FCS Playoff Preview: #5 South Dakota State at #1 North Dakota State
It doesn't get the same buzz nationally as Michigan-Ohio State, Minnesota-Wisconsin, or Oklahoma-Texas, but it's hard not to argue that South Dakota State-North Dakota State has now morphed into one of the best 'border battles' in all of college football.
It all began in 1908, but the rivalry between the Jackrabbits and Bison really started to take hold when the two schools transitioned to Division I in 2004.
In the 15 seasons since, SDSU and NDSU have had some epic battles in Brookings and Fargo, with the Bison winning nine times in the regular season and the Jackrabbits six times.
But while there has been some equity in those regular-season meetings, the postseason match-ups between the Missouri Valley Football Conference titans has been quite one-sided.
Three times in the FCS Playoffs (2012, 2014, 2016), South Dakota State has gone to the Fargodome and all three times North Dakota State has ended the Jackrabbits' season.
But the 2018 playoff battle between the blue and green will take this rivalry to a whole new level.
When the fifth-seeded Jackrabbits (10-2) visit the top-seeded Bison (12-0), Friday (December 14), a spot in the National Championship game will be on the line.
NDSU has ended SDSU's season three times (2012, 2014, 2016) in the playoffs, but the Jackrabbits have won two of the last three regular-season meetings between the two.
Each team has made it to the semifinals relying on their strengths.
For South Dakota State, that's the third highest scoring offense (44 points per game) and seventh best total offense (491 yards per game) in the country, run by senior quarterback Taryn Christion who ranks fifth in FCS with 30 touchdown passes.
Wide receiver Cade Johnson is tied for second in the nation with 16 touchdowns. He's also sixth in total yards (1,243).
The Jackrabbit ground game has come alive in the second half of the season, averaging 281 per game over the last five with a 100-yard rusher in each of those games.
North Dakota State is strong on both sides of the ball.
The Bison offense is in the top ten nationally in third-down conversions (4th), scoring (6th), and rushing (9th). Their success starts with senior quarterback Easton Stick who gives opposing defenses fits with his scrambling ability and accuracy throwing the football (#2 FCS in passing efficiency).
NDSU's running attack accounts for two-thirds of their offense and features four backs (Bruce Anderson, Lance Dunn, Ty Brooks, and Adam Cofield) who each average six yards or more per carry.
North Dakota State is just as formidable on the defensive side of the ball.
The Bison have held opponents to just 11 points per game (#2 FCS), the fourth lowest yards allowed in the country (279 per game), and are the ninth toughest on third down in FCS (28%).
NDSU has outscored opponents 87-10 in the postseason after shutting out eighth-seed Colgate, 35-0, in the quarterfinals last Saturday (December 8).
Their success on defense starts up front with senior defensive end Greg Menard, who has eight sacks this season, 32 in his career.
That pressure has helped the Bison secondary pick off the second-most passes in FCS this season (20). Three different players (Robbie Grimsley, Jabril Cox, and James Hendricks) have four or more picks in 2018.
The Bison won the regular season meeting with the Jacks, winning 21-17 September 29 in Fargo.
SDSU led 17-14 after three quarters before Stick orchestrated an eight-play 80-yard touchdown drive with 13:00 minutes left.
The Jackrabbits got the ball back twice more but could only manage a missed field goal attempt and a three-and-out.
The Bison put the game on ice with a pair of drives that yielded no points but did take better than six minutes off the clock. A trio of third-down conversions kept the SDSU offense off the field.
On the day, North Dakota State was 8-of-16 on third down, South Dakota State just 3-of-12.
Kickoff is 7:00 PM, Friday at the Fargodome.
The winner plays in the FCS Championship game, Saturday, January 5, 2019, in Frisco, Texas. It will be the eighth straight year at least one member of the Missouri Valley has made it to the title game. The MVFC has put a team in the finals 11 times in the past 21 years - the most of any conference.
Last Saturday (December 8), SDSU advanced to the semis for the second straight year with a 27-17 win at fourth-seeded Kenesaw State.
On a wet day in suburban Atlanta, the Jackrabbits survived a turnover on their first possession and grabbed a 17-3 halftime lead on a Christion to Adam Anderson touchdown pass and a Pierre Strong Jr. touchdown run. Strong finished the day with 112 yards rushing.
In the second half, the Owls rallied from a 20-3 deficit behind backup quarterback Daniel David who put together touchdown drives of 73 and 91 yards to make it a 20-17 game with 6:35 left in the fourth quarter.
But the South Dakota State offense responded with a drive that ate up more than four minutes and was kept alive with a key third-down conversion from Christion-to-Johnson. Christion added the exclamation point with a 15-yard touchdown run that sealed the victory.
I talked with SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier about the Kennesaw State win and Saturday's semifinal match-up with North Dakota State: