Last week the voice of South Dakota State athletics, Tyler Merriam, was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule and talk to me about South Dakota State football, and preview Kansas' first matchup of the year against the Jackrabbits. We talked about a number of topics, ranging from SDSU's strong 2014 campaign, their expectations for last year, the mindset of FCS teams playing FBS opponents, and thoughts on Saturday's upcoming contest. Tyler is clearly an expert on all things SDSU and had loads of information on the Jackrabbits. Here is our conversation:
First, let's establish your credentials for the readers. You're the voice of South Dakota State athletics, correct? How long have you been calling games?
I do play by play for football, men's basketball and baseball. For football, this will be my fifth year, and I did color for a couple years before that. I've been broadcasting at SDSU in some shape or form for 10 years.
Last year, SDSU won 9 games and took eventual champions North Dakota State down to the wire in the second round of the playoffs. What do you think were the strengths or the driving force behind SDSU's success last year?
Last year was the culmination of a three year run. The entire time they were in Division II, they went to one playoff...moving to Division I, they got some resources behind it, they went to the playoffs in 2009, got a big lead in Montana and let it slip away, but that was only their second playoff trip ever until 2012, which is the year they opened at Kansas. Between 2012 and 2014, all three years they finished second in the Valley, went to the FCS playoffs and won a game each of those three years. Last year, being the culmination of that, featured a senior running back named Zach Zenner, the only man in FCS history to rush for 2,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. He's currently with the Detroit Lions trying to make their team. Zenner's breakout party was the first game of his sophomore year when he had a 99 yard touchdown run at Kansas (Editor's note: this makes me feel better about the fact that an FCS running back was able to outrun our entire secondary, which consisted of two future NFL players in its own right).
Zenner was the driving force, and Austin Sumner was the quarterback, the leading passer in school history with over 9,000 yards. Zenner is the number two all-time rusher, and a kid named Jason Schneider was the number three all-time receiver...Those three in that class, plus one of the better kickers in school history...you could see it in this group of players as sophomores getting into the playoffs, and they were hoping that as seniors that might put them over the edge. What was a little different last year was in the first game of the year against Missouri, when Sumner broke multiple bones in his foot in the first quarter, and ended up missing the rest of September and all of October. That obviously adjusted things in a big way. Zach Lujan stepped in, played well enough to keep them going, and then Sumner stepped in at the end, threw it all over the place to win three games and get them into the playoffs. The offense is certainly what carried them. The defense made some plays at times, they weren't bad, but it was an offensive show with three of the best players in program history having played together for three straight years.
You mention it being a "culmination." Do you feel like they're due for a dropoff this year? Do you think Lujan getting that experience can help the offense maintain that level of play?
We'll need to see. Certainly with those three, it was a much different world. With Zenner, he ran for 100 yards more than 30 times in his career. You knew when he was in the backfield he was going to pick up yards and you had a fighter's chance. You also had Sumner, an experienced quarterback with good skill position players, so you knew in every game they were going to put up some points and at least be competitive. Now, you have some new parts. One other thing you had last year was the emergence of Jake Weineke, who had 70+ catches for over 1400 yards and an SDSU record 16 touchdown catches, so he just exploded, no doubt partly because he had a receiver like Schneider on the other side and he had Zenner in the backfield. But it didn't matter if it was Lujan or Sumner at quarterback, he had a sensational year. He's a sophomore, but he was an All-American last year by some pundits, and is already earning preseason All-American accolades. You have him back, and you have Lujan, who started seven games a year ago. So you have building blocks, but against it's such a transition. At running back they have some pieces they're excited about, they have three or four guys who will get some carries, but they're not going to have a Zenner who can carry it 30 times a game. It's going to be different.
On the flipside, the last three years they've had a lot of guys they've rotated in and out defensively. They've were young and inexperienced. They return 10 of their top 11 tacklers from a year ago on defense, so they believe they're more sound defensively...they believe they can vie again for the playoffs just like they have the last three years because so many guys have been around it, they know what it's all about, and their philosophy, as it is a lot of places, is "next man up."
What about the offensive line? They have to have done at least reasonably well for the offense to perform this way. Have they had some talent on the line and if so, how many of them are coming back this year?
They have, Bryan Witzmann is currently in the Houston Texans organization. They've had some good linemen come through. The problem is they have a guy they wanted to start last year who got hurt and is still injured and out of the picture. Nick Carr who was supposed to start at tackle suffered a season-ending injury in the spring. So there are two of the five guys they expected be starting, and both are injured. The starting center was a freshman last year but was all-conference, he's back. They've moved their starting left tackle over to right tackle. They have two guards back who have some experience starting. Basically what they're doing is, they don't have two tackles, two guards and a center who they can say "these five guys are our five offensive linemen." They're trying to figure out how this will work. They're ok with their starting five, but they're not especially deep on the line, and that's a potential area of concern.
With the changes in their top offensive players, do you see them passing the ball more often or changing their philosphy at all?
It will be a similar offense. Something they didn't do last year is put a second running back in the backfield with the Zenner unless it was a specialty package. I think they may use more dual running back sets because they feel that there is the dropoff because Zenner was an All-American, plus they have four guys they're comfortable with using. They are going to pass, they're not a team that just wants to run. They are a team that wants to air it out and go vertical, and again, they have some pieces there. They have some athletic tight ends, and I mentioned Weineke earlier, and that's some of what they did last year as well.
Before we get into the specifics of the game against Kansas, from the perspective of an FCS team, obviously the coaches and player will always say they're only out there to win, but from the perspective of the fans and people around the program, how do they generally approach the games against bigger FBS schools? Do they just hope to stay in the game and maybe pull out a victory, or with more FCS teams winning these games recently, is there more of an expectation to compete with these teams?
