With a trip to the FCS semifinals on the line, No. 1 seed South Dakota State hosts fellow MVFC foe Southern Illinois. SIU has reached the semifinals twice — in 1983 and 2007. The Jackrabbits have been to the semis in 2017 and 2018.
These two teams met on March 20 in Illinois. SDSU won 44-3 as part of its current five-game winning streak.
The game begins at 8 p.m. CT Sunday and airs on ESPN2.
When SIU has the ball
The Salukis are on their third starting QB this spring due to injuries, but Stone Labanowitz has shown some moxie in the last three games. He threw for 270 yards and two touchdowns at Missouri State, 328 yards and two TDs versus Southeastern Louisiana, and 264 yards and two TDs with one interception in a first-round win at Weber State. SIU’s offense is flying high right now, scoring 55 and 34 points in the last two games.
Even more impressive, the win at Weber was without leading rusher Javon Williams Jr., who was out with a concussion he suffered against SLU.
SIU has great balance offensively. Against Weber, six players rushed the ball for 155 yards, and eight players caught at least one pass for 267 yards. The unit has come a long way since its loss to SDSU, where it managed only 213 total yards.
The Salukis found more success through the air last week than on the ground. A part of that has to do with Williams being out, but the Wildcats are also stout against the run. SDSU’s run defense has been just as tough, so Labanowitz and wide receiver Avante Cox will need to hit on some big plays to soften the Jacks.
When SDSU has the ball
The Jacks rushed for 392 yards and only needed to throw it for 70 yards in the March 20 win at SIU. And they did it without All-American RB Pierre Strong, Jr. That game saw the emergence of freshman Isaiah Davis, who last week ran for 156 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries.
SDSU has a two-headed monster in the backfield now to go along with freshman QB Mark Gronowski. Gronowski has thrown for 1,204 yards, 11 TDs, and three interceptions.
After a strong start to the season defensively, SIU’s defense has struggled, beginning with the SDSU loss. The Salukis have allowed 44, 30, 48, and 31 points in their last four games. SDSU will try to establish the run, but there are opportunities to make the Salukis hurt through the air. Gronowski missed on some throws in the first round. You can afford to do that against Holy Cross, but not against SIU.
Playoff rematches from regular-season blowout games usually result in a more competitive contest. In 2018, Eastern Washington handled UC Davis 59-20, then narrowly won 34-29 in the quarterfinals a few weeks later. NDSU beat Illinois State 37-3 in 2019, then 9-3 in the quarterfinals. And, as many SDSU fans probably remember, the Jacks beat Northern Iowa 38-7 in November of 2019 and then lost 13-10 in the second round.
LB Bryson Strong — The inside linebacker will be key in stopping SDSU’s downfield rushing attack.
QB Stone Labanowitz — Labanowitz needs to keep making plays for the SIU offense, whether it’s with his arm, legs, or in clutch moments.
WR Avante Cox — Finding success on the ground against this SDSU front seven will be a challenge. Cox will get his 1-on-1 chances to make plays downfield.
LB Logan Backhaus — SIU has several players in the backfield and at WR to key on. Backhaus, the 6-foot-4 linebacker, is asked to do a lot for SDSU’s defense and he’ll need to make plays all over the field.
QB Mark Gronowski — The Salukis will sell out to stop the run and make the young signal-caller beat them.
RB Pierre Strong, Jr. — Gronowski doesn’t play like a true freshman, but still, SDSU won’t put a ton on his plate. The Jacks will lean on the run game, and it starts with Strong.