FCS Semifinal-Round Playoff Preview and Prediction: Montana State at South Dakota State
To say top-seeded South Dakota State and No. 4 Montana State have been on a collision course in the FCS playoffs is appropriate: It’s smash-mouth football at its best.
Heading into Saturday’s national semifinal at SDSU, Montana State has the No. 1-ranked rushing offense out of 130 FCS teams – 331.8 yards per game – and the host Jackrabbits are No. 1 against the run (85.2).
It’s also a rematch of a national semifinal last season, but the Bobcats were home in that matchup when they won 31-17.
Following is a capsule preview of the Montana State at South Dakota State semifinal:
No. 4 seed Montana State (12-1) at No. 1 seed South Dakota State (12-1)
Kickoff – 4 p.m. ET Saturday (ESPN2) at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium (19,340) in Brookings, South Dakota
Series – Montana State leads 11-5 (last meeting: MSU won 31-17 at home in FCS semifinal on Dec. 18, 2021)
Coaches – Montana State: Brent Vigen (24-4, second season); South Dakota State: John Stiegelmeier (197-112, 26th season)
5 Players to Watch – Montana State: QB Tommy Mellott (116 of 191, 1,507 yards, 10 TDs, 4 INTs; 1,058 rushing yards, 12 TDs), RB Isaiah Ifanse (21 carries, 253 yards, 2 TDs in two playoff games), LB Callahan O’Reilly (83 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 INTs, 2 FR, 3 FF), OLB Ty Okada (67 tackles, 3 sacks, INT, 8 PBU, 2 FR), PK Blake Glessner (22 of 28 FGs, 71 of 73 PATs); South Dakota State: QB Mark Gronowski (208 of 322, 2,555 yards, 21 TDs, 5 INTs; 299 rushing yards, 10 TDs), RB Isaiah Davis (211 carries, 1,190 yards, 13 TDs; 19 receptions), TE Tucker Kraft (21 receptions, 249 yards, 2 TDs), LB Jason Freeman (68 tackles, 7 TFL, 3 sacks, INT return for TD), DE Caleb Sanders (32 tackles, 8 TFL, 6 sacks)
Notable – The last two FCS runners-up – SDSU in spring 2021 and MSU last fall – have lost only to an FBS opponent this season. SDSU has advanced to the semifinals for a third straight season and the fifth time in the last six campaigns, and MSU is there for the third time in four seasons (it didn’t compete during the 2020-21 pandemic campaign). Ifanse has recovered from offseason knee surgery to give the Bobcats’ already dominating rushing attack a postseason lift, and he became their all-time rushing leader (3,714 yards) against William & Mary. The ‘Cats average an FCS-high 6.7 yards per carry, and it’s 7.9 over the last four games. When the offense goes to the air, it’s often to WR Willie Patterson (40 receptions, nine TDs). Glessner has been hot, making 13 of 14 field-goal attempts in the last five games. SDSU is surrendering an FCS-low 2.8 yards per carry, and the defense received a boost against Holy Cross with LB Adam Bock’s return from a foot injury. But the 261 rushing yards allowed in that quarterfinal were more than twice as many as the Jackrabbits had allowed previously (North Dakota State’s 127 had been the high). Gronowski leads a balanced offense, and while the ‘Rabbits think run first with Davis (he has 100+ rushing yards in seven of his 10 career playoff games), the receiving options are strong, including WRs twins Jaxon and Jadon Janke (combined 99 receptions for 1,418 yards and 13 TDs this season). SDSU has a +13 turnover margin and MSU is +12.
Up Next – The winner will play either No. 3 seed North Dakota State (11-2) or No. 7 seed UIW (12-1) in the FCS championship game on Jan. 8 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Prediction – South Dakota State 28, Montana State 27