After winning their first December game in five years, Villanova welcomes in South Dakota State this Saturday in the 2021 FCS quarterfinals (2 p.m.). While both teams have made it this far, they’ve gotten here via different paths.
Villanova earned the No. 5 overall seed in the FCS bracket after finishing the regular season 9-2 and earning a first-round bye as the Colonial Athletic Association champions. Also, head coach Mark Ferrante was recognized as the American Football Coaches Association FCS Region 1 coach of the year. Before Ferrante can worry about where on the mantle that trophy will go, he still has work ahead to do to potentially obtain another, much more important trophy, the FCS Championship.
“I’ve talked about resiliency all year about these guys,” said Ferrante, “It is survive and advance this time of year. Everybody you face is going to be really good. Holy Cross gave us quite a battle, and we know how tough South Dakota State will be.”
South Dakota State, meanwhile, was granted an at-large tournament berth out of the Missouri Valley Conference following an 8-3 regular season. After defeating UC Davis, 56-24 in the first round, and then upsetting No. 4 seed Sacramento State on the road, they now head east to take on Villanova.
Jackrabbits head coach John Stiegelmeier talked about how the team has embraced the difficulties of running the table on the road, especially compared to 2020 when SDSU was the overall seed and lost in the FCS Championship Game.
“The amount of travel, losing time going coast to coast, it’s really tough on the body, so we’ve just made sure to stress the importance of getting enough rest and fueling up properly,” said Stiegelmeier.
The two schools run different offenses. While both teams feature impressive rushing attacks, Villanova boasts a three-headed monster in running backs Justin Covington, Jalen Jackson, and DeeWil Barlee. South Dakota State leans heavily on one back, Pierre Strong Jr.
Ferrante praised Strong in his news conference but also Villanova’s defense and their ability to stop the run.
“Our philosophy isn’t going to change regardless of who is back there,” said Ferrante, “whether it is [Pierre] Strong, a Penn State back, or anyone else we face on our schedule. We’re going to do what we do and lead with defending the run.”
It is safe to say that this philosophy has worked for Villanova up to this stage. The Wildcats are allowing just 99 rushing yards per game, 10th fewest in the country. The Villanova defense will be tested by Strong, who leads the nation in rushing yards with 1,575 and is tied for second in rushing touchdowns (17).
Despite having Pierre in the backfield and former USF quarterback Chris Oladokun (2,697 yards, 22 TDs through the air), Stiegelmeier pointed out how tough Saturday’s matchup will be for his offense.
“What stands out to me about them is their ability to not gimmick their defense,” says Stiegelmeier. “I think that if they had their way, they would just line up in their base defense and say, ‘Show me you can move the ball.’ "
On defense, Stiegelmeier says SDSU always begins the week by preparing a “scheme” against the run, especially against a rushing attack like Villanova’s. But what Stiegelmeier really harped on was how balanced Villanova has been this year offensively.
One of the few similarities you could make between these two teams is their leadership at quarterback. Both teams are led by a graduate-student signal-caller. Villanova’s Daniel Smith may trail Oladokun in passing yards, but Stiegelmeier isn’t underestimating the IQ of the Villanova captain.
“I think Smith manages the game really well, but that is something I could say about their left tackle, their nose guard, their mike linebacker, their weak safety, just about everyone. They are really well-coached,” said Stiegelmeier.
Saturday’s quarterfinal will be Villanova’s seventh in program history and the first since 2014. Despite the boosted adrenaline for this week’s contest, Ferrante has told his team that this is no different than any other week.
“The mentality is still going 1-0 this week,” said Ferrante. “It actually is a one-game season now, so that’s really the approach we are going to live by.”