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FCS Semifinal: UAlbany Great Danes at South Dakota State Jackrabbits - Preview, Prediction, How to Watch

The Jacks are one win away from going back to the championship.

Albany v Hawai’i Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

Date: Friday, December 15th

Time: 7:00 PM (ET)

TV: ESPN2

The Quick Hits

The surprise team of this year's playoffs has been UAlbany (11-3) out of the CAA. Picked to finish 11th in their league at the start of the year, the Great Danes have done nothing but impress and win this entire season and now they'll play in their first ever semifinal game. A nasty defensive front paired with an electric sophomore QB has UAlbany just won win away from reaching the biggest stage. Standing in their way? The best team in the land.

South Dakota State (13-0), still the favorite to take home the whole darn thing, just keeps winning no matter how ugly it may be. Last week in the frigid winds of Brookings the Jacks powered past Villanova to get back to this familiar point. The weaknesses on this team are few and far between. No one has been able to stop the mighty Jacks machine yet and it certainly appears as though the boys in blue and yellow are destined for Frisco once more.

The Coaches

Syndication: Argus Leader Matt Zimmer / USA TODAY NETWORK

SDSU's Jimmy Rogers is this year's Eddie Robinson Award recipient and when you see what he's done it's hard to argue against it. Rogers, who in his first season replacing the legendary John Stiegelmeier, has not lost a game and has lived up to every expectation put upon his team going into this year. Despite taking everyone's best shot this season as the defending champs, his team has made it through unscathed. He has not missed a beat since stepping in and the Jacks are playing at the top of their game.

For UAlbany, Greg Gattuso has done a bang up job building up a contender. After finishing with just three wins in 2022, Gattuso has pulled off one of the best single-season turnarounds in recent memory. Now in his __ year at the controls, he's compiled an overall record of __ and has won __playoff games with the Great Danes.

South Dakota State Offense vs UAlbany Defense

Jackrabbits running back Isaiah Davis always seems to elevate his game when the postseason comes around and this year has been no different. Davis, who has 15 touchdowns on the year, has posted four during the playoffs. He ran for 192 yards last week and leads the team with 1,384 total this season. He and Amar Johnson are as dynamic of a one-two punch as any in the country and if the Danes don't have an answer for these two it'll be a long night.

That answer may come in the form of linebacker Dylan Kelly. Kelly, a finalist for this year’s Buck Buchanan Award, has had an otherworldly season, authoring 155 tackles to lead a defense that is giving up a mere 78.3 rushing yards per game. There's no doubt that UAlbany is great against the run but they're going to be put to their toughest test yet here.

The other bad news for the Danes is that even if they can handle the potent Jacks rushing attack, they'll still need to counter an equally effective passing game. Quarterback Mark Gronowski is one of the best out there, throwing for 2,618 yards and 25 touchdowns this year. He has a litany of targets he can and will go to including brothers Jadon and Jaxon Janke, as well as tight end Zach Heins.

This is where DBs Aamir Hall and Bill Hackett come into play. Hall, who has seven interceptions on his career, has snagged five picks this season while Hackett has two. The pair has combined for 20 defended passes this year and each has even recorded a defensive score. Hall and Hackett, like the rest of the UAlbany defense, will see a challenge the likes of which they haven't yet when it comes to Gronowski and his weapons.

UAlbany Offense vs South Dakota State Defense

Albany v Baylor Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Great Danes quarterback Reese Poffenbarger has been on fire in these playoffs, especially last week at Idaho. Poffenbarger and receiver Brevin Easton connected nine times for 229 yards and three scores in that game. The pair will likely need to find a similar chemistry again this weekend but could have a tougher time in the cold and against a Jacks defense that allows under 200 pass yards per game.

On the ground it will be freshman running back Griffin Woodell who'll look to find space against a stingy SDSU rush defense. Woodell has run for 899 yards and seven TDs in 2023 and may be relied on heavily in this one if the conditions don't make passing a viable option. Woodell averages 5.1 yards per run.

South Dakota State, like UAlbany, is great against the run, surrendering under 100 yards a game. Led by linebackers Jason Freeman and Isaiah Stalbird, the Jackrabbits are tough through the middle. Freeman leads the team with 87 stops and has two interceptions as well as two fumble recoveries. Stalbird has 69 tackles and has forced two fumbles. Woodell will have his work cut out for him.

SDSU is also really good up front. This year, they've sacked opposing quarterbacks 22 times thanks in large part to guys like defensive end Cade Terveer and Quinton Hicks. The pair are a nightmare for passers, combing for 8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Getting to Poffenbarger can change this game drastically so look for Hicks and Terveer to be getting after it on the ends.

The Special Teams

Special teams, and more specifically special teams defense, helped both UAlbany and South Dakota State in their wins a week ago. The Jacks blocked a punt and took it back for a TD while the Danes got their hand on an extra point. Look for both units to again be aggressive when it comes to the kicking game and don't be shocked if there's another block.

Hunter Dustman will do the kicking for the Jackrabbits. He is 58-of-60 on his extra point tries this year but has missed five field goals this year (16-of-21). Dustman's long this season has come from 49. He will also handle punts for the Jacks.

In the return game it'll be the aforementioned Johnson on kicks and Tucker Large on punts. Neither has posted a house call yet but Large averages 15.8 yards on his punt returns while Johnson is at 25.3 on the kickoffs.

For UAlbany it'll be John Opalko on field goals and PATs. Opalko, like Dustman, has missed five field goal attempts this fall but has connected on one from as far as 46 yards away. Tyler Pastula will handle punts. He is averaging 42.2 yards per boot and has pinned opposing offenses inside the 20-yard line 16 times.

Levi Wentz will be the Danes go to on returns on both kicks and punts. Wentz does not have a touchdown yet this year but is putting up over 25 yards per kick return. His longest punt runback this year went for 15 yards.

Prediction

UAlbany has a defense that matches up well with South Dakota State and Poffenbarger is going to make some plays but, if the weather is anything like it was last weekend in Brookings, the passing game won’t get it done alone. Can the Great Danes run against the stonewalling Jacks defense? This one certainly has the feel of one where play in the trenches could make all the difference and the Jackrabbits are the best in the business in that department. On the flip side, UAlbany will also be tasked with corralling a potent SDSU rushing attack. Throw that all in with the fact that SDSU hasn’t lost at home since 2021 and it doesn’t look good for the guys from back east. Simply put, the Great Danes will need to play a perfect game to have a chance but betting against the Jackrabbits right now is a fool’s errand.

Score Prediction: Albany: 17 - South Dakota State: 27