New-look Cyclones open highly-anticipated season with Jackrabbits

Iowa State sophomore Hakeem Butler celebrates after the Cyclones’ 21-20 win over Memphis in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

Aaron Marner

Iowa State’s opening opponent might not be an FBS program, but nobody is sleeping on South Dakota State.

The Jackrabbits (ranked No. 3 in the Football Championship Subdivision by the coaches poll) have a chance to pull an upset Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium at 7 p.m.

South Dakota State went 11-3 last year and won two games in the FCS playoffs before losing to James Madison in the semifinals. In 2016, South Dakota State racked up 41 points in a loss to TCU in the season opener, so the Jackrabbits aren’t afraid of the bright Big 12 lights.

South Dakota State’s offense averaged over 37 points per game last year, outscoring opponents by nearly two touchdowns per game.

The key to that well-oiled machine is senior quarterback Taryn Christion.

Christion threw for 35 touchdowns and 3,515 yards a season ago. He also piled up 500 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.

“He’s a difference maker,” said Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock. “He’s a dangerous guy… he makes them go.”

The strength Iowa State may have against Christion’s passing ability is the loss of tight end Dallas Goedert and receiver Jake Wieneke.

The duo combined for 23 touchdowns and over 2,000 yards through the air in 2017.

“He’s a veteran guy,” Heacock said. “Nothing phases him… he eludes pressure and he can throw the ball down the field.”

But South Dakota State isn’t the only team who will be hoping for new players to step up on Saturday.

Iowa State is replacing its leading tackler from last year in Joel Lanning, along with both starting safeties. Wide receiver is another spot with a lot of turnover for the Cyclones. Redshirt junior Hakeem Butler is the only returning player with more than 300 receiving yards last season.

“I think we’ve got a great group of leaders, Hakeem being one of them,” said wide receivers coach Bryan Gasser. “The thing Hakeem does a really great job of is he brings it every day. He’s the same guy, he’s consistent.”

Butler has been tasked with leading a young group of receivers on the outside while also helping the tight ends.

Other than Butler, junior Deshaunte Jones and redshirt senior Matthew Eaton have some collegiate experience at receiver. Jones has 809 career receiving yards and six touchdowns while Eaton hauled in four touchdowns in 2017.

“I think that helps those younger guys,” Gasser said. “They look up to the guys that have produced and who have had success.”

For younger wide receivers like redshirt freshman Tarique Milton and redshirt sophomores Jalen Martin and Landen Akers, working behind Butler and the veterans has helped. So has playing against All-Big 12 cornerback redshirt senior Brian Peavy in practice each day.

“I think that’s one of the great strengths of being a scout team player,” Gasser said. “You’re getting a chance to go against the 1s and the 2s on the other side of the ball.”

Gasser said with the right approach, the scout team players can get better while also pushing the first-stringers in practice.

One player who fits that description is redshirt sophomore tight end Chase Allen. Allen, who caught four passes for 39 yards last year, will have to take a bigger role as a receiver in 2018. That could start with South Dakota State.

South Dakota State ranked 60th in the FCS last year in passing yards allowed, so if there’s ever a time for someone to break out — whether that’s Allen or another tight end — Saturday might be it. 

“We’re finally in a position where we can take that next step and fill that role the team needs,” Allen said. “We had a conversation [Wednesday] with all the tight ends. What really determines who’s starting is what play we’re running first. We all have different talents, different strengths and different weaknesses.”