South Dakota State takes its perfect record (and perfect playoffs thus far) into a home date with Villanova on Saturday at 11 a.m. CT on ESPN.
The Jackrabbits are coming off a steamrolling of Mercer 41-0 and, while it would be a surprise to see SDSU win that comfortably vs. Nova, the Jacks are clicking for Eddie Robinson Award-winning head coach Jimmy Rogers. South Dakota State leads the nation in third down conversion percentage (.563) and in red zone offense (.979 scoring).
This unrelenting offense will be Villanova’s problem in the FCS quarterfinals.
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SDSU’s Offense vs. Villanova’s Defense
Jackrabbits junior quarterback Mark Gronowski is tops in the country in passing efficiency (182.51), jolted by a pristine 24:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Gronowski annually has the best running back in the playoffs by his side, as senior Isaiah Davis this season is averaging 6.7 yards per carry to go with 1,192 rushing yards and 14 ground TDs.
It seems like each postseason, Davis gets three times more difficult to tackle, giving Villanova its obvious work cut out to avoid showing up on Twitter whiffing on Davis truckings on national television. The Wildcats do possess an FCS top 20 rushing defense (110.4 YPG allowed) and are 11th nationally in third-down defense (allowing .323 conversion).
With the discrepancy in SDSU’s third-down offense and Nova’s third-down defense, something has to give in third down scenarios when SDSU has the ball. If Villanova can get off the field defensively enough in the first half to keep it interesting through the break, paired with a takeaway or two, that would be the likely formula to give a promising Wildcats offense a chance to play its game with the game script under control. Of course, that requires VU getting South Dakota State to third downs to begin with.
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Villanova’s Offense vs. SDSU’s Defense
Villanova senior QB Connor Watkins is the FCS No. 1 in passing yards per attempt (10.39), nosing out Gronowski (10.15). Watkins has grown into quite the reliable starter for Nova, helped by his star-studded receiving corps.
Villanova turns to a duo of yardage monsters through the air in wide receivers Jaylan Sanchez and Rayjuon Pringle. Sanchez (25.57) and Pringle (25.16) rank first and second in the FCS in yards per reception. Each has yards-after-catch ability and is playable across the offense, liable to spring loose at any time.
Breakaways won’t come easily against South Dakota State, which is the national leader in scoring defense (10.33 PPG allowed). It is particularly impressive that the Jackrabbits rank as highly as they do in passing yards allowed (seventh overall and best in playoffs, 166.3 YPG) while being ahead in many games and having opponents trying to throw their way back into it.
If Villanova falls behind Saturday by a considerable margin, despite its offensive resume to date, it has yet to encounter a defense this well-equipped to put a stop to explosive runs-after-catch. The Wildcats would probably be happy to mimic the manner in which Holy Cross pushed SDSU in last season’s quarterfinal in Brookings.
Many (competitive) FCS games come down to the raw number of possessions by each squad, coupled with the field position therein. Villanova is not doing much to flip the field it’s dealt on punts (second-to-last punt return average in CAA Football, 3.7 YPR).
Elsewhere, field goals alone won’t get it done for the Wildcats at the Jacks, but Nova is OK there, kicking 8-of-11 on the season.
South Dakota State’s home-field advantage could appear in special teams, too, with the comfort of the setting and the crowd helping SDSU junior kicker Hunter Dustman (15-of-20 FG) as opposed to Wildcat specialists dealing with the cold and noise after the wear of a long trip.