Two weeks after their original matchup was postponed due to COVID-19 protocols, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits and North Dakota State Bison will finally meet on Saturday at the Fargodome, with a share of the Missouri Valley Football Conference title on the line.
Due to the shortened spring season, the MVFC is considering teams with the same number of losses tied, so the winner of this game will share a title with North Dakota (4-1, 4-1 MVFC) and Missouri State (5-4, 4-1), both of whom have already lost to NDSU but finished their conference slate. Still, that doesn't take away from the stakes of this game.
The Bison (6-1, 5-1) enter as the top-ranked team in Athlon Sports' FCS Power Poll, and the Jackrabbits (4-1, 4-1) aren't far behind at No. 3. The winner will get more than just a three-way share of a title, they'll likely be one of the top two seeds in the FCS playoffs, which comes with home-field advantage.
The Bison have maintained a vise-like grip on the Dakota Marker trophy since 2010, winning 12 of 14 games in this rivalry. South Dakota State has won as recently as 2016 — the only season the Jackrabbits have had a share of the MVFC title — and 2017, and their last two regular-season matchups were determined by one score. But NDSU remains the class of the conference until proven otherwise.
Due to wins over Southern Illinois, Illinois State, North Dakota, and Northern Iowa, NDSU is a lock to make the playoff as an at-large team even with a loss. SDSU should have a good chance with a loss, too, after big wins over Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois, but a bad loss on Saturday could find the Jackrabbits on the outside looking in when the field is announced Sunday morning (11:30 a.m. ET on ESPNU).
South Dakota State at North Dakota State
Kickoff: Saturday, April 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: North Dakota State -2
When South Dakota State Has the Ball
Between two cancelations and a bye, South Dakota State hasn't played since March 20, but that time off has allowed them to get back a key player: running back Pierre Strong Jr. The preseason All-American is back from a leg injury and he's averaging 89.5 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry this season. That's actually down from 2019, when he averaged 93 yards a game on more than seven yards per carry.
The good news is that the Jackrabbits found another key contributor in the meantime. Freshman Isaiah Davis picked up the slack against the Salukis with 150 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries. He's averaging nearly eight yards per attempt on the season.
Strong and Davis will be perhaps the biggest test yet for a Bison run defense that has been among the best in FCS. They rank 16th nationally and are second in the conference with just 106.9 rushing yards allowed per game and 20th at 3.05 yards per carry.
When North Dakota State Has the Ball
If you're into smash-mouth football, you're in luck, because NDSU also has an excellent rushing attack, seven yards per game better than South Dakota State for tops in the MVFC.
Fullback Hunter Luepke has been a revelation since missing the first four spring games due to a shoulder injury. He posted 190 yards and three scores on 28 attempts against North Dakota and another 95 yards and a TD on 19 carries against UNI. A rotation of other backs, including Dominic Gonnella, Jalen Bussey, and Kobe Johnson make this the most dangerous ground game in the subdivision.
The Jackrabbits aren't slouches against the run at fifth in the MVFC and 25th nationally with 121.8 rushing yards allowed per game, but they're clearly a step behind the Bison. They were undone in their sole loss by giving up 177 rushing yards to North Dakota on 39 carries, so slowing down Luepke and Co. will be of the utmost importance.
There's little doubt that these are two of the best teams in the FCS, but North Dakota State has the edge in both rushing offense and rushing defense. Overcoming their strength in the trenches at the Fargodome will be tough for South Dakota State, especially if Bison QB Zeb Noland keeps playing mistake-free football.
Prediction: North Dakota State 27, South Dakota State 17
(Top photo courtesy of gobison.com)