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Inside the Missouri Valley: Breaking down SDSU's path to the FCS championship

A look at potential opponents for the Jackrabbits, as well as a glimpse around the rest of the conference.

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South Dakota State running back Isaiah Davis lowers his shoulder as he enters the end zone for a touchdown as Illinois State's Darrell Talley III attempts to bring him down during a Missouri Valley Football Conference game on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.
Zech Lambert / Mitchell Republic
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BROOKINGS — The road to Frisco goes through Brookings.

With South Dakota State claiming the No. 1 seed in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the Jackrabbits will officially be at home for the duration of their playoff run, with the exception being the championship game played in Texas should they make it.

SDSU’s path to the title game is a relatively familiar one, with potential rematches against Delaware and Holy Cross — two teams the Jacks beat in the spring 2021 playoffs — with Montana State, which knocked the Jacks out of the fall 2021 postseason, potentially waiting in the semifinals.

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South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski flexes after scoring a touchdown against Illinois State during a Missouri Valley Football Conference game on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.
Zech Lambert / Mitchell Republic

Second round — potential opponent: Delaware

In order for SDSU to take on Delaware in the second round, the Blue Hens would need to get past St. Francis (Pa.), which is no easy feat. If they do beat SFU, though, the Blue Hens would bring a battle-tested squad to Brookings.

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Outside of Ivy League schools — which don’t compete in the FCS playoffs — Delaware is sixth in the country in terms of strength of schedule, with a combined opponent’s winning percentage of .557. Delaware lost by six to William and Mary, — the No. 5 seed — and also fell to Richmond and Elon, all of which made the playoffs. But the Blue Hens beat Rhode Island, which was one of the first four teams out, by 21 on the road.

The Hens are one of the colder teams coming into the postseason, having lost four of their last six games of the year, including the final two contests.

That aside, Delaware is tied for the fourth-best scoring defense in the country at 15.5 points per game allowed, sitting one spot behind SDSU. The Blue Hens also have an aerial attack on offense that ranks 17th in the nation with 274.5 yards per game, but their 137.9 rushing yards per contest is 73rd nationally.

Quarterback Nolan Henderson threw for just under 3,000 yards this season, compiling 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but he came to Brookings in the spring 2021 season in a game that SDSU held Delaware to three points and 216 yards of total offense, but that season, Henderson averaged less passing yards and touchdowns per game.

Both cold weather and big crowds play into SDSU's home-field edge, which it will likely have throughout the entire FCS playoffs

SDSU allows the 13th-fewest passing yards per game in the country and has faced two teams this year with better passing offenses in UC Davis and Northern Iowa, holding them both below their season averages in pass yards per game.

Quarterfinals — potential opponent: Holy Cross

The quarterfinals would likely see the Jacks take on either No. 8-seeded Holy Cross or New Hampshire, with UNH taking on Fordham in the first round.

Fordham’s offense is one of the most prolific in the nation, averaging 50.2 points per game but defensively Fordham surrenders 34.73 points per game, which is 100th among 123 schools and not an ideal recipe for the postseason. UNH falls in the middle of the road in both scoring offense and defense, ranking 44th and 53th, respectively, while Holy Cross is top 25 in both. With New Hampshire coming from the stronger conference — the Colonial Athletic Association — it's not a stretch to see an upset here, and the Wildcats coming to Brookings.

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South Dakota State tight end Zach Heins celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Illinois State during a Missouri Valley Football Conference game on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.
Zech Lambert / Mitchell Republic

Should the seeded-Holy Cross come, though, it would come as the team that won the Patriot League and was one of three teams in the country to go undefeated at 11-0 — Jackson State, which is not in the playoffs, and Sacramento State were the other two. The Crusaders also beat Football Bowl Subdivision opponent Buffalo, and the Bulls are a win away from being bowl eligible.

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However, the Crusaders' schedule was among the weaker ones of the teams to make the playoffs. They only beat a four-win Bryant team by seven and a four-win Lafayette by three.

At quarterback for Holy Cross, Matthew Sluka threw for 2,300 yards with 25 touchdowns and three interceptions and was also the leading rusher for Holy Cross, accounting for 918 yards and eight scores with his legs on an offense that ranked 11th in the FCS in total offense.

Similarly to the spring 2021 season when the Crusaders came to Brookings and lost 31-3 to top-seeded SDSU in the second round, Sluka remains under center for the Crusaders. In that loss to SDSU, he went 10-for-21 for 76 yards without a touchdown and was sacked four times.

Semifinals — potential opponent: Montana State

This is where it gets interesting.

Montana State is the highest seed SDSU could play in the semifinals as the No. 4 seed, and the Bobcats just blew out a playoff team in Montana during their final game of the regular season. But fifth-seeded William and Mary poses a threat, as does Weber State.

Weber State nearly beat Montana State in Bozeman on Oct. 22 had it not been for four safeties the Wildcats gave up in a five-point loss. And with the way the bracket lays out, if Weber State can beat North Dakota at home in the first round, it would set up a second-round rematch between the two Big Sky foes with the winner likely to face a W&M team with a stout defense that has wins over two playoff teams in Richmond and Delaware.

All three teams would be the toughest task of the playoffs to that point for SDSU.

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South Dakota State's Jaxon Janke leaps to make a catch as Illinois State's Jeff Bowens attempts to break up the pass during a Missouri Valley Football Conference game on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.
Zech Lambert / Mitchell Republic

But should the favorite Montana State be the team to come to Brookings, it would be a battle between its elite offense and SDSU's elite defense, as well as a semifinal rematch from a year ago.

