SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — While difficult to see the forest for the Fargodome, this season in South Dakota State football won't be defined by a 28-3 loss to North Dakota State on Saturday night.
At least, not entirely.
The top-ranked Bison (11-1) bested the No. 19 Jackrabbits — and handily — in Round 2 of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, their fourth consecutive win in the series and third straight berth in the national quarterfinals. SDSU is not NDSU, for worse and for better.
However, the Jacks (9-4) were productive by their own standards and future aspirations. They got back on track in terms of style and success, dramatic improvements in the defense and the ground game keying a return to the postseason and the first playoff victory in school history, a 58-10 win over Eastern Illinois in the first round against
SDSU hadn't done so much winning since 1979. The success was encouraging given the relative youth of the club — especially the offense — and much needed coming off consecutive losing campaigns.
"It felt good to be in the playoffs," coach John Stiegelmeier said. "Surely, the vision is to get there first and compete for the prize. ... It's a tough task — things get tougher as you move into the playoffs. We didn't get far."
The Jacks got to the 20-team postseason for the second time in four years by going 8-3 and finishing second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the swing game being a last-second comeback victory at Southern Illinois.
They advanced in the bracket by beating No. 25 Eastern Illinois, their first-ever home playoff game going down as the most lopsided postseason beating ever handed out by a Valley squad.
In that win and the subsequent loss against NDSU, SDSU generally fared as well as its defense and its run game. The Jacks gave up 16.4 points per game, fifth in the FCS and an improvement of 16.7 from the 2011 team that finished 5-6.
The keys to the turnaround were simple: development of returning players and sound execution of individual assignments. Senior linebacker Ross Shafrath epitomized that, finishing with a school-record 150 tackles in his only season as a full-time starter.