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Bryce Sterk

Montana State's Bryce Sterk sacks Western Illinois' Sean McGuire last week in Bozeman.

BROOKINGS, S.D. — During fall camp, Jeff Choate made no bones about his perceptions in terms of the strength of Montana State’s defensive line.

“I'm telling you right now, our D-line is going to be a problem for everybody that we play,” Choate said in August.

It certainly was for Western Illinois in Week 1, as ends Tyrone Fa’anono and Bryce Sterk combined for three quarterback sacks and five tackles for loss. It was Sterk’s fourth-down sack of Sean McGuire late in the fourth quarter that preserved a 26-23 victory for the Bobcats.

MSU’s defense finished the game with four sacks, nine tackles for loss and two interceptions, which caught the attention of longtime South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier.

“They rose up when they needed to,” Stiegelmeier said during an interview posted on the Missouri Valley Football Conference website. “Their front is really, really good. Their two defensive ends are really special players. We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”

You can say the same for the Bobcats this week, who will try to upset the veteran-laden Jackrabbits on Saturday at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, South Dakota. It’s the first time since 1964 that MSU will play the Jackrabbits on their home turf.

It is the de facto season opener for third-ranked SDSU, which had its game last week at Iowa State canceled early in the first quarter due to lightning and thunderstorms that wouldn’t relent.

It also serves as a rematch of last year’s hotly contested game at Bobcat Stadium, which the Jackrabbits won 31-27 on the strength of a fake field goal that went for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

“I just remember that being a pretty fun game,” MSU receiver Kevin Kassis said. “That fake field goal was like a stab in the back. But shout out to them. That was a great play call and it caught us off guard.”

“I’m excited to go to South Dakota State,” Kassis added. “They’re a program that’s won a lot of games. It’s a great opportunity to really test where we’re at.”

With 15 returning starters, the Jackrabbits have earned their No. 3 ranking. They won 11 games last season, which included a victory over eventual national champion North Dakota State, and went all the way to the semifinal round of the FCS playoffs.

“We’ll be challenged in all three phases,” Choate said. “This is an outstanding football team. They’re preseason No. 3 in the country and we aren’t ranked. It is what it is. We’ll have our hands full no matter what. We’re going to have to go play an excellent football game to beat a very, very good team.”

Star power on D

If the Bobcats’ defensive front stands out to Stiegelmeier, it’s the athleticism and well-roundedness of SDSU’s defense is what impresses Choate.

Middle linebacker Christian Rozeboom is the head-turner — he’s “as good a player at that position in the country at this level,” Choate said — but there is plenty of star power to go around.

Safety Brandon Snyder is a graduate transfer from FBS Iowa that Choate said was noticeable despite the limited film MSU has studied from last week. Cornerback Jordan Brown, who didn’t play last season against MSU, is another member of a standout secondary. And Logan Backhaus is an additional linebacker to reckon with.

Montana State’s offense will try to produce more yards (it had just 239 last week) against a base-heavy defense that has always been known for making plays in Stiegelmeier’s 22-year tenure.

“Schematically it doesn’t really change a lot,” Choate said. “Defensively they are who they are — very basic, very sound, very athletic. I think that this may be a more athletic overall defense than what they had a year ago.”

Choate and the Bobcats view last week’s victory over Western Illinois, another solid team from the Missouri Valley, as a jumping off point in terms of achieving higher internal team goals this season.

It can also be seen as a reversal of a trend that saw them lose a handful of similar games in the past two years due to a lack of execution late in the fourth quarter. They hope it translates to another good performance against another quality foe on Saturday.

“I definitely think there was a collective sigh of relief in our locker room after the (WIU) game because we finished. We beat a good team with good personnel in a tight game,” Choate said. “That was a huge moment for us terms of a step forward.”

Spotlight on: Taryn Christion

Choate said SDSU’s offense starts and stops with senior quarterback Taryn Christion.

A 6-foot-2, 225-pound product of Roosevelt High in Sioux Falls, Christion is 23-8 as the Jackrabbits’ starter and holds school records for career TD passes (72) and total offense (9,697 yards).

He is without last year’s top weapons — tight end Dallas Goedert and receiver Jake Wieneke, who each moved on to the NFL. Goedert was a second-round draft pick of the Eagles.

But Choate doesn’t expect a dip in offensive production with Christion at the helm.

“He is an unbelievably successful player,” Choate said. “They can play football for another hundred years there at South Dakota State University and they may not have a guy who’s won as many games as this guy’s going to end up winning.

“He’s just a special player, not unlike maybe what DeNarius (McGhee) did for this program in terms of really putting it on the map. Taryn has done that for them.

“Just a prolific player, has all the tools. He’s a big guy, he can run the ball really effectively (and) he is a tremendous passer.”

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Email Greg Rachac at greg.rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

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