September 25, 2015

(STATS) - The Missouri Valley conference may be as strong as it's ever been.

The league has placed four schools in the top seven for the first time in history, boasting that number in both the STATS and coaches' FCS polls.

North Dakota State is ranked third in the STATS poll, while Illinois State is fourth. South Dakota State finds itself at No. 6 while Northern Iowa is one spot behind. Youngstown State is also at No. 13 and Indiana State moved up one spot to No. 22.

It marks the 15th straight week the conference has placed at least six teams in the Top 25. That figures to hold up at least another week, too, with all but one of those six schools idle before league play begins with all 10 teams in action Oct. 3, highlighted by top-10 clashes between North Dakota State and South Dakota State and Illinois State and Northern Iowa.

South Dakota State (2-0) comes off a bye week ready to host Robert Morris (1-2) on Saturday in the first meeting between the schools.

"It was great," coach John Stiegelmeier said of the idle week. "We surveyed our players. Their bodies were rested, which was what we wanted to hear. Our coaches are somewhat rested and got out and saw some recruits play ... I got my Christmas lights up, so it's a great week."

Stiegelmeier is hoping his prolific offense can continue to produce. The Jackrabbits are averaging 521.0 yards of offense and 48.0 points, which ranks third in the FCS. They ranked fourth in the conference last year with 31.8 points per game.

Zach Lujan's 172.5 passer rating ranks sixth in the subdivision, joining Southern Illinois' Mark Iannotti and North Dakota State's Carson Wentz as one of three MVC signal-callers in the top six.

Robert Morris already lost once to an MVC club, a 21-14 overtime defeat at Youngstown State on Sept. 12, but Stiegelmeier is prepared for a challenge. The Colonials are limiting opponents to a 47.7 completion percentage and 6.1 yards per pass attempt.

"They play a unique defense," he said. "I pride myself on trying to figure this stuff out and they are hard to figure out. But they are sound."

This also marks the 49th Beef Bowl for South Dakota State, which began as a way for the school to recognize those involved in the beef industry in the state. A live steer auction will be held at halftime to benefit the school's athletic department. South Dakota State has won eight of the last nine Beef Bowls and 10 straight home games in non-conference action, last losing to Cal Poly in 2008.

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SALUKIS SEEK AN UPSET=

The only other MVC team in action this week is an underdog with Southern Illinois (0-2) hosting No. 10 Liberty. The Salukis, who have won 12 of their last 13 home openers, have been impressive offensively as well, with Iannotti's FCS-best 426.0 yards of offense per game more than the 379.8 Southern averaged overall last year.

Iannotti shined in the team's 48-47 season-opening loss at Indiana, throwing for 411 yards and four TDs, but was more uneven in the Sept. 12 loss at Southeast Missouri State, throwing three interceptions.

"He's played very well. The negative has been just taking care of the football," coach Dale Lennon said. " ...Those are things where he just needs to not try to do too much. I like his mentality out there. He'll try to the force the ball sometimes when he shouldn't and that's where we got to get better. I think he'll keep getting better, and that's what we need."

The Flames come off a 31-21 win over No. 14 Montana, limiting the Grizzlies to 21 rushing yards on 26 carries.

Southern Illinois won three of its four home night games last year, all by 17-plus points. The Salukis are looking to improve upon the conference's cumulative 12-0 home record against non-conference opponents, a year after the Valley went 24-0.

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FROM THE VALLEY TO THE HALL=

Former Northern Iowa standout David Johnson has only played two NFL games, but he's already headed to the Hall of Fame.

Johnson's signed game jersey and cleats from the Arizona' Cardinals' win Sunday against the Chicago Bears will be on display in Canton, Ohio after he took the opening kickoff 108 yards to the house and had a 13-yard touchdown run. His lone touch in Week 1 against New Orleans was a 55-yard TD reception, making him the first player in league history with a rushing, receiving and kick return TD through his first two career games.

"It's been a great time," Johnson said. "Hopefully I can continue to improve and continue to help out the team."

Johnson ranked ninth in the FCS last year with 149.2 scrimmage yards per game for the Panthers, scoring 19 TDs.

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