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Four key storylines to watch in South Dakota State-Sam Houston FCS championship game showdown

Championship is Sunday, May 16, with the winner claiming first national title

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South Dakota State University's Isaiah Davis is brought down from behind by a Delaware defender while carrying the ball during the Jacks' FCS semifinal playoff game against Delaware on Saturday, May 8, 2021 at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade
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A national championship looms one win away for the South Dakota State and Sam Houston football teams.

It marks the seventh time in NCAA Football Championship Subdivision history that the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the playoff bracket are playing for the championship. The 8-1 Jackrabbits square off with the 9-0 Bearkats at 1 p.m. Sunday, May 16 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas and will be televised on ABC. History is on the side of the No. 2 seed, winning five of those six games.

The winner of Sunday’s championship game will claim its first national title. Sam Houston, which will make a 200-mile trip north from its campus in Huntsville, Texas, made the 2011 and 2012 championship games, falling to North Dakota State both times.

Here’s a look at some early storylines to watch in the championship game:

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South Dakota State University's cheer squad leads the crowd in cheers during the Jacks' FCS semifinal playoff game against Delaware on Saturday, May 8, 2021 at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Ball security

SDSU has reached the title game playing turnover-free football in three wins during the FCS playoffs.

That allowed the Jacks to win in blowout fashion over Holy Cross and Delaware, and it made possible a comeback victory over Southern Illinois in the quarterfinal round.

For the season, the Jackrabbits have one turnover for every game they’ve played: nine turnovers in nine games (six fumbles, three interceptions). Given that SDSU has done that with a first-year quarterback in Mark Gronowski is a credit to the freshman’s play and the Jackrabbits’ ability to come up with a strong scheme behind offensive coordinator Jason Eck.

SDSU is plus-7 in the turnover margin stat, and might be able to take advantage of a SHSU offense that has had 15 turnovers in nine games, including 10 interceptions. The Jackrabbits have come up with 16 takeaways for the season, nearly two per game.

Sam Houston has the same plus-7 turnover margin, but has done that through 22 takeaways, including seven in the playoffs.

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South Dakota State University's Quinton Hicks (48) celebrates a sack during the Jacks' FCS semifinal playoff game against Delaware on Saturday, May 8, 2021 at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)

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In the red zone

Another key area to keep an eye on is the red zone, where South Dakota State’s defense has bent but not broken.

SDSU linebacker Preston Tetzlaff said the Jackrabbits take pride in denying opposing offenses touchdowns near the goal line. In the three playoff games, SDSU has allowed just two touchdowns on seven trips to the red zone. For the season, SDSU has allowed opponents inside the 20-yard line 25 times this season and has yielded just 11 touchdowns.

The Bearkats’ offense has had 43 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line and have 28 touchdowns

When the Jackrabbits have the ball, they have scored on 28 of 29 possessions that reach the red zone, with 18 touchdowns.

On the ground

If there is an area of the game to expect both teams’ strengths to meet, it could be when SDSU has the ball, trying to assert its running game against a difficult set of defensive linemen and linebackers.

Sam Houston, which frequently uses a 4-2-5 defense ( four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs), still does a good job up front against the run, allowing 2.2 yards per attempt, or 2.6 yards per rush when taking out sack yardage.

It is the defense and the defensive line where SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said Tuesday he sees the most improvement for the Sam Houston defense, which comes from a Southland Conference known for porous defenses and high-scoring games in the past. From 2013 to 2018, SHSU allowed at least 27 points per game to opponents. This season, opponents are averaging 19.5 points per game.

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That poses an interesting matchup with a Jackrabbits team that continues to run for 6 yards per rush, and 231 rushing yards per game. Overall, SDSU’s offense averages 6.8 yards per play and is averaging 30.1 points per game.

For the most part, Sam Houston has played well defensively in the postseason but teams have shown an ability to move the ball on the Bearkats, allowing 356.4 yards per game.

But all of that assumes that the opponent can get rid of the ball to begin with. The Jackrabbits will be challenged by a Sam Houston defense that has posted 37 sacks on the season — the most in the nation during the 2020-21 season — or more than four per game.

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South Dakota State University's Mark Gronowski celebrates a rushing touchdown during the first half of the Jacks' FCS semifinal playoff game against Delaware on Saturday, May 8, 2021 at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

Big play offenses

Sam Houston is riding high after a 38-35 win over third-seeded James Madison on Saturday, which saw the Bearkats rally from a 24-3 deficit

The Bearkats got Saturday’s semifinal pointed back in their favor with a few big plays, something they have made a habit of in this spring season. Down 27-10 late in the third quarter, quarterback Eric Schmid found Jequez Ezzard for a 69-yard touchdown pass, and less than 2 minutes later, Ezzard had an 80-yard punt return touchdown to get the Bearkats within three points.

James Madison then fumbled the ensuing kickoff return and Schmid had a 20-yard touchdown run on the final play of the quarter to give Sam Houston the lead for good at 31-27.

For the season, Sam Houston has amassed 33 plays of 30 yards or more, including 21 pass plays. Ezzard is now responsible for 14 of those in the receiving and return game. The Bearkats average more than 39 points per game and average 6.6 yards per play.

For their part, the Jackrabbits have 30 plays of 30 yards or more, 13 each from the passing and rushing game.

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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