After two consecutive slow starts in Missouri Valley Football Conference play, the third-ranked South Dakota State football team was due for a breakout performance.
It wasn’t perfect, but 35 first-half points, 28 in the second quarter, boosted the Jackrabbits over Indiana State 42-23 Saturday afternoon in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Coming into SDSU’s (6-1, 3-0 MVFC) road matchup with the Sycamores (3-4, 1-2 MVFC), the Jacks were averaging less than 200 passing yards a game. Coach John Stiegelmeier said in an interview earlier in the week that he’d like to see his passing offense become “more explosive.”
That’s exactly what he saw in the 19-point win.
Redshirt freshman quarterback J’Bore Gibbs threw for 49 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive on his way to 219 first-half yards through the air. For the game, Gibbs totaled a career-high 274 yards and three touchdowns passing, adding a fourth score on the ground.
Gibbs’ big day came despite a stout opposition. ISU’s pass defense came in allowing an average of fewer than 164 yards through the air, the best mark in the MVFC and eighth-best nationally.
In a postgame radio interview, Stiegelmeier said he was “very happy” with this team’s offensive performance.
“I thought J’Bore played pretty well,” Stiegelmeier said. “I thought (wide receiver) Adam Anderson played really well in the football game for a guy that doesn’t get a lot of opportunities. I feel really good about our offense.”
Sophomore Pierre Strong Jr. also had another strong showing, carrying 17 times for 144 yards and two touchdowns.
Without star quarterback Ryan Boyle, who tore his ACL Sept. 21, the Sycamores simply didn’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Jacks. SDSU won the total yardage battle 452-338 and the Jacks’ defense forced four first-half turnovers.
Turnovers and poor execution were plentiful early on.
After SDSU’s opening-drive touchdown, Sycamore quarterback Kurtis Wilderman, who was making his first career start, fumbled deep in his own territory on ISU’s first play from scrimmage.
But even after taking over at the ISU 10-yard line, SDSU got no points because senior kicker Chase Vinatieri missed a chip-shot field goal. Vinatieri is now 4-for-8 on field goal attempts this season.
After a second ISU fumble, this time inside the red zone, the Jacks were again unable to capitalize on the takeaway. A tipped pass fell into the hands of a Sycamore defender, setting up a 28-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.
SDSU’s aerial onslaught could not be stopped though, and the Jacks responded with touchdown strikes of 23 yards to redshirt freshman Jaxon Janke and 25 yards to junior Cade Johnson.
The Johnson score came just one play after the Sycamores lost their third fumble of the game. Johnson led the Jacks’ receivers with seven catches for 134 yards and a touchdown. He gave credit to his young quarterback after the game.
“J’Bore had a really good game. He was sitting in there, taking some hits,” Johnson said. “He was just delivering the ball well and putting it where it needed to be.”
After Strong’s first score of the contest, ISU tacked on a field goal to cut SDSU’s lead to 28-10.
Right before halftime, the Jacks took advantage of a short punt, driving 45-yards on only three plays in 16 seconds. The drive was capped by a Gibbs’ one-yard touchdown scamper.
Along with its four takeaways, SDSU’s defense added eight sacks. Nine different Jackrabbits had a hand in that sack total, which speaks to the depth of the defensive line, and according to Stiegelmeier, the performance of his staff.
“(Defensive line) coach (Christian) Smith and (assistant defensive line) coach (Spencer) Erickson, they do a tremendous job with those guys,” Stiegelmeier said. “Not only rotating them in, but also coaching them up, talking about the weakness of the offensive line and their strengths. I’ll take eight sacks any day.”
The Sycamores flirted with a second-half rally, scoring on their opening drive of the second half on a fake field goal touchdown pass, but would manage just six more points the rest of the game.
ISU running back Peterson Kerlegrand carried 19 times for 107 yards, becoming the first runner to surpass the century mark against the Jacks this season.
SDSU’s win sets up a much-anticipated matchup with top-ranked North Dakota State next weekend at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.
“It will be a great atmosphere,” Stiegelmeier said. “Ideally it’s 90% blue, and our people come to impact the game. We’ll bring our best game, I guarantee you that.”