With Nebraska off this week, we asked our staff members to do something they don’t get to do very often––be a fan. More specifically, just pick a team and try to live-and-die a game for a week. You can read all of those dispatches here.
Unlike most people around these parts, I don’t typically get to kick back on the couch and watch a lot of college football on Saturdays.
Between Nebraska football games and volleyball matches and, before too long, basketball games, my weekends are often pretty busy. I’ll occasionally catch a bit of Pac-12 After Dark, or if Nebraska has a late game I might catch a bit of an afternoon game, but it’s rare that I sit down and watch a game from start to finish.
I grew up a Husker football fan like most kids born in this state, but as I’ve grown older and especially since I started covering the team, things have changed. I don’t have the same emotional attachment to the Huskers like I do to the Green Bay Packers, for example.
Nebraska’s bye week offered me the opportunity to dive back into that old college football fandom, at least for a few hours. And what better way to do that than by tuning in to a grainy ESPN3 stream of an FCS game?
If you’ve followed me on Twitter or read my writing over the last several years, you know that I’m an advocate for high school athletes in this state. So when I started thinking about what team to adopt for a day, I figured why not pick one that’s stocked with Nebraska natives?
I chose the South Dakota State Jackrabbits and their group of #NebraskaJacks.
The Jackrabbits were 5-1 on the season heading into Saturday’s game at Indiana State with the lone loss coming to Minnesota in week one, and the Jacks gave the Gophers all they could handle.
Coach John Stiegelmeier has built South Dakota State into a yearly contender in the Missouri Valley and with Omaha native Dan Jackson as the point man, the Jackrabbits have developed a reliable pipeline of talent from Nebraska to Brookings.
This year’s roster features 15 players from Nebraska, and I happen to know two of them who saw a lot of playing time on Saturday, which made watching the game even cooler for me.
These days it seems Nebraska—the program I most closely follow––rarely makes things easy on itself. Nebraska had the Northern Illinois game that it breezed through this season, but other than that each week has been a struggle and the Ohio State game was the only one that was over by halftime.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Jackrabbits. Outside of the loss to Minnesota, South Dakota State hasn’t been in a game decided by one score all season. Last week’s 38-28 win against Bo Pelini’s Youngstown State was the smallest margin of victory so far. Three of its wins have come by 28 or more.
In general, South Dakota State fans have a pretty easy-going life when it comes to watching their football team. The Jackrabbits win a lot and they win big, and they did so again on Saturday.
South Dakota State marched right down the field on its opening possession, putting seven points on the board in just under three minutes of action. Indiana State’s first two drives both ended in lost fumbles, though South Dakota State wasn’t able to capitalize on either one of them thanks to a missed field goal and then an interception (both of those felt familiar). The Sycamores turned the interception into a touchdown with a strike from 28 yards out on their first play.
It was all Jackrabbits after that. South Dakota State scored on four of its last five drives of the first half and held Indiana State to 73 total yards of offense and three points between the touchdown drive and halftime.
South Dakota State took a comfortable 35-10 lead into halftime and cruised through the second half for a 42-23 win. I felt a little bit of stress early on with a couple of missed throws and the interception by South Dakota State’s redshirt freshman quarterback but that quickly dissipated as the offensive onslaught began. J’Bore Gibbs, the quarterback, settled in and finished with a career-high 274 yards and three touchdowns through the air, and he added another touchdown on the ground as well.
I didn’t have to worry about missed run fits or receivers not getting open or the offensive line getting beat repeatedly, which made for a completely different viewing experience than what I’ve grown accustomed to.
Of the 14 Nebraska Jacks on the roster, eight of them saw the field on Saturday including five starters.
Cade Johnson, the Bellevue West product and son of former Husker receiver Clester Johnson, has grown into one of the best wide receivers in all of FCS football, and he was spectacular again on Saturday. Johnson finished with seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown in which he beat his defender so badly that the defensive back fell down and grabbed Johnson to draw a pass interference flag, though Johnson caught the ball anyway.
Johnson is only a junior but his performance on Saturday moved him into sixth place on the school’s all-time receiving yards chart. I’ve known Cade since he was a sophomore in high school and to see him grow into this has been pretty awesome.
The other player who I’ve known for some time is back-up safety Chase Norblade, a true freshman out of Papillion-La Vista South. Chase actually played YMCA basketball with my younger brother at one point, so it was pretty cool for me when he popped up as a difference-maker for the Titans in high school and then again when he committed to South Dakota State. He finished with five tackles off the bench on Saturday, and heading into the game I had no idea he was even playing already.
South Dakota State’s starting center is Matt Clark out of Syracuse. Josh Manchigiah (Papillion-La Vista South) is starting at one of the safety spots and had five tackles against there Sycamores. Ryan Earith (Papillion-La Vista South, again) started at defensive end and had half a sack and a pass break-up. Luke Sellers (you can probably guess what school he came from) is a full back and team captain.
Ben Dinkel, a Kearney graduate, is the team’s starting punter while Cole Frahm, the Omaha Burke product who initially walked on at Nebraska but transferred to South Dakota State after last year, checked in off the bench and recorded a few kickoffs.
Seeing so many Nebraska natives getting on the field was the best part of Saturday’s game for me, and the way the game played out made for a pretty laid-back and enjoyable viewing experience.
In fact, right after the game wrapped up I took a quick nap, and if you didn’t fit one of those into your schedule you didn’t use your bye week Saturday correctly.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.