South Dakota State tries to keep cross-country FCS playoff run alive at Villanova
Jackrabbits (10-3) travel to Philadelphia for quarterfinal contest
From the west back to the east, South Dakota State football’s road in the FCS playoffs includes a cross-country trek this week to suburban Philadelphia for a meeting with fifth-seeded Villanova on Saturday afternoon.
The Jackrabbits (10-3) come off a 24-19 win over fourth-seeded Sacramento State in California on Dec. 4, and now prepare for a physical Villanova team that has lost just once since a late September game at Penn State and has a road victory over third-seeded James Madison on its season ledger. The FCS playoff quarterfinal game is at 1 p.m. Central time at Villanova Stadium.
“We’re excited to still be playing football. A number of teams have put their pads away, so I feel very fortunate,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said this week. “We’d love to be healthier but we’ll find 11 guys at a time to put on the field and compete against Villanova.”
The winner of the game faces either No. 1-seeded Sam Houston — the defending national champion with a 22-game win streak — or No. 8 Montana State on Dec. 17 or 18. If SDSU wins, the Jackrabbits would travel to either Huntsville, Texas or Bozeman, Montana in the national semifinals.
Some of the Jacks’ focus has been on putting together a complete performance against Villanova after a difficult second half in Sacramento, where the Jacks led 24-0 at one point only to hold on and win late. Stiegelmeier said both sides of the ball are at fault for that, with the offense needing to do a better job of adjusting to what the defense is doing and SDSU’s defense needing to make plays to stop the opponent's drives and get off the field.
“The challenge there is to play a complete game, always, and the realization that if we play like that again, we are going to be putting our pads away,” the 25th-year head coach said. “It’s a challenge to our guys to be better on the field.”
Nevertheless, SDSU rushed for more than 200 yards for the seventh time this season in the victory over Sacramento State and the tandem of Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis remains potent as ever in the playoffs.
For a second straight week, SDSU and its opponent both boast strong defenses. Villanova allows 15 points per game (seventh-best in the country) and 262 yards per contest, the latter which ranks as third-best in the country on a per game basis. SDSU leads the nation in team interceptions, with 20 on the season, while Villanova has made 18. For the season, SDSU is plus-16 in turnover margin, which is second-best in the country.
“Everyone knows what they’re doing and they do it full speed,” Stiegelmeier said of the Wildcats’ defense.
The Wildcats (10-2) emerged with a 21-16 win over Holy Cross on Dec. 3, holding an extra day of rest as the Jackrabbits visit for a Saturday game this week. The two teams have a brief playoff history, meeting in the 2016 quarterfinals, where the Jacks pulled out a 10-7 win on a cold day in Brookings.
In the buildup to the game, SDSU has been closely managing the cross-country travel factor that is imposing on the team.
“It’s a huge strain,” Stiegelmeier said. “The fact that we got back to town on Sunday morning at 6:30 a.m. … to lose an hour the next time we fly, and again it’s a three-hour trip, it’s very hard on the body. We’re asking the guys to get extra sleep this week. It is Finals Week. … That’s an added stressor. We’re asking the guys to take care of themselves to the max.”
Added to all that is the growing total of games played in 2021 for the Jackrabbits, now up to 24 games when the ball is kicked off Saturday. Stiegelmeier said the team has shortened practices and is trying to allow players to eat well and get rest to be ready to play.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve played 20-some (games) or it’s the ninth game of the season, after the first three games, most football players that play a lot of reps are beat up somehow, menatlly and physically,” he said. “And it’s just their job to get themselves ready for 2 p.m. on Saturday to play their best football. Out of our top 22 main starters, there’s maybe three guys that aren’t in the training room regularly. That’s part of the business.”