4:00 PM (ET) on ESPN2
The last 365 days have been long for South Dakota State, but the year probably seems short now that they see who they’ll be lining up against in the FCS semifinals on Saturday afternoon.
Almost a year ago to the day, Montana State knocked off the Jackrabbits 31-17 to punch a ticket to the national championship. Here we are again, and the stakes are the very same. This time, the Jacks won’t have to make the trek to the hostile mountains of Bozeman and instead will welcome the Bobcats into Brookings where they hope to deliver what will be a cold plate of revenge.
The Quick Hits
#4 seed Montana State (12-1) has not lost a game to an FCS opponent all season, but neither has #1 seed South Dakota State (12-1). Only Oregon State and Iowa have gotten the better of these two squads, respectively, this fall and both of those outcomes were way back in September. The Bobcats are riding in high off of an absolute beatdown over William & Mary last weekend while SDSU is fresh off a 42-21 triumph over Holy Cross. The Jacks haven’t lost in their building this year and are 11-1 in playoff games at home. Montana State has only won one road postseason contest and that came last year at Sam Houston.
What Brent Vigen has been able to do since taking over at Montana State in early 2021 has been truly outstanding. Just two years into his tenure, Vigen has compiled a 24-4 overall record with two of those four losses coming to FBS competition. The Bobcats have only lost one conference game in that span and took home a share of the Big Sky title this year. Vigen earned the conference’s Co-Coach of the Year accolades and finished ninth on the ballot for this year’s Eddie Robinson Award given annually to the FCS’ top coach. He has his team competing for its second semifinals in as many seasons and is knocking at the door of yet another championship appearance.
While Vigen is only in his second season, his counterpart on Saturday is on the opposite end of the experience spectrum. SDSU’s John Stiegelmeier is in the midst of his 26th year calling the shots for the Jackrabbits. Under Stiegelmeier, South Dakota State has qualified for the playoffs 12 times, reaching the semifinals four times since 2017. He is the winningest coach in program history by a landslide and received the aforementioned Eddie Robinson Award this year. Stiegelmeier has been with the Jacks since they moved up from Division II way back in 2004 but has yet to hoist a national championship trophy. His lone appearance in the game was during the 2021 spring season.
Montana State Offense vs. South Dakota State Defense
The game will be won and lost on this front. Montana State flexes its muscles on the ground with the second best rushing attack in the country, but South Dakota State is tremendous at stopping the run. While the Bobcats average well over 300 yards per game running the ball, the Jackrabbits give up just 85.4 rush yards per outing.
What makes MSU so dangerous on the ground is that fact that instead of one or two guys with breakaway ability, they have a legitimate five or six that get it done. From quarterbacks Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers to a slew of backs (including the recently-returned Isaiah Ifanse and Elijah Elliot) the Bobcats are essentially a Swiss Army Knife in the backfield and it’s very likely all of these mentioned names will play a big role on Saturday.
Ifanse, who missed most of this season while dealing with an injury from last year, returned for the playoffs and lit it up in both of Montana State’s games so far. Against Weber State in the second round he went for 91 yards before popping off for 162 last week. Ifanse set MSU’s career rushing mark in the win over William & Mary and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Mellott and Chambers are just as scary when calling their own number. This year Chambers has run for 18 touchdowns with Mellott right behind him at 12. Mellott also leads MSU’s rushing attack with 1,107 yards on 150 carries. The two will see about an even 50-50 split of playing time and will sometimes even line up in the backfield together. It’s a two-QB system that makes life hell on opposing defenses.
South Dakota State will look to stop this high-powered rushing attack with guys like linebacker Adam Bock and Jason Freeman. Freeman leads the team with 68 total tackles (42 solo), seven of which have come for a loss. Bock, who has missed some time with an injury, got back on the field last week and made three stops. These two will play a major role in the effort to puncture MSU’s stout offensive line.
When the Bobcats are taking to the air, expect Mellott and Chambers to look for receivers Willie Patterson and Ravi Alston. The duo have served as the go-to guys with Patterson accounting for 579 yards and nine touchdowns (both team highs) and Alston having 346 yards and a score.
