FARGO — The high temperature in Fargo the last time South Dakota State played a football game was 60 degrees. The forecasted high for Saturday is 52.
The fact the span of those two days is four weeks seems unrealistic given it’s seemingly gotten colder as the spring has gone on. But that’s the nature of NCAA Division I FCS football this spring. Warm. Cold. Warm. Cold.
SDSU last played on March 20, but that is expected to change on Saturday when the Jackrabbits travel to Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome to play North Dakota State. That’s a month between games.
“The only thing I’m concerned about and worried about is just the rust,” said SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier.
The rust of not blocking and tackling in a game, something the Bison were able to do last weekend in a 23-20 win at Northern Iowa. It was NDSU’s first game after two vacant weeks, including one postponement with the Jackrabbits that was originally scheduled for April 3.
“We’ve always called a bye week an improvement week so we literally have had three improvement weeks in a row,” Stiegelmeier said.
That doesn’t mean it’s been every day. Stiegelmeier said he’s given players time off, perhaps an effort to put more emphasis on the practices they do have.
There’s plenty at stake on Saturday. The winner will earn the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s automatic berth to the FCS playoffs. It most likely will get a No. 1 or 2 seed and, of course, the Dakota Marker trophy.
NDSU is 6-1 overall and 5-1 in the Valley. SDSU is 4-1 both overall and in the league. It’s debatable if a long layoff will be more detrimental to one team or the other. The Jackrabbits will go into the game as healthy as they’ve been all season.
That includes running back Pierre Strong Jr., who NDSU head coach Matt Entz calls the best back in the FCS. Strong Jr. missed the Jackrabbits’ last game, a 44-3 thrashing at Southern Illinois.
“He can accelerate on a different level,” Entz said. “He can also make you miss. You think you have him contained in the backfield and there he is on the perimeter.”
It’s not as if a three-week layoff has never happened in FCS football. NDSU has dealt with three weeks between the FCS semifinals and the title game on several occasions and have been successful at it.
The Bison are 8-0 in championship games in Frisco, Texas. But those three weeks were approached with a calculated mix of weight training and conditioning, days off and practice. There is no blueprint for games getting canceled or postponed, like the Jacks have dealt with for a month.
“What I’m concerned about is we prepare too much,” Stiegelmeier said. “That’s my greatest caution to our coaches. Today I called them out in some areas about simply being thorough in everything we do because we’ve had the time to do that. Let’s do it.”