#8 Villanova travels to Brookings, South Dakota to battle undefeated #1 South Dakota State | Villanova vs. South Dakota State Preview
Written by David Szczepanski on December 8, 2023
In the FCS quarterfinals, #8 Villanova prepares for battle with #1 South Dakota State in Brookings, South Dakota on Saturday at 12pm. The 12-0 Jackrabbits have answered every call this season, including scoring 70 points against Drake in the beginning of the season. To advance to the quarterfinals, the Jackrabbits defeated Mercer, 41-0.
Villanova played most likely their final home game of the season on Saturday against Youngstown State, where the Wildcats confidently defeated the Penguins, 45-28, to advance to the FCS quarterfinals. The Wildcats have won seven straight games. However, this will be their toughest game since their loss to UCF in September.
These two teams have matched up twice in the playoffs before with the most recent game coming in 2021. South Dakota State won both games.
The Wildcats scored 21 unanswered points within 16 minutes of game action during the second and third quarters in their win against Youngstown State. Villanova has scored first in 11 of their 12 games this season. They are 41-10 when scoring first under the head coaching of Mark Ferrante.
The Wildcats are averaging 33.5 points per game. They are converting almost 44% of the third down opportunities. Villanova has scored at least 33 points in their last five games. They can beat you in the passing game and in the running game; however, South Dakota State could have the best defense they have played all season.
South Dakota State’s Defensive Stats
South Dakota State is holding opponents to just 10 points per game on average. The Jackrabbits have only allowed 124 total points scored against them. They have excelled at limiting the run. They have only allowed five rushing touchdowns all season and they only allow about 90 rushing yards per game. Villanova’s rushing attack led by Jalen Jackson, DeeWil Barlee, and TD Ayo-Durojaiye will have a difficult task on Saturday, but they did not let that stop them against Youngstown State, who also had a great run defense coming into the game. Villanova rushed for 191 yards against Youngstown State with an average of 6 yards per run.
The Jackrabbits have also done a fantastic job at stopping the passing game. South Dakota State allows about 166 passing yards against them for an average of 5.91 yards per passing attempt. They have allowed nine passing touchdowns in the 2023 season. The Jackrabbits also have 14 interceptions for 167 yards. Villanova QB, Connor Watkins, has struggled at times against good defenses. However, Watkins has been extremely effective in this seven-game winning streak and is not afraid to throw a deep ball. Villanova averages 221.7 passing yards per game and 17.3 yards per catch, which is almost three more yards than South Dakota State. Watkins has 2,608 passing yards for 20 passing touchdowns this season. He also leads the team in rushing touchdowns with 10.
South Dakota’s defense is a huge strength, but there is biggest advantage is their rushing attack. The Jackrabbits have rushed for 2,765 yards and 33 rushing touchdowns. They average about 6.4 yards per rushing attempt and 230 rushing yards per game. South Dakota State rushed for 346 yards in their win against Mercer.
South Dakota State’s Offense Preview
The Jackrabbits’ rushing attack is led by Isaiah Davis, a senior from Joplin, Missouri. Davis is closing in on 1,200 rushing yards this season. He is just 8 yards shy of that mark. He has 14 of South Dakota State’s 33 rushing touchdowns. Davis averages 6.7 yards per run. Amar Johnson also has 108 carries for 704 yards and four rushing touchdowns.
South Dakota State’s quarterback, Mark Gronowski, is the best quarterback in the MVFC and one of the best in the FCS. He has 2,517 passing yards for 24 touchdowns. He averages over 209 passing yards per game. He also has 260 rushing yards for seven rushing touchdowns, which ranks second on the Jackrabbits.
The brother duo of Jadon Janke and Jaxon Janke are the two main receivers for South Dakota State. Jadon Janke leads the team with 719 receiving yards for eight touchdowns in 10 games. Jaxon Janke has 43 receptions for 708 yards and four touchdowns in 11 games. Griffin Wilde and Zach Heins both have five touchdown receptions.
Davis and Gronowski were named co-offensive players of the year for the MVFC. The Jackrabbits have 20 players named to the All-Missouri Valley Football Conference team, which can only hold 21 spots. They had nine players named to the first team, including Davis and Gronowski. Jadon Janke, a wide receiver, was also named to the first team in addition to offensive linebackers: Garret Greenfield and Mason McCormick. South Dakota State’s offensive line is one of their best features, which is led by Greenfield and McCormick.
26 Game Winning Streak for the Defending FCS Champions
South Dakota State is one of only two FCS programs to reach the playoffs in each of the last 12 seasons. They are the defending FCS champions. The Jackrabbits have won 26 consecutive games dating back to their 2022 season opener, which is tied with James Madison for the third-longest streak in FCS history. They have also won 19 straight games at home.
Keys to the Game: Can Villanova pull off the upset?
South Dakota State is about as close to a complete team as one will find, especially in the FCS. The undefeated Jackrabbits will be a major task for Villanova. The Wildcats are heavy underdogs as the #8 seed. However, Villanova found confidence and rhythm during this seven-game winning streak. The keys to victory for Villanova are to run the football and find a way to limit Isaiah Davis. Villanova also must limit turnovers, especially fumbles. The Wildcats have 21 fumbles (9 lost) compared to the Jackrabbits’ 9 total fumbles all season. The Wildcats have done a great job at starting the game off on the right note. Since it is their biggest strength, Villanova should run the football early and force the Jackrabbits to stop their effective and complex rushing attack. Jalen Jackson has set the tone in the past few games with large runs, and Villanova should let Jackson run a lot early in the game. I expect the Wildcats to keep this game closer than many people think. However, they will have to make all of the right decisions and plays to defeat South Dakota State, but it is definitely possible and the Wildcats are battle tested.
The winner of this game will advance to the FCS semifinals to play the winner of #4 Idaho and #5 UAlbany. The semifinal match will be played on December 15th or 16th.