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Jeff Kolpack, Published November 07 2012

Running back Zenner has SDSU thinking postseason

FARGO – Somewhere between the end of the 2011 season and his second carry in the season opener against Kansas, Zach Zenner went from ordinary to extraordinary. He’s become another in a long line of South Dakota State running backs cut from a similar mold.

They won’t set 40-yard dash records, but they also can run past a secondary. They run straight ahead, not out and around defensive players. That about best explains his 99-yard carry against the Jayhawks that set the table for the sophomore being the leading rusher in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision.

“I would have never predicted this,” Zenner said. “You envision yourself being successful, but I’m just playing my best and so far it’s working out.”

It’s worked out so well that his Jackrabbits play North Dakota State on Saturday afternoon with the winner clinching at least a share of the Missouri Valley Football Conference title. An SDSU victory would also most likely shore up a berth in the FCS playoffs.

It’s been three years since the Jacks have been in this position, something Zenner attributes to a better team atmosphere.

“It’s a different feeling in the locker room,” he said. “We’re a close team. And also on offense, things are simpler and that’s allowed us to play faster.”

Zenner wasn’t highly recruited out of Eagan, Minn., despite rushing for 1,181 yards, averaging 8.9 yards a carry, and being a finalist for the state’s Mr. Football. He said NDSU looked at him as a preferred walk-on with a bunch of Division II and Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schools after him.

SDSU offered him a full ride. It’s worked out so well that the Jacks moved last year’s starting running back, Tyrel Kool, to wide receiver because of him.

“Those two guys are two of our best 11,” said SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier. “We decided our top skill guys couldn’t share a position.”

Kool leads the team in receptions with 29. Zenner started the year with 183 yards against Kansas, 278 against Southeastern Louisiana and 237 against Indiana State. He’s averaging 166.2 yards a game, which puts him slightly ahead of Miguel Maysonet of Stony Brook.

“I think he keeps his feet moving,” said Bison defensive tackle Leevon Perry. “He’s not one of those guys that when you touch him he’ll fall down, so we have to play Bison defense and swarm around the ball. We have to have everyone running to the ball; we can’t have any loafs.”

Last week, Southern Illinois figured something out, holding Zenner to a season-low 49 yards on 17 carries. The key, said SIU head coach Dale Lennon, was his team holding onto the ball on offense.

“We had a good time of possession early on and when you come across a good running back, you have to limit his touches,” he said. “And we’ve been pretty good against the run, I think.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia