No. 5 seed UAlbany heads to No. 1 seed South Dakota State for a Friday night FCS semifinal matchup.
What does UAlbany need to do to reach its first FCS title game? Here are five keys for a victory.
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Front 7 Holds Strong For All 4 Quarters
UAlbany brings an elite front seven into Brookings to strap it up against the best offensive line in the FCS and one of the top senior NFL Draft prospects at running back.
The Great Danes are No. 1 in FCS rushing defense (78.1 YPG). SDSU is No. 5 in rushing offense (231.3 YPG), led by Isaiah Davis’ 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns. UAlbany’s run defense grade on PFF is No. 1. SDSU’s PFF rushing grade is No. 1, and its run-blocking grade is No. 3.
UAlbany needs to hold strong for all four quarters. “For all four quarters” is the key. Even if, let’s say UAlbany holds SDSU to 75 yards rushing in the first half, that doesn’t mean the second half will be the same story, as Villanova found out last week. The Great Danes are on a short week with a lot of travel. They need to keep their legs and their physicality for all four quarters.
UAlbany has to get SDSU’s offense off schedule. You do that with disruptive, negative-yardage plays.
The Great Danes average 3.57 sacks per game (1st in the FCS) and 7.0 tackles for loss per game (16th).
When the Jackrabbits are in rhythm, defenses have no answer. You can’t sell out to stop the run, because SDSU’s play-action attack with Mark Gronowski hitting his pass-catchers down the middle behind the linebackers is a mismatch for DBs. But if you’re not loading the box, there aren’t many defenses that can go toe-to-toe with SDSU’s rushing attack.
UAlbany needs to force third-and-longs. And then its star defensive ends Anton Juncaj and AJ Simon need to get home. SDSU’s o-line are road graders, but they are also great in pass pro, grading out as the fourth-best FCS pass-blocking unit.
RELATED: 5 Keys For An SDSU Victory
Reese Poffenbarger Stays In Rhythm
While the UAlbany DL vs. the SDSU OL is a battle of strengths, the reverse battle is arguably going to be just as important. SDSU has the 25th-best pass rush grade on PFF. UAlbany’s pass-blocking grade is 90th.
Reese Poffenbarger is a baller. He’s a confident gunslinger with a rocket right arm. But if he can’t step into his throws with a collapsing pocket, that gets the passing game out of sorts.
UAlbany is 16th in passing yards per completion (13.66). Brevin Easton is that dude, averaging 19.91 yards per catch as a 1,000-yard receiver, which is No. 7 in the subdivision. If UAlbany’s offensive line doesn’t allow time for downfield routes to develop, SDSU’s No. 7 pass defense, No. 4 rush defense, No. 1 scoring defense, and No. 1 total defense is going to have a day.
Win 50/50 Battles Downfield
Along those same lines, if Poffenbarger is given time to throw, his receivers, led by Easton, need to make big-time plays.
Poffenbarger isn’t afraid to throw into tight coverage, allowing his pass-catchers to make plays. When there are 50/50 balls, UAlbany has to come down with them. Moving the ball consistently on SDSU’s No. 1 FCS defense is tough sledding. When the opportunity is there for an explosive play, UAlbany needs to make that play.
RELATED: SDSU vs. UAlbany Tale of the Tape
Win The Turnover Battle
As Poffenbarger gives his playmakers opportunities to make plays down the field, that also means opportunities are there for the secondary to make plays on the ball.
If the Great Danes have trouble getting traction against this elite SDSU defense, they may be tempted to take riskier shots into tight coverage.
Turnovers will be key. Good on good, no one in the FCS is better than SDSU. But if UAlbany takes care of the ball, connects on some explosive plays, and defensively mucks it up for SDSU’s offense (punching the ball out, strip sacks, tipping the ball into the air, interceptions), then it will be in this ball game.