win against the Fighting Hawks, who jumped from unranked all the way to No. 13 and also were Athlon's Team of the Week.
South Dakota State at North Dakota
Kickoff: Saturday, Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. ET
Spread: South Dakota State -8
When South Dakota State Has the Ball
South Dakota State has flourished for the past decade with an identity of physical football on both sides. The spring 2021 team is no exception behind an offensive line anchored by Wes Genant. The Jackrabbits also have had a tradition of producing big-bodied, pass-catching targets who can change the complexion of a game.
Six-foot-seven tight end Zach Heins did just that with a long catch late to set up South Dakota State's game-winning touchdown pass from Mark Gronowski to Pierre Strong to beat Northern Iowa. With 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3 wide receivers Jaxon and Jadon Janke, the Jackrabbits have the size to create mismatch nightmares all over the field.
Strong adds another element in the passing game out of the backfield. The pass could set up the run rather than vice versa for the Jacks at North Dakota, as the Fighting Hawks present a different defensive look than that which South Dakota State saw at Northern Iowa. UND allowed more than 2,600 rushing yards in the 2019 season.
When North Dakota Has the Ball
Quarterback Tommy Schuster was wildly efficient in the spring opener, completing 15-of-23 pass attempts. Three went for touchdowns. Both the passing distribution and split of carries on the ground were well-balanced, which North Dakota will need to continue to keep an aggressive South Dakota State defense on its heels.
The Fighting Hawks ate up chunks of yardage on the ground against Southern Illinois, averaging almost six yards per carry with four players rushing at least six times. South Dakota State, meanwhile, limited Northern Iowa to just 1.1 yards per rushing attempt, taking that element of its offense almost completely out of the game.
If not for a certain multiple-time national champion, South Dakota State would be considered the benchmark of the MVFC for the past decade. The spring Jackrabbits are well-positioned to challenge North Dakota State for league supremacy, but navigating this difficult schedule presents numerous potential pitfalls.
A surprising North Dakota team on the road is one such pitfall. Saturday's matchup should be a fascinating contrast of styles. UND needs to push the tempo early — generating turnovers could be critical. The Fighting Hawks came away with two interceptions at Southern Illinois, as well as a scoop-and-score. South Dakota State's efficient offensive style does not lend itself to many giveaways.
Prediction: South Dakota State 28, North Dakota 17
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.