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FCS Quarterfinal: Villanova Wildcats at South Dakota State Jackrabbits Preview, Prediction, How to Watch

Villanova and South Dakota State are set to meet for the third time in the playoffs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Drake vs South Dakota State Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Date: Saturday, December 9th

Time: 12:00 PM (ET)

TV: ESPN

The Quick Hits

South Dakota State (12-0) is the best team in the FCS and they have been for well over a year now. The Jackrabbits have been steamrolling their way throug everyone they've seen. In fact, this team hasn't lost since Week 1 of 2022 and they're showing no signs of letting up. A coaching change didn't flap them over the offseason and with a team that has really exhibited no weaknesses up to this point, it seems like the road to Frisco is painted blue and yellow.

Villanova (10-2), however, will look to give SDSU its best shot here. The CAA co-champs have quietly handled their business all season and have looked pretty darn good in the process. The Wildcats have a quarterback who knows how to air it out and plenty of explosive playmakers that can and have flipped games in a hurry. Whether or not all that will be enough to give the Jacks a run for their money remains to be seen.

The Coaches

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Villanova at Army Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Mark Ferrante has been 'Nova's head coach since 2017 and, in that time, has guided the Wildcats to three playoff appearances and two conference titles. Ferrante has been with the program since the late 80s despite being the main man for seven seasons. He has won 47 games since taking over and is 2-2 in the postseason.

For the Jacks, it's head coach Jimmy Rogers' first year at the controls but he hasn't experienced as much as a hiccup since taking over for the great John Stiegelmeier. Rogers, who served as an assistant with the program was promoted to the gig last winter, and has yet to lose a game. The Jackrabbits already have some Missouri Valley hardware under his rein but are eying a lot more.

South Dakota State Offense vs. Villanova Defense

When it comes to the Jackrabbits offense it's truly a case of "pick your poison". Quarterback Mark Gronowski has had another stellar season and that's because he's had an arsenal of weapons at his disposal. Gronowski has thrown for 2,517 yards and 24 touchdowns this fall. The Janke, Jadon and Jaxon, brothers have been on the receiving end of half of those. Tight end Zach Heins is a viable option as well, hauling in five touchdowns on 20 passes.

The SDSU rushing attack is equally potent. Isaiah Davis leads the charge with 1,192 yards and 14 scores. He, alongside Amar Johnson, has made opposing defenses look silly all year. Davis averages 6.7 yards a pop and Johnson is right there also at 6.5. Each has well over 100 carries this year, making that average all the more impressive.

That all means if Villanova's defense isn't up to snuff at every level, things will go downhill in a hurry. Linebackers Shane Hartzell and Brendan Bell will have a lot on their plate. The duo, which have combined for 161 total tackles, will need to handle things over the middle. Each has come down with an interception this season and both have gotten to the QB on numerous occasions.

Up front it'll be senior Jake Reichwein looking to disrupt the backfield. The Holy Cross transfer leads the Wildcats with five sacks this year and has forced a fumble all while making 34 stops. Villanova will need a strong showing from its line if they want any chance of slowing down the SDSU offense.

Villanova Offense vs. South Dakota State Defense

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: MAY 16 FCS Championship - Sam Houston vs South Dakota State Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

South Dakota State is equally powerful on defense. Linebacker Jason Freeman leads a unit that is allowing just over 10 points per game in 2023. The senior flies all over the field and has a nose for the play, wherever it may be. He has 78 tackles, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a pair of PBUs. Freeman is "Mr. Everything" for the Jacks defense and will likely play a major role against a high-powered Villanova offense.

Led by senior quarterback Connor Watkins, the Wildcats have outscored their opponents by an average of 15 points per contest. Watkins has thrown for over 2,600 yards and 20 touchdowns this year. He has also rushed for 328 yards and 10 more scores.

One of Watkins' favorite targets is wideout Rayjoun Pringle. The senior receiver has a team-high 38 receptions for 955 yards and eight touchdowns. Pringle is speedy and athletic, allowing him to get behind defenders and create space. Watkins will look to him often and that means the Jacks secondary will need to hone in on him.

Safeties Tucker Large and Cale Reeder will play it on the back end and look to slow down Pringle. The pair has four interceptions between them this year along with six PBUs. Reeder has posted 47 tackles while Large has 38. Limiting big plays through the air will be key and this tandem is one of the best out there at doing just that.

Jalen Jackson will take the bulk of the carries for Villanova's rushing attack. Jackson has 914 yards and eight TDs this year all while averaging 7.4 yards per touch. He is no stranger to catching passes either, however. The senior back has hauled in 20 passes on his career and has found the end zone two times as a receiver.

The Special Teams

Hunter Dustman will handle both kicking and punting duties for South Dakota State. Dustman has made 56 of his 58 extra point tries and has connected on 10 of 15 field goals this year. His career long came from 49 this season. He also averages 45.8 yards per punt this season and has sent the ball through the end zone 33 times on kickoffs. Dustman is an all around weapon on special teams and is another big contributor to the Jackrabbits' success.

Large will take most of the punt returns for SDSU while Johnson will mainly field kickoffs. Neither has broken free for a touchdown on a runback yet this year but both are putting up over 15 yards per return when they get the ball in their hands.

For Villanova, it will be grad senior Matthew Mercurio doing kicks. Mercurio is good on eight of 11 tries this year and has not had a field goal blocked. Nathan Fondacaro will do punts and kickoffs for the Wildcats. He has 12 punts this year of at least 50 yards and has pinned his opponents inside the 20-yard line seven times.

Pringle will take punt returns although 'Nova hasn't fielded many punts this year. He only has eight on the season. T.D. Ayo-Durojaiye is on kickoff return duty. He has taken 20 out this season for 423 total yards but has not broke free for a touchdown.

Prediction

South Dakota State has been the odds on favorite to win the whole darn thing all season and, just as they did last week against Mercer, the Jacks will show why on Saturday. Gronowski and his offense will work their way through the Wildcat defense, putting together sustained scoring drives. Watkins and Pringle will be able to find success and hit on some big plays in the passing game but it won't be enough and SDSU will win its 26th in a row. It's back to the semifinals for the Jackrabbits.

Score Prediction: South Dakota State: 35 - Villanova: 21