FCS semifinal preview: Can anybody stop South Dakota State?

It’s best to bring your best when the most people are watching. With the nation’s football attention mostly to itself — and TV viewership numbers excellent — the FCS quarterfinals were absolutely fantastic.

Last Friday night, we got one of the best games of the season, a 35-28 Montana overtime win over Furman that featured two huge return touchdowns. On Saturday we got Villanova’s valiant (but eventually fruitless) showing against South Dakota State in windy Brookings, plus a North Dakota State revenge pummeling of South Dakota. And in the Saturday night finale, we got another great one: After trailing for most of the game, UAlbany went on a 16-0 fourth-quarter run and toppled Idaho, 30-22, on the road.

Now it’s time for the semifinals. We’ve got three classic FCS brands and an upstart vying for a January 7 trip to Frisco, Texas, for the national championship. The action starts back in Brookings on Friday night.

  • No. 5 UAlbany at No. 1 South Dakota State (Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN2)

  • North Dakota State at No. 2 Montana (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., ESPN2)

Over the course of 13 or 14 games, a team’s overall storyline has time to evolve. That’s been the case for at least three of the semifinalists. Competitive losses to Marshall and Hawaii, paired with a blowout of Villanova, painted an encouraging picture of Albany’s playoff prospects early on. However, its dominant defense got lit up in a 38-31 loss to New Hampshire. Reason for doubt? Not so much: The Great Danes have allowed just 13.4 points per game since and have reached the semifinals for the first time.

Montana created its own plot twist. Following a shocking 28-14 loss at Northern Arizona, head coach Bobby Hauck made a QB change, switching from Sam Vidlak to Clifton McDowell. The offense stabilized for a few weeks, then ignited. Over their last six games, against a list of opponents that includes four playoff teams, the Grizzlies have won by an average score of 38-12.

In Fargo, NDSU has experienced a fall full of unexpected developments. First, the Bison lost three regular-season games for the first time since 2010. Then, this past week, they found out they were losing head coach Matt Entz, not to a head coaching job (as is customary for NDSU) but to USC, where he will be the linebackers coach. Still, something familiar has emerged from this relative chaos: winning. The Bison have won five straight, four against ranked or playoff opponents and four by at least 21 points. Despite starting the playoffs unseeded, they’re right back into the semifinals as always.

There’s been one constant this fall: South Dakota State’s dominance. The Jackrabbits have won 27 straight games, and only five have been by single digits. Villanova made them sweat last week, cutting their lead to just five points early in the fourth quarter. But the Jacks immediately got a 66-yard touchdown run from Isaiah Davis, picked off a pass, forced a three-and-out and cruised.

From the start, the overall narrative for this edition of the playoffs was whether or not someone could topple SDSU. Three weeks in, that appears no more likely than it did at the beginning. Here’s more on each of the two semifinals.


No. 5 Albany (11-3) at No. 1 South Dakota State (13-0)

South Dakota State

SP+ rank: first

Playoff results to date: defeated Mercer 41-0; defeated Villanova 23-12

Title odds: 64.3% (last week: 58.4%)

UAlbany

SP+ rank: fifth

Playoff results to date: defeated Richmond 41-13; defeated Idaho 30-22

Title odds: 4.0% (last week: 3.8%)

Defense has indeed driven Albany’s first-ever semifinal run. Only one FCS opponent has scored more than 22 points on the Great Danes. The more you have to pass on them, the worse you’re going to fare. They’ve recorded 99 tackles for loss (including 50 sacks) and defended 67 passes (including 17 interceptions) in 2023; while South Dakota State has faced plenty of quality opposition this fall, the defensive end duo of Anton Juncaj and AJ Simon (combined: 43 TFLs, 27.5 sacks, 31 hurries and seven forced fumbles) is something altogether different. SDSU has an annoying “Whatever you do best, the Jacks do it better” thing going, but no one in FCS rushes the passer better than UAlbany.

That’s an amazing thing to say considering they could have also had former Great Dane and current Florida State star Jared Verse on the two-deep. Albany’s pass defense could make a major difference in this semifinal matchup … if SDSU has to pass.

The Jacks have a brilliant passing game driven by Mark Gronowski (68% completion rate, 14.5 yards per completion, 25-to-4 TD-to-INT ratio) and veteran wideouts Jadon and Jaxon Janke (combined: 91 catches, 1,470 yards, 13 TDs). But SDSU will also punch you in the mouth with Isaiah Davis (1,384 yards, 6.8 per carry), Amar Johnson (717 yards, 6.4 per carry) and the best offensive line in the subdivision until you prove you can stop them. And even if you do slow them down for a bit, you have to keep doing it: In ultra-windy conditions last week against Villanova, SDSU gained only 64 yards in the first half. They gained 279 in the second. You don’t win 27 games in a row without learning the value of remaining patient.

One of the other frustrating aspects of playing SDSU is, no matter how good your defense is, theirs is better. They’re first in defensive SP+ with a rating more than a touchdown better than the second-best D. And if you prefer more customary measures, they’re first in scoring defense and total defense, too.

