Coming off its first FCS playoff victory in the Mark Ferrante era, a 21-16 win over Holy Cross, No. 5 Villanova (10-2) takes on South Dakota State (10-3) at home on Saturday with a trip to the semifinals on the line. The Jackrabbits, in their 10th consecutive postseason appearance, are coming off a road victory over No. 4 Sacramento State, 24-19.
Saturday’s 2 p.m. contest is the second between the two programs, the first coming in 2016 where the Jackrabbits bested the Wildcats, 10-7, in the second round of the playoffs. Virtually every member of each squad in that matchup is no longer at their respective program, with the exception of some sixth-year players for Villanova.
The story of the game will be the matchup between Villanova’s defense and South Dakota State’s offense. The Wildcats enter the contest giving up just 15.2 points per game, seventh in the FCS, while the Jackrabbits travel to Villanova with the eight best scoring offense, averaging 37.7 points an outing.
Don’t be fooled by the Jackrabbits’ failure to secure a first-round bye. This is a team that has realistic championship expectations. A season ago, it took a touchdown with less than 20 seconds remaining for Sam Houston to defeat SDSU in the national championship game, denying the program its first title in school history.
From that FCS finalist squad, not much has changed. Key players on both sides of the ball are back, but the main difference from last year’s team to this year's is the absence of star quarterback Mark Gronowski. Gronowski injured his leg during the first drive of the national championship game a season ago and missed his entire sophomore campaign.
Replacing Gronowski is graduate Chris Oladokun. Oladokun transferred to South Dakota State over the summer after starting his career at the University of South Florida and then transferring to Samford. Replacing the FCS Freshman of the Year is by no means an easy task, but in his sixth year of college, Oladokun has done a stellar job.
In 13 games this season, Oladokun has completed 62% of his passes (204-of-328) for 2,697 yards, 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He has also added 145 yards on the ground and two scores. Oladokun’s main three targets are twin wide receivers Jaxon and Jadon Janke and tight end Tucker Kraft.
Jaxon is the number one receiver for the Jackrabbits, hauling in 60 catches for 942 yards and three touchdowns on the year. Jadon is the team's leader in receiving scores, with eight touchdowns on 36 catches that have gone for 575 yards. Kraft is continuing the trend of high-level tight ends at SDSU, the alma mater of Philadelphia Eagles’ Dallas Goedert. As a sophomore, Tucker has caught 56 balls for 661 yards and six touchdowns.
While Oladokun has been more than serviceable at quarterback, the offense is undoubtedly led by the run game, specifically graduate running back Pierre Strong Jr. Strong, who is 5-foot-11, 205-pounds, is the leading rusher in the FCS, totaling 1575 yards on 223 carries (7.1 yards per carry), finding the end zone 17 times on the season. He is the head of the snake, followed by Isaiah David, who has 514 rushing yards in five games (8.4 YPC), for the ninth-best rushing team in the FCS (215 yards per game). Going against Villanova’s top-10 run defense (99.3 YPG), led by graduate linebacker and CAA Defensive Player of the Year Forrest Rhyne and graduate defensive lineman Malik Fisher, the battle in the trenches is extremely important for both sides. For Ferrante’s squad, it’s the main area of focus.
“We’re going to start by trying to stop the run, which obviously you have Pierre and then … (Isaiah) Davis,” Ferrante said. “They’re a good team, and our philosophy is going to be our philosophy. We’re going to go out there, we’re going to put a plan together, we’re going to try to stop the run first, try to make the team one-dimensional.”
If the stellar play at the line of scrimmage between ‘Nova’s defense and SDSU’s run game cancel each other out, the passing game will play an increased role. The Wildcats have one of the best pass defenses remaining, allowing just 163.2 passing yards a game, good enough for the seventh-best in the FCS. SDSU has an above-average pass attack but not quite top tier, averaging 228.2 air yards per contest, 42nd best in the FCS.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Wildcats have a tough task going against a top-15 scoring defense that allows just 18.8 points per game. The Jackrabbits are virtually equally effective defending the run and pass, as they rank inside the top 15 in each category. First-team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference linebacker Adam Bock leads the defense with 112 tackles, also adding 2.5 sacks and a couple of interceptions.
Led by quarterback Daniel Smith and running back duo Justin Covington and Jalen Jackson, Villanova’s offense averages 30.8 points per game, 33rd best in the FCS. Covington is the primary back for the ‘Cats, rushing for 742 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games this season, and Jackson, who has 564 rushing yards for seven touchdowns in 10 games, is second in line.
Smith has had a solid campaign, passing for 2296 yards and 22 touchdowns while throwing nine interceptions. He has also added 226 yards and scores on the ground. Junior wideouts Rayjoun Pringle (724 yards) and Jaaron Hayek (606) are Smith’s top targets, combining for 15 touchdowns, followed by senior wide receiver Dez Boykin (305) and senior tight end Todd Summers (282).
With a victory, the ‘Cats will advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2010 when they were led by legendary coach Andy Talley. The winner of Saturday’s contest will play next week against the victor of No. 1 Sam Houston and No. 8 Montana State.