South Dakota State is just over five days removed from wrapping up its perfect season with a smothering win over Montana in the FCS championship. At 15-0 on the 2023 season a new conversation has now been ignited about just where this year’s SDSU squad ought to rank in the pantheon of great teams to have hoisted the trophy. Several of those NDSU teams were as dominant as any. And who could forget what App. State did in the mid 2000s? Georgia Southern and Youngstown State also have had a few pretty stellar entries into that list.
The Jacks, though, might have a legitimate argument to stand at the very top for, if nothing else, their defensive prowess.
“146 points scored to 15... this is the best defense in FCS history,” said head coach Jimmy Rogers plainly in his postgame press conference after the national championship.
146 to 15. Rogers had highlighted a truly absurd stat line that South Dakota State laid out against its opponents during their postseason run. The Jackrabbits defense surrendered just 15 points all playoffs long. Shutouts against Mercer and UAlbany paired with a 12 point outing against Villanova and a mere three in the title game. That was it. 48 opponent drives. One touchdown. 15 points.
Those numbers, as amazing as they are on their own, are not a fluke. That was par for the course for this SDSU unit. During their 15-game slate in 2023, the Jacks averaged just 9.3 points allowed; the lowest of any FCS national champion ever. Even FCS powerhouses like North Dakota State, Montana State and Montana all fell victim to the might of that vaunted defense.
NFL talent littered that side of the ball for South Dakota State this last year. Linebackers Adam Bock, Jason Freeman and Isaiah Stalbird will all get their pro chances over the next few months. To have three NFL-caliber players in one position group is extremely rare for most FCS programs. The hard-hitting trio accounted for 250 total tackles and seven turnovers this season and were instrumental in the team’s dominance.
It wasn’t just the linebackers, obviously, that contributed. The front line was equally as smothering. Big #94 Cade Terveer made life hell for opposing quarterbacks this year, posting 7.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss. Right there with him was Quinton Hicks and Ryan Van Marel. That pair accounted for five QB hits, another 7.5 sacks and Van Marel himself recovered two fumbles including a big one in the championship.
While all that was happening up front, the Jackrabbits secondary was locking it down in the back. Cornerback Dalys Beanum and sophomore safety Tucker Large batted away 16 passes and intercepted nine more. Beanum was lights out during the playoffs, picking off a throw in each of the four games. Fellow corner Dyshon Gales also intercepted a pair of passes and authored a fumble recovery. All of that resulted in SDSU coming in second in the nation with 19 total picks.
The effort came from all ends and the results speak for themselves.
So, whether it was the 89.6 rush yards per game allowed or the less than 10 points given up, there’s no denying that the 2023 Jackrabbits defense was historic by most every measure. Numbers don’t lie and yet they often don’t tell the whole story. For as staggeringly impressive as several of SDSU’s marks were this year, there was something that got lost in the translation to the stat sheet. They simply looked the part. If you watched that group play, hit and tackle you’d be inclined to agree with what Rogers said after the championship.
No team has ever done it the way that South Dakota State did this year and no team may ever do it again.