BROOKINGS, S.D. – The annual Dakota Marker game between North Dakota State and South Dakota State typically shows up on the October or November schedule with conference titles and playoff berths on the line.
This year's matchup arrives early and the timing couldn't be better for South Dakota State (3-1) after the Jackrabbits' 59-20 loss last week to Nebraska.
"For us, it's great medicine right now because we got our tails whipped at Nebraska," South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier said.
"But we can't dwell on that with the No. 1 team in America coming to town."
The top-ranked Bison (3-0) are coming off a 51-0 win over Delaware State during a whirlwind week dominated by a visit from ESPN's "College GameDay" show.
The two-time defending FCS champion Bison have won 13 straight on the road, but North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said leaving Coughlan Field with a win is always a "tough task."
The sixth-ranked Jackrabbits are on a nine-game home winning streak, with the last loss coming to the Bison in October 2011.
"Our guys are going to need to be ready to handle adversity," said Bohl, who became North Dakota State's winningest coach with his 92nd career victory last Saturday.
"Their fans are rowdy and they draw well, so we'll need to be ready to control the things we can control to play well."
North Dakota State leads the Dakota Marker series 5-4, holding on to the traveling trophy for the past four years.
The Bison edged South Dakota State 20-17 in Fargo on Nov. 10, 2012, then beat the Jackrabbits again three weeks later in the second round of the FCS playoffs 28-3.
Stiegelmeier said for the Jackrabbits to have a chance in the teams' Missouri Valley Football Conference opener, they'll need to stop the run and limit mistakes.
"You need to be patient and not make mistakes, because they are very, very good," Stiegelmeier said. "They're very fast. You can't get them out of position."
Here are five things to watch in Saturday's game:
ZZ TOPS: South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner has been barreling over defenses so far this year, leading the FCS through four games with 742 yards rushing and averaging 185.5 per game. Stiegelmeier said Zenner has been getting his yards and a maturing offensive line has been doing a great job up front. Bohl said containing the Zenner will be a "tall order."
MANY HAPPY RETURNS: North Dakota State cornerback Marcus Williams notched his FCS record-tying sixth career return for a touchdown last week. The senior from Minneapolis has eight games to break the mark set by Murray State's William Hampton from 1993-1996. Bohl called Williams the most instinctive defensive back he's coached. "He's got a real knack," Bohl said. Williams has intercepted 20 passes over his career and is just four shy of the record of 24 set by Missouri State's Adrion Smith from 1990 to 1993.
EASY PICKIN': South Dakota State co-leads the FCS in interceptions with nine this year for a three-way tie with Stephen F. Austin and Eastern Illinois. Dallas Brown has two of the picks, including a 52-yard touchdown return against Southeastern Louisiana, and seven other Jackrabbit players each have one. South Dakota State is ranked second in turnover margins at a plus-2.5.
THIRD AND ... WHATEVER: North Dakota State leads the nation in third down conversion rate, with the Bison succeeding on exactly two-thirds of its tries (28 of 42). Bohl said much of that success can be credited to North Dakota State's offensive line, which has allowed the running game to get going and offered great protection for quarterback Brock Jensen. "That's the whole, whole key to our success so far," he said.
MAGIC MARKER: The Dakota Marker is a traveling trophy started in 2004 that mimics the quartzite monuments that used to mark the border between the two states. The initials "N.D." and "S.D." are chiseled on opposite sides, and "190 M" is inscribed in one face to representing the distance between Brookings and the Bison's home of Fargo. Both coaches remember the sparsely attended 2004 unveiling ceremony in the border town of Hankinson, N.D., and they wondered if the annual matchup would ever amount to much. "It's become an unbelievable rivalry, and that's super," Stiegelmeier said.