I would say with the teams we've played, with the exception of Nebraska, there was an expectation that we could hang in with them. You go back and look at Kansas three years ago and that game ends up being 31-17, Sumner had been hurt, didn't play right away, but he came on and threw a couple of touchdowns. Even Weis said afterward that if he'd played the whole time it might have been a different game. Last year at Missouri it was a 3 point game in the middle of the third quarter.
I think the fanbase is knowledgeable and they understand this isn't the same as playing Nebraska in the Top 25 or even Missouri last year, who was a team coming off an SEC Championship Game appearance. They understand that this is a Kansas team dealing with some issues, with turnover in the coaching staff, and what he's been left with and is trying to make the best of. They've seen the stuff where it's not 85 scholarship players, it's closer to 67 or so. They feel they can be competitive and would love to win. The other part of it is looking around the Missouri Valley, and North Dakota State has had great success against FBS schools, and SDSU against Minnesota had a tie game with three minutes left in 2009 and gave up a late field goal. The fans at least expect a competitive game. They want to win, but they expect a competitive game. Whether that's because they're bleeding yellow and blue or not, they expect a competitive game because they've seen glimpses in the past where if the 'Jacks play at their highest level, they can at least come in and scare Kansas, and obviously if you get in a close game late, anything can happen.
Are the fans around SDSU aware of just how rough a time the Kansas program is going through? They only have roughly the number of scholarship players an FCS team is going to have, they'll be playing a lot of freshman and transfers, guys who've never played a D1 football game before. Do fans see the position Kansas is in and smell a bit more blood in the water than years past?
Like any program, some fans pay more attention than others. I don't know how many truly realize the scholarship situation, but they certainly know that Kansas has struggled recently, they know there's a new head coach, the papers that cover SDSU made a big deal of the Cummings injury, so they know about the starting quarterback suffering an injury. You hate to see that, but at the same time you think "well that was their only guy with a ton of experience, though Cozart has started some, but they see that and they've seen the previous records. They go back and look at what Kansas did last year, and particularly how the season ended and go "geez, that's not a TCU or a Baylor," this is a team that seems to be at the bottom of the barrel of the Big 12. That's what I would assume the fans see. They look at the records, they look at them being picked last in the Big 12, and think "if you're ever going to get your first FBS win, here's that opportunity" just because of what the Jayhawks are going through. But quite frankly, I think that's what they thought three years ago when they went down there, that it was an opportunity to get a win, because you're not playing Alabama or LSU, you're playing a team that's struggling, and that gives you an opportunity.
You mentioned Lujan and Weineke as players to look for. Are there any other players that Kansas fans probably don't know about that they should watch out for on Saturday?
They'll probably try to use their two tight ends, Cam Jones and Dallas Goedert, both 6'5 and athletic. Jones had a a really good season a couple years ago until he got hurt, and he was banged up last season, but he certainly is an athletic guy who is very capable. He even caused Nebraska some issues a couple years ago because he's 6'5, 245, runs well, he's long and athletic, almost a basketball-type body. He can cause teams some issues. Their other tight end in Goedert, they may try to use them both in various formations. I don't know if there's one guy to watch at running back because they may use four different guys in various rations. But certainly Weineke, Lujan and those two tight ends.
Two part question: what does SDSU need to do to put themselves in position to win this game, and then on the other side, what are the weaknesses that could potentially be exploited by Kansas to help avoid the upset?
To win the game, they have to win the turnover and penalty situations. They cannot turn the ball over, I go back to the Missouri game last year. It's a three point game, they're kicking off, Missouri's back is against the wall, SDSU had scored 11 straight points, but then they gave up a kick return for a touchdown, then drove the ball down and turned it over. Against Kansas in 2012, there were a couple of costly turnovers. They have to take care of the ball, force a turnover or two, and win the turnover battle. The other thing is that they can't go in and make a bunch of mistakes. The fact is that even if Kansas isn't at the same level as the teams at the top of the conference, they're still a level above, they're FBS for a reason, and you're not going to go in and commit 12 penalties and win the game. You have to be able to play smart, sound football.
The biggest concerns are certainly that this is a team that has struggled to get to the quarterback. They had just 15 total sacks last year. Like I said before, almost everyone is back defensively, they just lose one defensive end, but virtually everybody else is back. But at the same time, this is the same crew that couldn't get to the quarterback a year ago. They have to get better at that and it's been a point of emphasis for the coaches this fall. Again, Kansas does have athletes. We can talk about how they're struggling and all that, but it's still FBS athleticism, they still have that. If the 'Jacks don't get to Cozart and give him all day, that's going to cause problems. They have to get better at that, and then again take care of the football. If they can cause Cozart some issues and make him run and feel uncomfortable, and then take care of the football and mount some drives, they'll be in the game. Realistically, when you're trying to make an upset, you just try to stay in the football game, make it close in the fourth quarter and see how it goes from there.
Can you give us a prediction for the game, or just a feeling for how this might play out?
I have a hard time getting a feeling because there are so many unknowns for both teams. Kansas struggled so badly last year, but they have a brand new system. Are they going to come out confident and execute it beautifully against a lower level team? Maybe, maybe not. I don't know them well enough to say yea or nay on that. At the same time, you've got [Lujan] who filled in admirably last year, but it's different when you're the guy. How will he fare? And how will all these new running backs fare? There are so many questions, particularly on offense for both teams, that I think there's going to be some feeling out, and this may be a very different game if it's played in the middle of the season, but because it's week one, I have a hard time getting a good read on it. I think SDSU can certainly go in and be competitive, but if Kansas really shows up and executes well, it could be a long day, too. It's hard to get a feel for the game because there are just so many unknowns.
Thanks once again to Tyler Merriam, voice of South Dakota State football, for the scouting report