2021 Division I FCS Playoff Quarterfinal Preview: South Dakota State at #5 Villanova


South Dakota State looks for another upset win over a seeded team after the Jackrabbits knocked off #4 seeded Sacramento State 24-19 last week in the second round of the FCS playoffs. SDSU travels the opposite direction in the country with another halfway across the country trip to Villanova.

#5 seeded Villanova knocked off Holy Cross last week at home 21-16 in their Second Round and opening game of the playoffs.

Villanova was the automatic CAA selection in the playoffs and had arguably their biggest win of the season with a road win at James Madison.

This game will mark the second matchup between SDSU and Villanova on the gridiron. The first meeting also took place in the postseason, with the Jackrabbits pulling out a 10-7 victory on a late field goal in 2016 in a game played at Brookings.

Here is a look at how these two teams matchup statistically below:


Location: Brookings, S.D.

Head Coach: John Stiegelmeier (25th Season, 184-110 at SDSU & Overall)

SDSU was the lone non-seeded team to win in the second round this year. The Jackrabbits defeated two Big Sky Conference foes to start the postseason. SDSU defeated UC Davis 56-24 and defeated Sacramento State 24-19 last week on the road.

SDSU scored on four of its five first-half possessions to build a 24-0 lead. The Jackrabbits marched 73 yards on eight plays on their opening drive, breaking into the scoring column on a 5-yard touchdown run by Pierre Strong, Jr. It was the 17th rushing touchdown of the season for the Walter Payton Award finalist.

After that point, however Sacramento State mounted a furious comeback, rallying to make the score 24-19 and trying an onsides kick to retain possession late in the game. The Jackrabbits’ Dalys Beanum recovered the onside kick attempt and RB Isaiah Davis sealed the victory with a 2-yard run on fourth-and-1 from the Sac State 39 with under a minute and a half to play.

This past spring, Sam Houston scored a last minute touchdown to defeat SDSU in the national championship game, denying the program its first title in school history. But getting there, this team is loaded with playoff experience.

From this past spring’s team most of the team is the same both sides of the ball but the main difference from last year’s team to this year’s is the absence of star QB Mark Gronowski. Gronowski injured his leg during the first drive of the national championship game a season ago and missed this entire fall campaign.

Replacing Gronowski was graduate transfer QB Chris Oladokun. Replacing the FCS Freshman of the Year is by no means an easy task, but in his sixth year of college, Oladokun has performed well most of the season.

Oladokun has completed 62% of his passes (204-of-328) for 2,697 yards, 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He has also added 145 yards on the ground and two scores. Oladokun’s main three targets are brother WRs Jaxon and Jadon Janke and TE Tucker Kraft.

Jaxon is the top receiver for the Jackrabbits, hauling in 60 catches for 942 yards and three touchdowns on the year. Jadon is the team’s leader in receiving scores, with eight touchdowns on 36 catches that have gone for 575 yards. Tucker has caught 56 balls for 661 yards and six touchdowns.

While Oladokun has had his moments to shine at quarterback, the offense is really is led by the run game, specifically RBs Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis. Strong is the leading rusher in the FCS, totaling 1575 yards on 223 carries (7.1 yards per carry), finding the end zone 17 times on the season. Davis, who came back from a season opening game injury to play in SDSU’s final regular season game, has 514 rushing yards in just those five games (8.4 YPC), for the ninth-best rushing team in the FCS (215 yards per game).

The Jacks defense has also been stellar almost equally against the rush and passing games it has seen.  SDSU is a top-15 scoring defense that allows just 18.8 points per game. the unit ranks inside the top 15 in each against the run and pass. First-team all-MVFC LB Adam Bock leads the defense with 112 tackles, also adding 2.5 sacks and a couple of interceptions.

Key Players: RB Pierre Strong, Jr. and Isaiah Davis

RBs Isaiah Davis (left) & Pierre Strong, Jr. (right)

Davis and Strong have been platooning in the backfield ever since Davis was back in the regular season finale against North Dakota. Both have been capable of carrying the load at times when the opposite back has been injuried but having the two split the carries keeps both fresh throughout a game.

