2021 Division I FCS Playoff Semifinal Preview: South Dakota State at #8 Montana State

FCS SEMIFINAL PLAYOFF MATCHUP: SOUTH DAKOTA STATE AT MONTANA STATE
WHERE: BOBCAT STADIUM, BOZEMAN, MONT.
WHEN: SATURDAY, DECEMBER 18, 12:00 PM MST
TV/STREAMING: ESPN2 / WATCHESPN

The other semifinal game between James Madison and North Dakota State will rightfully get its attention as those are the top seeds left in the final four but the South Dakota State-Montana State game has its share of highlights too.

Montana State Coach Brent Vigen knows the South Dakota State program well as he was a player and assistant coach for their rival of NDSU. Vigen actually was the starting tight end for the Bison on the field during SDSU Coach John Stiegelmeier’s first season in Brookings. Vigen stayed at NDSU after his playing days as an assistant and through the years was promoted to the offensive coordinator during NDSU’s first three FCS national titles in 2011 through 2013.

Vigen would stay with his head coach Craig Bohl when both left NDSU for FBS Wyoming. Vigen was Wyoming’s offensive coordinator as well until he got the head coaching job at Montana State his past February.

For SDSU, Stiegelmeier has stayed in Brookings since 1997 and has led the Jackrabbits through the transition from Division II to Division I and has raised the play of SDSU almost every year. The Jacks made the national title game this past spring and will look to duplicate that effort with a win in this semifinal match-up.

The history between these two schools in neighboring states is 15 prior games but only four coming as Division I schools. Overall, MSU owns a 10-5 record against SDSU all-time but SDSU has a 3-1 mark in the DI era of the series. The Jacks also have won the last three meetings with the most recent coming in 2018. SDSU also owns the only playoff match-up win which also was played in Bozeman in 2014.

Here is a look at the most recent meeting in 2018:

Both teams in this match-up won road playoff games last week to set-up this unlikely contest. South Dakota State defeated #5 seeded Villanova last week, while Montana State defeated #1 seeded Sam Houston.

For this clash, it might be like looking in the mirror as both teams like to use their running games and use a strong defense to win. Here is a look at how each stack-up statistically:

SOUTH DAKOTA STATE2021 STATSMONTANA  STATE
37.5Points per game29.92
18.93Points allowed13.15
441.4Yards per game406.7
222.79Pass yards per game177.38
218.6Rush yards per game229.3
346.7Yards allowed per game285.2
241.57Pass yards allowed per game178.23
105.1Rush yards allowed per game106.9

SOUTH DAKOTA STATE JACKRABBITS (11-3, 5-3 MVFC)

Location: Brookings, S.D.

Head Coach: John Stiegelmeier (25th Season, 185-110 at SDSU & Overall)

The Jackrabbits have played all but their first round win on the road this playoff season but have picked up wins at #4 Sacramento State and #5 Villanova. This semifinal round will be the shortest travel spot of the three in going to Bozeman.

This is the fourth semifinal appearance for SDSU. The Jacks defeated Delaware 33-3 in this past spring. They fell to NDSU 44-21 in 2018 and lost to James Madison 51-16 in 2017. Both of losses came on the road.

Last week, SDSU trailed 21-14 at the half but used a very strong second half to eliminate Villanova. The Jacks scored touchdowns on each of its first three drives in the second half to take a 35-21 lead. Two of the touchdowns were scored by RB Isaiah Davis, who was fully playing in the backfield after a concussion knocked starting RB Pierre Strong, Jr. out of the game.

The Jacks defense held the Wildcats scoreless in the second half and that 35-21 score became the final.

Davis finished the game with with 174 yards on the ground on 25 carries and tied a career high with his three touchdowns.

QB Chris Oladokun completed 11-of-19 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns passing. WR Jaxon Janke led the receiving corps with 119 yards on six catches and also had a touchdown.

Strong is expected back to help shoulder the running load this week. He has rushed for 1,592 yards in 14 games this season while Davis was nursing his own injury before coming back in the Jacks’ regular season finale. Overall, SDSU SDSU ranks eighth in the FCS in rushing, averaging 218.6 yards per game.

SDSU’s defense gives up 346.7 yards per game, which is 39th in the FCS. The Jacks are 11th against the run, giving up 105.1 yards per game. The Jackrabbit defense is headlined by first team MVFC LBs Logan Backhaus and Adam Bock.

Backhaus despite being limited to nine regular season games due to injury had season totals of 35 total tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Bock posted a team-leading 100 tackles during regular season action, registering double figures in tackles six times.

