BROOKINGS, S.D. — Illinois State takes a strong defense to South Dakota State on Saturday for a 2 p.m. Missouri Valley Football Conference game at Dykhouse Stadium.
Waiting for the Redbirds is the Strong offense of the Jackrabbits.
Sophomore tailback Pierre Strong is the Valley's leading rusher and an occasionally dangerous passer ISU will have to contend with as the 11th-ranked Redbirds seek an FCS playoff resume enhancing win over No. 4-ranked SDSU.
"They do a lot of good things on offense, and we do some good things on defense," ISU linebacker Aaron Mends said. "It will be a good matchup."
The Jacks are 7-2 overall and 4-1 in the MVFC, but their losses are almost more impressive than their wins. SDSU opened with a 28-21 defeat to a Minnesota team that is 8-0 and ranked 13th nationally in FBS. The other loss came to No. 1-ranked FCS team North Dakota State, 23-16.
ISU is coming off a disappointing 27-10 home defeat to Northern Iowa. But the Redbirds (6-3, 3-2) have suffered no bad losses, either, while coming up short against No. 5 UNI, NDSU and FBS program Northern Illinois.
ISU ranks third in the Valley is rushing defense at 121.7 yards per game. SDSU is second in rushing offense at 234.4.
"They get you off schedule and they're able to bring in their pass rush guys," Jacks coach John Stiegelmeier. "They run an odd man front that's different than we've faced most of the time, so we'll have to tweak some of our plays and create some different looks for them."
While Strong has rushed for 975 yards, C.J. Wilson adds 471. As a team, the Jacks average 6.0 yards per carry.
"I think they're the best (tailback) combination in the league," said Redbirds coach Brock Spack. "Strong is a slasher, a bigger guy who can put his foot in the ground and change direction. You don't bring him down with an arm tackle. You better bring a lot of people to the party. The other kid is a tad faster."
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Strong, who lines up behind center on occasion in a wildcat formation, is 3-for-3 passing for 114 yards.
SDSU has moved on nicely since the season-ending injury to quarterback J'Bore Gibbs in the Oct. 26 game against NDSU. True freshman Keaton Heide has taken over and completed 11 of 19 for 173 yards in last week's 35-14 triumph over Missouri State.
"I thought he played very well. He stood in there with great maturity," said Stiegelmeier, who also has one of the MVFC's top receivers in Cade Johnson. "He's a winner."
Just 12 rushing yards behind Strong at 963 is another Walter Payton Award watch list member, ISU senior James Robinson.
Redbird quarterback Brady Davis threw three interceptions in last week's loss. SDSU has at least one interception in all nine games this season and 15 of 16 dating back to 2018.
"Our job is to slow him (Robinson) down. We're not going to stop him," Stiegelmeier said. "We want to make the quarterback make more plays maybe than he wants to."
Redbird offensive guard Adam Solomon believes the ISU offense can rebound in its first venture outside the state of Illinois all season.
"Business trips are always nice. It's cool going to someone else's house and trying to take them down in their own house," said Solomon. "I'm really excited about the opportunity to go out to South Dakota and do what we can do."
Defensively, SDSU averages seven tackles for loss and three sacks per game. The tackle leader is preseason All-American linebacker Christian Rozeboom.
"They are a really good football team. We have to play really well to have a chance to win," said Spack. "We both like to run the football. It could be a really fast game."