The FCS playoffs have reached the semifinals and that means Frisco is just one win away for the few still playing. The last squads standing all have very different challenges placed before them this weekend and will all need to follow a their own formula if they are to be suiting up in three weeks. Here’s what it looks like for the final four and what each team will need to do to punch their ticket to the big one.
Let it Fly: Last week in Idaho, quarterback Reese Poffenbarger and receiver Brevin Easton were on another level and they’ll need to carry that momentum into this week. Poffenbarger has a heck of an arm and if UAlbany wants a chance, he’ll have to put it on full display again this week. The sophomore signal-caller put up a season-best 341 yards against Idaho last weekend and threw three touchdowns (all to Easton). The Great Danes have found the most success when he’s throwing and SDSU is allowing 159.2 pass yards per contest this year. Poffenbarger’s ability to get the ball to his receivers will be vital and, even though the weather may not be all that conducive to airing it out, UAlbany will need to in order to stay in it.
Steal Possessions: The Great Danes will also need to find a way to give themselves extra chances and, more importantly, take chances away from the potent Jackrabbits offense. Whether they be turnovers, fourth down conversions or even fakes, UAlbany will need to draw up ways to get the ball and keep the ball as much as possible. Linebacker Dylan Kelly is one of the best in the country and he can change the game in a hurry and it’s time to show why he’s a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award this year. When the Danes force more than one fumble they are 4-0 this season. When they intercept more than one pass they are 5-1. Someone on the defense needs to get their hands on the ball.
Perfection: We’ll just call this like it is; the Great Danes will need a flawless 60-minute performance all-around if they’re going to have a chance at dethroning the Jackrabbits. This means all the basics; stay ahead of the chains, no costly penalties, no dropped passes and certainly no turnovers. A surefire way to end this thing early is give the Jacks extra chances and have empty possessions. There can’t be any backward plays and on the flip side there can’t be any big momentum-swinging plays. No team in the nation is better at capitalizing on their opportunities than South Dakota State and yet, somehow, the Danes will need to be better.
South Dakota State
Impose the Run: Running the ball has been SDSU’s bread and butter and with guys like Isaiah Davis and Amar Johnson in the backfield, there’s no reason that strength shouldn’t be utilized here. Davis, who has rushed for a team-best 1,384 yards this year, nearly eclipsed 200 last week against Villanova and broke free for a long score. The run game can not only give the Jackrabbits the lead but can also bury UAlbany late if all goes according to plan. Three of the team’s running backs are averaging at least six yards per carry (minimum 30 attempts) and as a whole they are putting up 231.3 yards per game. If they can manage a Great Danes defense that’s stout up front then they should be able to put this one on ice, especially if the conditions are like last week.
Collapse the Pocket: As mentioned before, Poffenbarger can sling it if given the chance. That’s why the Jacks can’t give him that chance. Defensive ends Cade Terveer and Quinton Hicks can pinch the pocket against an UAlbany front seven that’s surrendered 34 sacks and make life difficult. If Poffenbarger doesn’t have time, his passing game takes a hit. As a team SDSU has 20 QB hits and 22 sacks this year. If they tap into that then the Great Danes will be in trouble.
Stay the Course: If SDSU doesn’t overthink anything here, they should be fine. The books have them as 21-point favorites for a reason. On paper, the Jackrabbits are the better team and if they play the way they have for the last 27 games, they will win. At home with the elements and crowd on their side, the Jacks are expected to roll. Eddie Robinson Award winning-coach Jimmy Rogers has been in big moments before and so has his team. It’s a matter of flexing that experience. Sound fundamentals and pure physicality will get this done and South Dakota State is tremendous at both.
North Dakota State
Puncture the Line: Montana quarterback Clifton McDowell has proven himself a playmaker when he can go through his progressions. NDSU needs to hurry him and force him into uncomfortable situations. It doesn’t even need to be sacks. QB hits and hurries will have an effect as well. If guys like Jake Kava and Dylan Hendricks can get through the Griz offensive line then McDowell and freshman star running back Eli Gillman are put at a disadvantage before the play can get rolling. Not giving Gillman and McDowell a head of steam or time to develop a play can drastically change the success Montana has on offense. When the Bison are able to bring down the opposing passer more than once in a game this year they are a perfect 9-0.
Big Gains: North Dakota State has navigated this playoff run thanks in large part to chunk plays. Over their last two games, the Bison have registered 40+ yard touchdown plays three times. When guys like T.K. Marshall, Cam Miller or TaMerik Williams have green grass in front of them, they are some of the best in the business at taking it the distance. Those gash plays can demoralize a defense and, eventually, break their will down the stretch. It’s also easier, especially against a unit like Montana, to not try your luck time and time again against that unit. An ideal world for the Bison would make those drives last one or two plays in the initial stages of the game.
Avoid the Noise: There’s lots of off-the-field distractions that could really hinder NDSU in a game like this. Their job is to ignore them. Head coach Matt Entz is headed to USC whenever this ride is over and everyone knows it now. The Bison need to look past that looming monster for a few more weeks while they try to polish off a championship run. They’ll also have to function with the deafening sounds of Washington-Grizzly Stadium pouring down on them, especially early in the game. NDSU has proven it can handle road games in this playoffs and survived a similar atmosphere two weeks ago at Montana State. If they can find ways to not only ignore the noise but actually quiet it, then it becomes a whole different ballgame.
Special Teams: The Grizzlies survived an upset bid from Furman last weekend thanks to their specialists and, more specifically, star return man Junior Bergen. If Bergen can make even one house call this week then you have to believe the needle sways heavily into Montana’s favor. Even if he doesn’t find the end zone, though, Bergen can still flip a field and give his offense prime position from which to work. Shorter fields are obviously beneficial and can put NDSU’s defense on their heels. Bobby Hauck has always taken pride his teams’ specialist units and now is the perfect time for Hauck’s philosophies to be proven right.
Tackle, Tackle, Tackle: Bringing down the Bison playmakers is going to be of the utmost importance. Ask Montana State and South Dakota how it goes when the likes of the aformentioned Miller and Williams are allowed to have just a little bit of room or when tackles are missed. The Griz boast one of the best defensive units in the country and with guys like stud linebacker Braxton Hill and standout safety Ryder Meyer there’s no reason the UM defense shouldn’t be able to make individual stops when they need to. North Dakota State can absolutely kill its opponents with the extra yardage they pick up after initial contact. Hill and company have to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Ride Momentum: No team enjoys a better homefield advantage than the Griz so when the crowd is in full-throat behind them, the best thing Montana can do is not kill that electricity. When things are going well and the fans are feeling it, the Grizzlies have to embrace the moment and give them reason to be even louder. It’s something that they’ve been really good at, especially in the playoffs before a national TV audience. That’s what they’re going to have on Saturday again. In a game that’s essentially pick ‘em in Vegas the environment may very well be the difference maker and since it’s on Montana’s side they’ll need to use it.