Quarterback Reese Poffenbarger and the UAlbany offense have improved over the course of 2023, averaging 34.6 points and 418 yards over the last eight games. The run game has been up and down this season; Griffin Woodell and Faysal Aden are grinders, averaging 20.3 carries per game between them, but they’ve averaged just 4.7 yards per carry. It’s asking a lot for either one of them to have a huge game against this defense. But the Poffenbarger-to-Brevin Easton connection has been vital. I wrote last week that you probably aren’t going to beat SDSU without a certain number of big plays and turnovers. The Albany pass rush could theoretically provide the latter, and Eason, who’s averaged 105.4 yards per game and 24.1 yards per catch over the last eight games (including nine catches for 200 yards and three scores against Idaho last week), could provide the former.

ESPN BET projection: SDSU 33.8, UAlbany 12.8 (SDSU -21 with a 46.5 over/under)
SP+ projection: SDSU 34.6, UAlbany 12.5

This is the first ever meeting between the Jacks and Great Danes. It’s probably going to end up playing out like most of SDSU’s last 27 games have, with the Jackrabbit defense pushing its opponent behind schedule and forcing punts while the offense eventually finds a rhythm and pulls away. But while there aren’t many paths to an Albany victory, you can certainly see how one might take shape from Easton creating easy points with a couple of big catches and an excellent defense creating negative plays (and possibly turnovers). And hey, if you play in upstate New York, you are probably ready for below-freezing conditions, too. SDSU is a resounding favorite, but Albany could give itself a chance.

North Dakota State (11-3) at No. 2 Montana (12-1)

North Dakota State

SP+ rank: second

Playoff results to date: defeated Drake 66-3; defeated No. 8 Montana State 35-34 (OT); defeated South Dakota 45-17

Title odds: 24.4% (last week: 21.0%)

Montana

SP+ rank: third

Playoff results to date: defeated Delaware 49-19; defeated Furman 35-28 (OT)

Title odds: 7.3% (last week: 8.2%)

There are few moments in football better than the Rocket Ismail-style moment, where a kick or punt is flying through the air toward a great return man in a huge moment, and he does the thing everyone in the stadium is hoping he’ll do: house it.

Junior Bergen saved Montana’s bacon last Friday night against Furman. The junior receiver and return man began the game with a 99-yard kick return touchdown, then gave the Grizzlies a 28-21 lead in the fourth quarter with his sixth career punt return touchdown. (He also had four catches for 44 yards.) Furman tied the game with a fourth-down touchdown with 13 seconds left in regulation — the Paladins attempted a doomed two-point conversion but were saved by a false start penalty and settled for the PAT — but the Griz won with a touchdown pass and fourth-down stop in OT. Montana scored only twice in regulation thanks to two missed field goals, an interception near midfield and a dire run of four straight three-and-outs in the second half. But Bergen bought them just enough margin for error.

It would be pretty incredible if Bergen pulled off similar heroics on Saturday afternoon. Some of NDSU’s most vulnerable moments in 2023 came via special teams breakdowns, too. But in their first semifinal since 2011, the Griz should probably try to count on winning with offense and defense.

That’s much easier said than done. NDSU showed almost unprecedented vulnerability this season, losing three of six midseason games and suffering blowouts at the hands of both North Dakota and South Dakota State. UND used a kick return touchdown and a blocked punt (like I said…) to build an early lead and went an incredible 9-for-12 on third downs to keep drives moving. They led by as many as 32 before winning, 49-24. SDSU was a more mortal 6-for-13 on third downs but turned three Bison turnovers into points and used a Tucker Large punt return to score a short-field touchdown as part of a 23-0 run. The Jacks eventually cruised, 33-16.

The SDSU loss evidently flipped a switch. NDSU has looked awfully NDSU-like since, averaging 48.5 points per game over the last four. Not including sacks, the run game has averaged 6.2 yards per carry in that span, and while quarterback Cam Miller is still a bit sack-prone, NDSU has still averaged 10.1 yards per dropback (inc. sacks) in this span; more importantly, Miller hasn’t thrown an interception since the SDSU game.

Montana’s defense is based on pressure. Blitz-happy linebackers Riley Wilson and Braxton Hill have 11 sacks among 19 TFLs, and cornerback Trevin Gradney has five interceptions with six breakups. (Hill has two picks himself.) The Griz force you to respond to nonstop attacks, and that feels like playing with fire against NDSU — either Montana makes loads of TFLs and sacks Miller in key situations, or NDSU rushes for 300-plus yards.

Montana can win a defense-heavy rock fight, but can the Griz keep up in a track meet? That will depend on quarterback Clifton McDowell. His legs provided a welcome boost when he entered the starting lineup — he’s rushed for at least 65 yards seven times and went for 118 last week — and NDSU has been vulnerable to a good run game at times, allowing more than 200 rushing yards three times. But at some point McDowell will have to pass, and that’s typically when NDSU strikes. The Bison have picked off at least three passes four times this season and have 10 INTs in the last four games. NDSU’s Cole Wisniewski is basically one of the best safeties and linebackers in the country, leading the Bison in tackles while picking off eight passes. Wherever the ball goes, he materializes there. McDowell can’t make mistakes.

ESPN BET projection: NDSU 25.5, Montana 24.0
SP+ projection: NDSU 28.4, Montana 23.3

Entz’s announced departure could provide either an emotional boost or an anchor for NDSU, but on paper the Bison have slight advantages here. Was all that midseason vulnerability just a smokescreen to distract us from another inevitable NDSU-SDSU title showdown? Or does Montana have a bit more home magic to deploy?

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