Some thoughts leading up to No. 20-ranked South Dakota State hosting Western Illinois at 6 p.m. Saturday. I’ll have live coverage starting at 5:30 p.m.:
WIU junior Pat Smith is on the Fred Mitchell Award watch list given to the best kicker in college football. He’s 8 of 8 this season.
SDSU’s Justin Syrovatka is 6 of 10.
A couple interesting statistical comparisons worth tracking: the red zone and sacks. WIU is 12 of 12 in red-zone scoring this year, while SDSU is tops in the Valley and No. 2 in the FCS in red-zone defense, holding teams to 8 of 15.
Meanwhile, the Necks have tallied just two sacks for a total of six yards lost. SDSU has notched 18 sacks for minus-136 yards.
How might WIU stack up in stopping SDSU sophomore running back Zach Zenner, the top rusher in D-I at 1,077 yards through five games? The Necks have allowed two players to rush for more than 100 yards - 118 and 122, specifically. They have also given up just one run of more than 35 yards, a 56-yard jaunt to Iowa State. Zenner has broken off a run of at least 60 yards in 4 of 5 games and has topped the 100-yard mark by halftime in all five contests.
Last week, WIU senior QB Wil Lunt made his first start in more than a year. But he’s no stranger to SDSU. The Jacks faced him in the 2009 regular-season finale. Lunt went 25 of 38 for 206 yards with no scores and no picks in a 27-7 loss in Macomb.
Oddly enough, SDSU has fared better against the Necks on the road than at home in Valley play. The Jacks have two 27-7 victories at WIU, while winning the two contests in Brookings by a combined six points.
Injury update: C Will Castle, LB Chris Tracy and DT Dave Hettiger are all better off than feared going into the bye. Hettiger is the least healthy of the three, but still took reps with the No. 1 defense this week.
Also, OL Andrew Mueller is back at practice and inching toward probable, while mates Jon Fick and Alex Parker are doing individual drills, but have yet to be cleared for team work.
The latest addition to the list is freshman TE Cam Jones, who is questionable due to an ankle issue.
WIU hasn’t blown a halftime lead the last three seasons, but is just 1-11 in that time when scoring less than 20 points.
SDSU had a handful of pink jerseys at practice this week, signifying some sort of off-field shortfall. The most noteworthy: QB Austin Sumner, Coach John Stiegelmeier said the sophomore overslept and missed the start of a weights workout.
In other pink news, the Jacks will don pink towels this week as part of the breast-cancer awareness movement. And WR Trevor Wesley has been wearing pink cleats to practice.
The Jacks came in at No. 12 in the first Gridiron Power Index of the season, considered to be a playoff predictor. That’s third-best in the Valley - ranked as the top league - behind No. 1 NDSU and No. 6 Youngstown State. Illinois State is 16th, Northern Iowa is 20th and Indiana State is 25th.
Terry Vandrovec also posts regular updates on his Twitter page.