KEY PLAYERS: RB PIERRE STRONG, JR. AND ISAIAH DAVIS

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

The Jacks running game is facing a similar defense like it saw against MVFC rival North Dakota State as it knows how to stop the running game. While this might open up the passing game from Oladokun, the running game to me still will be the key for winning another road game for the Jacks. Having a healthy Strong will also be key as it will help wear down the Bobcat front four and likely open up holes in the second half.

MONTANA STATE BOBCATS (11-2, 7-1 BSC)

Location: Bozeman, Mont.

Head Coach: Brent Vigen (1st Season, 11-2 at MSU & Overall)

MSU is coming off of an upset of top seeded Sam Houston. The Bobcats went up 28-0 on the Bearkats and went on to win 42-19.

This is the just the third time Montana State has gone to the FCS Semifinals. The Bobcats fell to NDSU 42-14 in the semifinals in 2019 but won back in 1984 over Rhode Island on its way to that season’s national title in a win over Louisiana Tech.

QB Tommy Mellott, who was making just his second start in his Bobcat career, scored three touchdowns and Montana State’s defense limited Sam Houston to a season scoring low of just 19 points.

Mellott scored two rushing touchdowns and caught a scoring strike in addition to his two touchdown runs. He gained 76 yards on the ground and 165 through the air. The Cats rushed for 190 yards, holding Sam Houston to 79.

WR Lance McCutcheon caught two passes for 98 yards, becoming the sixth Bobcat to surpass the 1,000-yard mark in a season. RB Isaiah Ifanse became MSU’s single-season rushing record-holder by gaining 105 yards and a score.

Mellott became the starter in the Bobcats’ opening playoff game at home over Tennessee-Martin. He replaced Matthew McKay, who enter the transfer portal after the Bobcats regular season finale loss to rival Montana. The freshman Mellott stepped in and started the two playoff games. He has gone 14-31 for 216 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in his two starts under center.

But it is Ifanse that has been the key offensive performer. He ranks third in the FCS with 1,539 yards and with 14 yards in this game will become #2. He has helped MSU rank sixth the FCS in rushing yards per game, averaging 229.3 yards.

The Bobcats have the 12th ranked defense in the FCS, giving up 284.5 yards per game. MSU is 13th against the run in giving up 106.7 yards per contest.

The Bobcat defense is headed by LB Troy Anderson, who was named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. He finished second in the Big Sky in total tackles and solo tackles this season, amassing 114 (59 solos), with 9.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks. He also added two interceptions including one returned for a score.

The other top performers on the defense include fellow Big Sky first team members in DT Chase Benson and DE Daniel Hardy. Benson logged 38 tackles (12 solos), including eight for a loss and 3.5 sacks. He was among the most dominant interior linemen in the FCS along with Hardy, who posted similar numbers. He finished second in the Big Sky and ninth in the FCS in sacks (1.0 per game), and was fourth in the league and 10th nationally in tackles-for-loss (1.6 per game).

Key Player: QB Tommy Mellott

Mellott has been nicknamed Touchdown Tommy and has shown his ability to score as mentioned in doing so in three different ways last week against Sam Houston. The Jackrabbit defense is very strong already against the run and knowing MSU wants to pound the ball, I would expect them to put more members of its defense near the line of scrimmage to stop it first. Mellott has shown he can throw the ball at times but not usually as a necessity on third and long plays so far in the playoffs. How he does on third down will be the key for the Bobcats to victory.

Fearless Prediction:

Chuck: South Dakota State’s long journey for the FCS Playoffs now heads to Montana. The Jacks will miss Pierre Strong Jr., if he doesn’t play, but I was amazed how SDSU’s offensive line just manhandled one of the better defensive fronts in FCS last week. SDSU’s O line is playing with a chip on their shoulders, and I think that will propel them to Frisco and another matchup with the Bison. SDSU 23, Montana State 9

Jaimie: This is one of the hardest games of the playoffs to pick. Does Pierre Strong play? If he doesn’t, how does it impact the SDSU offense? I’m not sure it does. Isaiah Davis is a lead back. Montana State made a change at quarterback, a massive call by coach Brent Vigen, and the offense has dominated their two opponents, including top seed Sam Houston. Does Vigen has seen SDSU plenty in his time as a coach. Will that matter? Maybe. But what will matter is a raucous, sellout crowd in Bozeman. The Bobcats slip by the Jackrabbits for the privilege to play in Frisco. Montana State 31, South Dakota State 30

Kent: If you like smash mouth football, this game will be one you will like. The weather in Bozeman should not be a concern (highs in the mid-30s and no precipitation) as December typical can be in the north. Both defenses will be strong in what I think will be a fairly low scoring game. I believe it will be tight throughout but the experience of SDSU going to this past spring’s national title game will help lead them to that spot again. South Dakota State 27 Montana State 24

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