SDSU’s secondary will be led by junior safety Cale Reeder and senior cornerback DyShawn Gales. The duo has locked it down on the back end for much of the season and combined for six interceptions and 57 total tackles this year. Last week against Holy Cross, Gales even got in on a sack.
South Dakota State Offense vs. Montana State Defense
While all the attention may be focused on MSU’s vaunted ground game, the Jacks will also field a very good one. Running back Isaiah Davis is as strong as any runner in the country and he kicks into a whole new gear come playoff time. So far this postseason, he’s rushed for 258 yards and three touchdowns. Davis is a bruiser and it usually takes more than one guy to bring him down.
Quarterback Mark Gronowski will command the SDSU offense and can hurt opponents with both his legs and his arm. On the year he’s thrown for 2,555 yards and 21 touchdowns but he’s also ran for 299 yards and 10 scores. Gronowski has thrown a touchdown in six straight games dating back to October 22.
Montana State’s defensive front will need to be ready for the tandem of Davis and Gronowski and they’ll look to senior linebacker Callahan O’Reilly in that department. O’Reilly leads the MSU defense with 83 total tackles (39 solo) and has six stops for a loss. Defensive tackle Sebastian Valdez will also play a major role in this area. Valdez has 10 tackles for loss (leads team) and 7.5 sacks.
The Bobcats will have a tall order with receivers Jaxon and Jadon Janke. The twin brothers are Gronowski’s favorite targets on the outside with 99 catches between them and a combined 1,418 receiving yards. The duo has hauled in 13 touchdowns this season as well.
MSU will counter with a secondary that, while struggling against the pass for a large part of the season, has been coming on as of late. Safety Ty Okada is a threat on the back end and even in the backfield as he’s recorded two sacks this postseason. Okada is responsible for 67 total tackles this year and has eight PBUs. Cornerback James Campbell will join him on the back end. Campbell has 32 tackles and two interceptions.
The Special Teams
For all that Montana State does well offensively, their special teams is nothing to scoff at either. Sophomore kicker Blake Glessner has made 22 of his 28 field goal tries and has been almost automatic on his PATs this fall, going 71-of-73. Glessner’s career long field goal is 54 yards and he made a 50-yarder in suboptimal conditions last weekend. His booming leg is also an asset on kickoffs. Glessner seldom allows opposing returners to get a chance as he has 65 touchbacks on the season.
MSU punter Bryce Leighton hasn’t had to punt often as of late but when he’s called upon he’s as reliable as any. Leighton averages almost 43 yards per boot this year and has pinned opposing offenses inside their own 20-yard line nine times this year. His career long punt went for 65 yards.
For South Dakota State, Hunter Dustman has been the “everything guy” when it comes to kicking as he handles both punt and kicking duties. Dustman has gone 16-of-23 on his field goal attempts this season and has not missed from inside 30 yards. He is a perfect 49-of-49 on his PATs and also averages 42.1 yards per punt.
In the return game the Bobcats will have a pair of dangerous specialists. Freshman Taco Dowler will handle punt returns while Marqui Johnson will likely take kickoffs. Dowler has taken two punts back for scores this year, one of which came last weekend against William & Mary. Johnson also nearly broke a kickoff return last week and averages 31.8 yards per runback. He has taken one kickoff back for a touchdown as well.
Jadon Janke will see the bulk of the returns for SDSU on both kickoffs and punts. He has yet to find the end zone in the runback game but averages 11.4 yards per punt return and 17.3 yards per kick return. His longest of the season was a 58-yard punt runback against North Dakota in Week 8.
This one isn’t hard to figure out. If SDSU can stop the deadly Montana State rushing attack then they will win and if they can’t they’ll lose.
Up until last week against Holy Cross the Jacks have been tremendous at stopping the run but the Crusaders may have given MSU the formula as they put up the highest rushing totals South Dakota State has given up all season. The Bobcats consistently pound the rock for over 300 yards per contest and, while they may not hit that threshold this time, they have enough weapons to still be effective in that department. Neither of these teams is all too familiar with playing from behind so whoever has to is going to be out of their element. There’s no two ways about it; this is going to be one heck of a game and it’s a shame someone has to lose.
Score Prediction: Montana State: 32 - South Dakota State: 30