South Dakota State Preview: Jackrabbits Open FCS Playoffs with Villanova
It's the fifth straight season South Dakota State has qualified for the FCS Playoffs, the sixth trip since 2009, but this season's Jackrabbit team has enjoyed something those previous squads didn't - down time.
SDSU (8-3) is well rested after their first-ever opening round bye in the post season, thanks to their Missouri Valley Conference co-championship with North Dakota State and the number-eight seed in the playoffs.
The Wildcats (9-3) are in the playoffs for the sixth time in nine seasons, winning it all in the 2008 season and losing in the semifinals in the 2010 season to eventual national champion Eastern Washington.
Villanova is trying to extend the final season of head coach Andy Talley, who has already announced his retirement after 32 years. He is one of just nine coaches to ever win more than 250 games at the Division I level.
The big story line in the game Saturday is the match-up between South Dakota State's offense, which is the eighth most productive in the nation, and Villanova's defense, which has allowed the third fewest yards in the FCS all season.
The Wildcats are led by the CAA Defensive Player of the Year, defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon who is in the top ten in the nation in sacks (11) and is tops in the league in tackles for loss (21.5). Safety Rob Rolle is fifth in the FCS with six interceptions.
The Jackrabbits have made themselves even more difficult to defend over the last month of the season with the emergence of a solid running game. In the final three regular season games of 2016, SDSU ran for 762 yards, with the ground game accounting for 12 of their 17 touchdowns during that time.
The Jacks collected a season-best 415 rushing yards against South Dakota in their final regular season game two weeks ago, the most by a SDSU team since their last home playoff game, against Eastern Illinois (434 yards), in 2012. That game was also the last time a pair Jackrabbits runners had each gone over 100 yards on the same day until Brady Mengarelli (161 yards) and Isaac Wallace (102) duplicated the feat against USD.
South Dakota State quarterback Taryn Christion, the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year, is in the top ten in six national offensive categories, while wide receiver Jake Wieneke leads the nation in touchdown catches (16). Tight end Dallas Goedert is sixth in the FCS with seven catches per game.
Like Christion, Villanova's quarterback Zach Bednarczyk is also a sophomore. He's the third leading rusher on the team and has completed better than 60 percent of his passes, but seven of his ten interceptions have come in losses this season.
Running back Aaron Forbes has rushed for 799 yards this season and averages better than six yards a carry. Tight end Ryan Bell has seven touchdown catches this season.
The SDSU defense was fifth overall in the MVFC in 2016 and third with 14 interceptions. The biggest struggle for the Jackrabbits was on third down, where they allowed a league-worst 46 percent conversion rate.
Linebacker Christian Rozeboom was third in the MVFC in tackles (107) and was named the Freshman of the Year in the conference. Linebacker Jesse Bobbit was fifth in tackles, while lineman Kellen Soulek was fifth in sacks.
Kickoff is 2:00 PM, Saturday, in Brookings. The winner advances to next weekend's quarterfinals against either North Dakota State or San Diego.
In round one last weekend, Villanova hosted St. Francis (PA) and led 17-7 after one, and 31-7 at halftime, en route to a 31-21 win.
The Wildcat defense limited the Red Flash to just 27 yards rushing, recorded six sacks, and picked off a pair of passes to move into the top ten in the nation with 17 picks on the season.
Villanova's offense amassed 495 yards of total offense as Bednarczyk completed 18-of-27 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns. Bell made five of those catches for two scores and a career high 110 yards. Running back Matt Gudzak had 117 yards on the ground. Wide receiver Jarrett McClenton racked up 115 all purpose yards on eight runs and three catches.
I talked with SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier about the bye week and Saturday's game with Villanova: