South Dakota State’s starting quarterback is out after a freak non-contact foot injury.
Cal Poly’s best running back is suspended from the team fighting felony charges related to an alleged attempted armed robbery.
Jackrabbits senior Austin Sumner, who entered the year as the preseason all-Missouri Valley Football Conference first-team quarterback and the active career passing leader in the FCS, got his cleat caught in the turf in last week’s 38-18 loss at Missouri and hurt his foot bad enough that he’ll be out for the next month or two.
Mustangs senior slotback Kristaan Ivory, last year’s team MVP, is one of five Cal Poly players suspended from the team while the criminal charges get sorted out.
But as the Mustangs (0-1) continue to adjust to life without Ivory and the others, and the Jackrabbits turn to a junior college transfer making his first FCS start, the missing players might not be all that relevant to what happens on the field when they face off in Brookings, S.D., today at 4 p.m.
As shown in a 28-10 loss at New Mexico State last week where Cal Poly attempted just seven passes, the Mustangs’ triple-option attack will be all about running the ball — with or without Ivory. And for South Dakota State, even though Zach Lujan came off the bench in the first quarter to complete 21 of 28 passes for 239 yards, the player in the backfield all eyes will be focused on is All-America running back Zach Zenner.
No matter the juicy storylines, the game will be won and lost in the trenches.
“You’ve got to start with the run game,” Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said. “They are a balanced offense, but that’s what makes their stuff go. So, you have to take the run game away.”
Echoed Cal Poly senior linebacker Cameron Ontko: “It really doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback. For us, we have to stop the run. Last week, we didn’t play as well as we are capable of stopping the run. This week, we really made an emphasis on stopping the run, reading our keys, reacting and playing fast.”
The key matchup didn’t sound much differently coming from Jackrabbits head coach John Stiegelmeier.
“We have to stop the run,” Stiegelmeier said. “It’s our defense against their offense with the potential demoralization of the whole football team.
“It’s that matchup of the tackles squeezing, the backer filling in, the safeties, too. You have to defend all aspects of their option.”
Though it was years ago now, a 48-14 Cal Poly victory is still pretty fresh to Stiegelmeier, a South Dakota State alumnus who’s been at the school for nearly 30 years and needs three more victories to become the program’s all-time leader after spending the past 18 years as the head coach.
In that game, fullback Jake Romanelli ran for a game-high 100 yards, and the inside running game opened up space for quarterback Andre Broadous, who passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more scores.
The Mustangs also returned two interceptions for touchdowns, including one that Asa Jackson ran back 100 yards from a few steps into his own end zone.
The Mustangs that were shut out in the second half of last week’s loss at New Mexico State doesn’t look to be as explosive as the one that blew out the Jackrabbits in 2011, but Stiegelmeier believes that Cal Poly could get on a roll if the South Dakota State defense can’t stop the basics.
“They have a commitment to running the football, and their success in running the football. They didn’t win the football game” against the Aggies, Stiegelmeier said, “but they rushed for a ton of yards. I know that’s their offense.
“In my opinion, they are going to say ‘this is what we do and we’re going to keep doing it, and we’re not going to become a 30-pass-per-game program.’ ”
Last week, Cal Poly running back Kori Garcia said New Mexico State defenders began to recognize some of the Mustangs’ calls at the line. That may have helped the Aggies shut down a Cal Poly running attack that totaled 259 yards on the ground but just 74 after the half. Because the Mustangs have yet to show an ability to go to the air, they could face a similar problem this week.
“If people really think they know what we’re running, let them think it,” Walsh said. “We want them to think that because they’re going to guess wrong a couple of times, and they’re going to be big plays.
“Regardless of what they do, we should be able to say on our offense, on those third-and-2s where we didn’t get anything and we had to punt, those should be first downs.”
Cal Poly definitely plans to rack up as many first downs as possible in an effort to possess the ball as much as possible because this time around, South Dakota State has the most explosive player on the field.
Zenner is one of only two FCS backs to run for 2,000 yards in separate seasons. He took his first carry 75 yards for a touchdown against Missouri last week. He’s run for a 99-yard score, and he’s 115 yards away from owning the MVFC career records for both all- purpose and rushing yardage.
As a freshman backup in the 2011 game, Zenner ran eight times for 18 yards against Cal Poly, but he’s gone on to have one of the finest collegiate careers of all time.
In that time, Mustangs senior defensive tackle Chris Lawrence said, South Dakota State’s offensive line has gotten more athletic, too.
“They’ve got a good offense, a similar challenge to New Mexico State,” Lawrence said. “And for us, as always with the D-line, it’s about being patient. This running back, he’s got good vision and he can cut back the ball well. With us, it’s canceling our gaps and being patient.
“If everyone’s filling their gaps and everyone’s doing their jobs, he’s not going to have anywhere to run.”