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The Bobcats just put up 55 points on a Montana defense that was top five in the country, and they also scored 43 on Weber State, which is tied for sixth in the nation in scoring defense.

Quarterback Tommy Mellott, who missed some time this season due to injury, was responsible for almost 2,000 total yards and 16 total touchdowns, including 104 passing yards, 141 rushing yards and two rushing scores against Montana.

Mellott is no stranger to SDSU, either. He threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns and added 155 rushing yards and a pair of scores in the semifinals last season when the Bobcats took down the Jacks in Bozeman to advance to the FCS title game that they lost to NDSU.

This season, the Bobcats are a perfect 10-0 against FCS competition but would be one of the weaker defenses remaining at that time, surrendering 371 yards and 27.5 points per game. That could give SDSU an edge, given the game would be played in Brookings in the middle of December, where defense becomes more pivotal.

Interestingly, the Bobcats and Jackrabbits are set to play each other on Sept. 9, 2023 in Brookings in non-conference action.

Without a game on the final date of the regular season (Nov. 19) and a first-round playoff bye that comes with a top-eight national seed (Nov. 26), the Jackrabbits will have 20 days between games.

Championship game

Should SDSU make it to Frisco, the team that awaits for the Jacks is tough to predict. On one hand, Sacramento State went undefeated on the season, winning the Big Sky and taking down Montana, Idaho and Weber State, as well as FBS foe Colorado State, in the process.

Outside of the Hornets, NDSU sits at the No. 3 seed, with a potential rematch from earlier this season when the Jacks won the DakotaMarker game in the Fargodome. For NDSU to meet up with SDSU in Frisco, the Bison would need to go through a likely route that featured Montana, No. 6 Samford or Idaho and then Sacramento State.

The only other MVFC team in the postseason this year is UND, which, as mentioned earlier, takes on Weber State in the first round. The Fighting Hawks, who have their first-round road trip to Ogden, Utah, shrouded in controversy , would need to then take down Montana State and then William & Mary in order for a chance to face the Jackrabbits in the semifinals.

Elsewhere, Incarnate Word’s potent offense, led by quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr.’s 57 total touchdowns and over 4,000 yards of total offense to four interceptions at the No. 7 seed gives UIW a darkhorse chance to power its way to Frisco.

Last week’s scores

Saturday, Nov. 12

Northern Iowa 58, South Dakota 14
North Dakota State 42, North Dakota 21
Illinois State 20, Western Illinois 13
Youngstown State 28, Southern Illinois 21
Missouri State 24, Indiana State 7

The Valley standings

Teams are listed with MVFC record, followed by overall record:

X-*1. South Dakota State, 8-0, 10-1
X-2. North Dakota State, 7-1, 9-2
X-T-3. North Dakota, 5-3, 7-4
T-3. Youngstown State, 5-3, 7-4
T-3. Northern Iowa, 5-3, 6-5
T-6. Illinois State, 4-4, 6-5
T-6. Southern Illinois, 4-4, 5-6
8. Missouri State, 3-5, 5-6
T-8. South Dakota, 2-6, 3-8
10. Indiana State, 1-7, 2-9
11. Western Illinois, 0-8, 0-11
*denotes conference champions
X-clinched playoffs

Atop the Valley

One top performance from the conference for the week:

In a rout of South Dakota to end the season, Northern Iowa quarterback Theo Day made one final pitch to win the MVFC offensive player of the year. Day tossed for five touchdowns and no interceptions, completing 21 of his 30 passes for 380 yards in a 58-14 win over the Coyotes.

Check this out

One top play from this past week’s games:

North Dakota State fullback Logan Hofstedt was in the right place at the right time, securing a diving catch on a deflected ball in the first quarter of NDSU’s 42-21 win over North Dakota.

The Valley in the playoffs

*denotes if team advances to that round. Seeds are determined by FCS playoffs committee.

First round — Saturday, Nov. 26

North Dakota at Weber State, 3 p.m.

Second round — Saturday, Dec. 3

Winner of Delaware/Saint Francis (Pa.) at No. 1 South Dakota State, 2 p.m.

Winner of Montana/Southeast Missouri State at No. 3 North Dakota State, 2:30 p.m.

*North Dakota at No. 2 Montana State, 4 p.m.

Quarterfinals — Dec. 9-10

Games at highest remaining seed

*Winner of New Hampshire/Fordham/No. 8 Holy Cross at No. 1 SDSU, time TBD

*Winner of Southeastern Louisiana/Idaho/No. 6 Samford at No. 3 NDSU, time TBD

*UND vs. winner of Eastern Kentucky/Gardner-Webb/No. 5 William & Mary, time TBD

Semifinals — Dec. 16-17

Semifinal No. 1, 6 p.m., Dec. 16

Semifinal No. 2, 3 p.m., Dec. 17

Championship — Jan. 8 — at Frisco, Texas

Semifinal winners, 1 p.m. (TV: ABC)

The Valley in the NFL

  • Former SDSU tight end Dallas Goedert was placed on injured reserve by the Eagles after suffering a shoulder injury last week against the Commanders.
  • After a three-touchdown performance against Dallas last week, former Bison Christian Watson hauled in two more touchdowns for the Packers on Thursday night against the Titans and now leads all rookies with five receiving touchdowns.
Zech Lambert is a sports reporter for the Mitchell Republic. He graduated from Penn State University in May 2022 and began at the Mitchell Republic in July 2022. He can be reached at zlambert@mitchellrepublic.com or on Twitter @Zech_Lambert.
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