In the last game at Sacramento State, Davis had the better numbers as he rushed for 108 yards and two scores, while Strong had 73 yards on the ground and the Jacks only other touchdown in the game. But most of those numbers came in the first half where SDSU raced out to a 24-3 halftime lead and the Jacks had to hang on for the win as the offense did not score a point in the second half.

To win another road game against a top opponent like Villanova, this duo will key a victory with having simiar rushing numbers in both the first and second halves.


Location: Villanova, Pa.

Head Coach: Mark Ferrante (5th Season, 31-20 at Villanova & Overall)

It was much more of a dogfight than many predicted. After jumping to a 14-0 and 21-10 leads, Villanova’s defense survived a last-second rally and last-second drive to preserve a 21-16 victory over Holy Cross, the Patriot League Champions. “Survive and advance,” Mark Ferrante said in the post-game press conference after a physical, bruising battle that saw his defense only give up 16 points despite being on the field for more than 37 minutes of game time.

“Wins are hard to come by and fortunately we came out and found a way to get one done today,” Wildcats head coach Mark Ferrante said. “I have been talking about the resiliency of this team all year. We had a little momentum there going into halftime, but they came out and grabbed it in the second half with their opening drive and then the ensuing kickoff. It is survive and advance this time of year. Everybody you face is going to be really good. [Holy Cross] was really good and they played a really good game. Their quarterback did a great job throwing the ball and running the ball, but our defense stepped up when they needed to and got stops when they needed them to get us a five-point victory. I am proud of this team and thankful we have an opportunity to play another game next week.”

Villanova ranked third nationally during the regular season and only gave up only 254.9 yards per contest. The Wildcats only allowed just 15.1 points per game and yielded the best defensive passing efficiency (93.73) in the country and ranked in the top 10 nationally in seven different categories.

The most prominent in a deep cast of stars on the Wildcats defense is LB Forrest Rhyne, who was named the CAA Football Defensive Player of the Year and is a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award. Rhyne ended the regular season with 112 tackles this season and was ranked 11th nationally with an average of 10.2 total stops per game. Against Holy Cross, frequently tasked with spying Holy Cross’ shifty QB Matthew Sluka, he amassed an amazing 22 tackles (10 solo, 11 assisted) and also had 2 sacks.

Courtesy Philadelphia Inquirer

Senior CB Christian Benford led the nation in passes defended with 23 in 11 games, including a CAA-best seven interceptions to go along with 16 pass breakups.

Villanova also boasts an experienced offense in all the skill positions, with RB Justin Covington and RB Jalen Jackson leading a stable of different rushers. They combined to score three rushing touchdowns in Villanova’s win. Covington rushed for 62 yards and the first two touchdowns of the game while Jackson ran for 45 yards and a third quarter score which was ultimately the difference in the game.

QB Daniel Smith is also a deadly weapon, ranking seventh in school history in career passing yards (6,125) and total offense (6,926). Smith can beat you with both his arms and his legs – he has thrown for 22 touchdowns this season and leads the Wildcats with seven rushing touchdowns.

Fearless Predictions:

Kent: I know the travel (and at a time when many semester finals are going on) will be taxing on a team but to have one week go to the West coast and then have travel to the East coast, it will be hard on a team. However, South Dakota State to me is the stronger team on both sides of the ball and will find a way to use Davis and Strong in the running game and mix in a little of the passing game from Oladokun to move onto the semi-final round in a tight game throughout. South Dakota State 27 Villanova 24.

Chuck: This is going to be the best game of the four playoff games this weekend. Was SDSU’s second half at Sacramento an aberration? Which Daniel Smith will we see? It feels like a close, hard-fought game is in store, with a Villanova FG separating the teams. Villanova 24, South Dakota State 21.

Ray: South Dakota State has been the second most over-ranked team in the nation all season. The only other team who surpassed the Jacks have already been eliminated and the Jacks will join them on Saturday as also-rans. Villanova 27, South Dakota State 17.

Jamie: This is such a tough game to call. Like Chuck said, which version of Daniel Smith do we get? If its the good version, Nova wins, if its the bad version SDSU wins. The Jacks will be able to run the ball a bit on Villanova just because their backs are that good. Flip a coin. But give me SDSU. South Dakota State 20, Villanova 19.