2021 Spring FCS Semifinals: Delaware at South Dakota State

Delaware and South Dakota State meet for the the second time ever in this 2021 Spring FCS Semifinal round with the winner moving on to Frisco, Texas and the division’s national title game.

Delaware won the only other prior meeting in 2010 when the Jackrabbits visited the Blue Hens with a 26-3 victory. This playoff match-up pairs this spring’s conference champions of arguably the top two FCS conferences in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Colonial Athletic Conference.

Delaware (7-0) went into Jacksonville State last week to defeat the #4 seeded Gamecocks and held down JSU’s high-powered attack to just 14 points – with a late touchdown as a part of it – and just 200 yards of total offense.

The Blue Hens finished second in the FCS in scoring defense starting with an outstanding secondary. Last week, that secondary only gave up 93 passing yards against the JSU attach last week.

Delaware’s style of play is to win the turnover margin and have its offense control the time of possession. Keeping the time of possession starts with RB Dejoun Lee, who was the CAA’s Offensive Player of the Year. But QB Nolan Henderson can also mix in the pass game but how well he will perform this week will likely depend on how well his injured left non-throwing shoulder is doing this week. He did return to the game last week but the passing game really wasn’t needed with the Blue Hens up by two scores. Henderson has been a great thrower this spring in throwing for 1,340 yards with 10 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He has a couple of top WRs in Thyrick Pitts and Gene Coleman II.

South Dakota State QB Mark Gronowski heads the Jackrabbit offense. He was named the MVFC Offensive and Newcomer of the Year as a true freshman. But the strength of the SDSU offense really is the offensive line and the strong running game of RBs Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis. SDSU is the only FCS team with three players over 500 rushing yards (Gronowski, Strong and Davis).

The Jackrabbit defense is somewhat opposite of Delaware’s as it is much stronger against the run versus the pass, while the Blue Hens are visa versa.

TV: ESPN
Streaming:ESPN3 (subscription req’d) | In Spanish
Radio: 94.7 WDSD (Delaware), SDSU Athletics 

Key Players of the Game

South Dakota State QB Mark Gronowski

Gronowski threw for 183 yards and two touchdowns while rushing a team-high 13 times for 142 yards and a touchdown in last week’s win over Southern Illinois. I expect the Delaware defense to be keying on the running game of RBs Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis. And SDSU will likely start the game this way to key on the running game. I think Gronowski will be asked to be use his arm but that is against a very strong Blue Hen secondary. The key with SDSU will be for Gronowski to be able to read the Delaware defense to check in or out of the play called.

Delaware QB Nolan Henderson

The key for Delaware’s signal caller will be his health with the non-throwing shoulder injury. I expect South Dakota State’s defense to test this early to stop the running game first and force Henderson to move to throwing plays to test how well he can release the ball. He threw for 239 yards and led his team in rushing (albeit with just 30 yards) last week. If his health is not an issue, this will be known early in the game. But if his health is a concern, the game plan will need to account for it especially against a strong run defense from SDSU.

Fearless Predictions

Ben: The Blue Hens are a scrappy team and can definitely cause havoc for the Jackrabbits. Will it be enough to punch their ticket to Frisco? I’m betting not. While momentum may slightly favor Delaware I see SDSU posing more of a threat on defense than Delaware’s previous two opponents combined. This could be the Blue Hens’ Achilles heel since an explosive playoff offense is the one key piece missing from their success. SDSU and Mark Gronowski will find a way to power run past the Blue Hens.  South Dakota State 31 Delaware 21

Jamie: These teams match up well stylistically. Both like to run the ball and both play excellent defense. Each team has a great running back to lean on – Dejoun Lee for Delaware and Pierre Strong for South Dakota State. This seems to be a fairly low scoring game. Does the first team to 20 win? I have said for years if Delaware ever found a quarterback they would be dangerous. They finally have that in Nolan Henderson. South Dakota State has found its next one in Mark Gronowski, only a freshman. And thats where this game turns- on the quarterback experience. Henderson leads Delaware to a tightly fought upset. Delaware 20, South Dakota State 19.

Chuck: One thing you can say about both teams is that this will be a physical test.  I see the winner of this game winning in Frisco, and as a defensive nerd, I’m really looking forward to this.  Delaware has had the best defense in FCS this spring, undoubtedly, but the question is whether their offense can muster enough points against a similarly-dominant defense at South Dakota State.  How does Delaware take away those over-the-middle passes Gronowski is throwing, especially since the Jacks have so many great targets?  Can they stuff Pierre Strong enough to get Gronowski off balance?  What about special teams – can Delaware equal the Jacks’ great kicking and ST units?  It feels like this will be a low-scoring game that could go either way, but the more battle-tested team, at home, takes it – just.  South Dakota State 22, Delaware 13

Rob: Delaware held Jacksonville State to just 14 points and 200 yards of total offense – their style of play lives on turnover margin and dominating the time of possession battle.  They held the ball for over 38 minutes in the 20-14-win last week, and the Blue Hens finished second in the FCS in scoring defense because of their outstanding secondary. Delaware’s defense is the real deal – but so is SDSU quarterback Mark Gronowski.  Expect Delaware to prevail in a tough, low-scoring battle. Delaware 23 South Dakota State 17

Kent: The last time a number one seed lost in the semi-final round was also a MVFC-CAA match-up in 2016 when James Madison defeated North Dakota State on the road in route to their national championship that year. Delaware historically has won in the semi-final round on the road in route to the second to last national title game in 2007 when it defeated another MVFC squad in Southern Illinois that season. But I don’t think history will repeat itself here. The home field will help push the Jackrabbits to their first ever national title game in a very tightly contested, lower scoring game. South Dakota State 21 Delaware 17

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