While all eyes will be on how South Dakota State's prolific offense fares against Villanova's hard-hitting defense, that's not the matchup that most concerns Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier ahead of this weekend's second-round playoff showdown.
Fresh off its first Missouri Valley Football Conference title and a first-round bye, No. 7 South Dakota State will try to advance to the FCS quarterfinals for the first time Saturday when it hosts the ninth-ranked Wildcats in the first playoff game at Dykhouse Stadium.
Villanova (9-3), which tied for second in the Colonial Athletic Association Conference before topping Saint Francis 31-21 in the opening round last week, is hoping to once again extend coach Andy Talley's 32nd and final season.
The Wildcats are playing well on both sides of the ball, totaling 72 points and 518 rushing yards in their last two games. Their offense features four players with at least 447 rushing yards in Aaron Forbes (787), Javon White (513), quarterback Zach Bednarczyk (510) and Matt Gudzak (447). Bednarczyk also has thrown for seven touchdowns and one interception in the past two.
The Jackrabbits (8-3) did have their share of trouble slowing the run, finishing seventh in their 10-team conference with 170.1 yards allowed per game. However, they held Northern Iowa to a season-low 56 in a 45-24 road win in the regular-season finale.
“They have a number of backs,” said Stiegelmeier, who was named MVFC Coach of the Year. “They have a quarterback who runs the ball. I'm very concerned about their option game, because you have to be sound in all phases and if you aren't, they have the skill to get up the field really quick.”
SDSU, which has never faced Villanova, poses its own set of problems for opposing defenses. The squad easily paced the MVFC with 37.4 points and 481.7 total yards per game.
Everything starts with MVFC Offensive Player of the Year Taryn Christion, who led the conference with 306.3 passing yards per game and 29 touchdowns. The sophomore also has rushed for four scores over the past four games and added a TD reception against the Panthers. All-MVFC wide receiver Jake Wieneke (70 receptions, 1,204 yards, 16 TDs) and all-conference tight end Dallas Goedert (78, 1,146, 10) are the top targets in the passing game.
“They're certainly one of the elite teams in the country,” Talley said. “Their quarterback is probably the best quarterback that we have seen all year. He is difficult to put pressure on because he's got great feet and can run. The problem is that if you pressure him, he can take off and run and break you down and hurt you. He's a running threat that can really get down the field, and he's got a great arm. He's able to run and throw, so they put a lot of pressure on you.”
Villanova ranks second nationally with just 15.4 points allowed per game and finished fourth in the CAA with 170.7 passing yards allowed per game. Defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon (21.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks) and safety Rob Rolle (seven interceptions) headline the aggressive defense. Kpassagnon, defensive end Bryan Osei and safety Jeff Steeb combined for six sacks last weekend when the Wildcats also limited the Red Flash to 27 rushing yards.
Villanova is in the playoffs for the 12th time under Talley, who has announced he'll retire at the end of the season. SDSU, meanwhile, is making its fifth straight postseason appearance under Stiegelmeier, though the school has never made it past the second round in six trips since joining Division I and the FCS in 2004.
The winner will play San Diego (10-1) or No. 1 seed, MVFC co-champion and five-time defending national champ North Dakota State (10-1) in the quarterfinals. The Jackrabbits handed the Bison their only defeat, 19-17, on Oct. 15.