Top-ranked South Dakota State stands in way of Redbirds’ FCS playoff possibilities

Senior defensive end Jason Lewan is one of only five Illinois State players who were on the roster in 2019 when the Redbirds last won at South Dakota State. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Visiting Brookings, S.D., on Saturday will make Jason Lewan feel like a senior citizen.

When the Illinois State senior defensive end lines up against No. 1 South Dakota State, he will be one of only five players on the roster who played at SDSU in 2019, the last time the two teams met.

“It feels weird. It feels like I’ve played these teams so many times and I’m so old,” joked Lewan, a sixth-year player who has started every game this fall.

Lewan, who has played in a team-high 43 career games, had two tackles on Nov. 9, 2019, when the Redbirds upset fourth-ranked SDSU, 27-18, on the way to the FCS playoffs.

Illinois State (5-4 overall, 3-3 Missouri Valley Football Conference) will have to pull off the same feat Saturday, beating the now-No. 1 Jackrabbits (9-1, 7-0) on their home turf.

A loss at SDSU likely means the Redbirds will miss the playoffs for the fifth time in the past six seasons. The only playoff season in that time was in 2019.

The atmosphere in Brookings is a welcome one for Lewan, who has 23 tackles this season.

“I love being part of the away team,” he said. “You’re going into a hostile environment. No one wants you to win, so it’s always great to get a win when everyone’s against you.”

The Redbirds, whose defense allows the third-fewest points (18.1 per game) in the MVFC, will need to shine Saturday. Last weekend, ISU gave up a late lead when Youngstown State drove 80 yards in just over a minute to stun the Redbirds, 19-17.

“It’s never fun to lose a game, but now we know what’s at stake,” Lewan said. “I love the way this team has responded throughout the season. We’ve become a lot more mature.”

The dynamic Jackrabbits average 31.4 points a game, which ranks 35th nationally.

“They’re pretty solid at all positions,” Lewan said. “They’ve got a really good O-line. They’ve also got two big tight ends who can catch the ball, so they’re pretty well rounded.”

This week’s opponent

Despite clinching a share of the MVFC title already, South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier insisted this week that he would not rest any key players. “We want to be sole conference champs, not co-conference champs,” he said. “This game is important for seeding in the playoffs.” The Jackrabbits, with a win, would finish an unbeaten conference season and extend their winning streak to a school-record 10 games. … SDSU, which is led by Naperville’s Mark Gronowski at quarterback (17 passing TDs, seven rushing TDs), has scored on its opening second-half possession in five consecutive games. … SDSU ranks in the top 20 nationally in sacks on defense (27) and fewest sacks allowed on offense (12).

(Kickoff: 2 p.m.; TV: ESPN-Plus; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

SDSU passing game vs. ISU defense:The Jackrabbits have four different threats that make the offense go in senior wide receivers Jaxon Janke (42 catches, five TDs) and Jadon Janke (34 catches, five TDs), along with tight ends Zach Heins (25 catches, three TDs) and preseason All-American Tucker Kraft (13 catches, two TDs), who is recently healthy after missing most of the season. The Redbirds are fifth-best nationally against the pass, allowing only 172.8 yards a game.

What’s at stake?

Plain and simple: The Redbirds need an upset win today and a victory at home next week against winless Western Illinois to get serious playoff consideration.

Quick hits

The Pantagraph newspaper reported Wednesday that a separated throwing shoulder will keep starting quarterback Zack Annexstad out this week against SDSU. A day later, however, when ISU released its depth chart online, Annexstad was listed as this week’s starter. Backup Tommy Rittenhouse will start his second game in a row, the newspaper reported, and true freshman Jimmy Makuh will serve as his backup. Annexstad, a Minnesota transfer, has completed 62.8% of his passes this season, the highest percentage for an ISU starter since 2012. He has thrown for 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing at least 10 passes to nine different Redbird offensive players. Rittenhouse accounted for two touchdowns last week, including a 42-yard TD run on ISU’s first play of the game. … Senior center Drew Bones is the only ISU offensive lineman to start every game this season on a banged-up unit. Right tackle Peyton Asche has seven starts, while left tackle Hunter Zambrano has six. … Over the past three games, ISU wide receivers Daniel Sobkowicz and Jalen Carr have accounted for 24 of the team’s 47 receptions.

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