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.
It was a similar story for the ground game. Running back Zach Zenner was here last year, as was most of the offensive line. Yet he exploded in a featured role and the blockers came together, the Jacks rushing for 2,304 yards just one year after managing only 991.
The sophomore Zenner accounted for most of that, piling up 2,044 — best in NCAA Division I this season and the ninth-most in FCS history — to become a candidate for the Walter Payton Award, the top individual honor in FCS.
SDSU needed those rebuilding projects to work, too, because the pass game — tops in the Valley last season — struggled much of the way. Quarterback Austin Sumner played the entire season at less than full strength because of a hand injury suffered late in fall camp.
There's a theme hidden in that: The Jacks, picked sixth in the preseason conference poll, were effective, if unpredictable.
"It's been a great season," Shafrath said. "I love playing with these guys, and it's an honor to play for this program. I wouldn't choose any other one for sure."
A good chunk of these Jacks have more ball to play — all 58 points against EIU were scored by underclassmen. The offense loses four full-time starters, the defense five. That could drop to three and four pending the eligibility appeals of tight end Seth Daughters and defensive tackle David Hettiger.
The full value of this season might wind up being determined by what happens next.
"It makes you realize how hard it is to be national champs or to go on in the playoffs," said Sumner, the first sophomore captain in school history. "We'll take that with us through the offseason; be ready to go for next year."