Well, here we are again. Back at it.
College football has returned to us! It officially begins, as far as this site is concerned, on Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium, when the Minnesota Golden Gophers take the field against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits to open the third year of the P.J. Fleck era.
As for what to expect from the Jackrabbits, who will open the season ranked as high as No. 3 in the FCS, let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Damn it feels good to be back at this.
Were they any good last year?
Record: 10-3 (6-2, 2nd MVFC)
Postseason: L 21-44 vs North Dakota State (FCS Semifinals)
Yes. They were very good. Two of their three losses came against North Dakota State, with the Bison besting the Jackrabbits in the playoff semifinals en route to yet another national championship. In their 10 wins, South Dakota State’s average margin of victory was 30.5 points, in large part because of their high-powered offense.
Can they score on offense?
The good news: Record-setting quarterback Taryn Christion has graduated after three years under center for the Jackrabbits. Taking over as top signal caller is redshirt freshman J’Bore Gibbs. If Gibbs struggles for whatever reason in his first collegiate game, South Dakota State can turn to redshirt junior Kanin Nelson and redshirt freshman Matt Connors for a change of pace, as both have challenged Gibbs for the starting spot since the spring.
The bad news: Gibbs will have a strong supporting cast. It starts with a wide receiver corps captained by All-American junior Cade Johnson, who led the team a season ago with 67 receptions for 1,332 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. The Jackrabbits’ top five leading receivers from last season are all back. Senior Adam Anderson is another notable returnee, hauling in 47 passes for 718 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018.
On the ground, leading rusher Pierre Thomas will look to build upon a redshirt freshman campaign that saw him rush for 1,149 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’ll be operating behind an offensive line that returns all but one starter from last season.
This will be no walk in the park for defensive coordinator Joe Rossi.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
The Gophers will certainly score, but they won’t be waltzing into the end zone. This is a strong Jackrabbits defense that returns most of their starters from a season ago.
The name you’ll be hearing frequently on defense for the Jackrabbits is Christian Rozeboom. He was the team’s leading tackler last year and returns for his senior season after tallying 105 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, and two interceptions in 2018. South Dakota State will lean on Rozeboom and redshirt junior Logan Backhaus to compensate for the loss of Dalton Cox, who graduated after finishing second on the team in tackles last season.
Up front, all four starters on the defensive line return. The one that Minnesota offensive tackles Daniel Faalele and Sam Schlueter will need to watch out for is senior defensive end Ryan Earith, who racked up nine tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and nine quarterback hurries as a junior.
Gopher quarterback Tanner Morgan and his talented wide receiver corps, led by Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, may find success against a South Dakota State secondary that has had to replace three of their four starters from a season ago. Safeties Brandon Snyder and Makiah Slade and cornerback Jordan Brown, the team’s best cover corner with 12 pass break-ups in 2018, have all graduated. Senior cornerback Marshon Harris is the lone returner.
But the key for Minnesota will be establishing the run. North Dakota State annihilated this same defensive front to the tune of 439 rushing yards in the Jackrabbits’ semifinal loss to the Bison last season. The Gophers will almost certainly have a size advantage up front. They’ll need to make the most of it and wear down the South Dakota State defense.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
Make no mistake, this is a game that Minnesota should win. But I can almost guarantee it will be too close for comfort for some Gopher fans. South Dakota State is an FCS program, albeit a very good FCS program. One that hasn’t missed the postseason since 2011 and is coming off back-to-back trips to the playoff semifinals. But the Jackrabbits are 1-7 against FBS programs over the last decade, and I don’t expect that win total to increase come Thursday. The Gophers will take care of business. Minnesota 34, South Dakota State 24.