2023 CAA Football

UAlbany-Idaho, Villanova-South Dakota State FCS Playoffs Previews and Picks

UAlbany-Idaho, Villanova-South Dakota State FCS Playoffs Previews and Picks

UAlbany travels to Idaho in a historic FCS Playoffs matchup, while Villanova aims to unseat reigning national champion South Dakota State in a 2021 rematch.

Dec 8, 2023 by Kyle Kensing
UAlbany-Idaho, Villanova-South Dakota State FCS Playoffs Previews and Picks

Only eight teams remain in the quest for the NCAA Div. I national championship, with two carrying the banner for the Coastal Athletic Association in the FCS Playoffs quarterfinals. 

CAA co-champions UAlbany and Villanova were dominant in 2nd Round wins over Richmond and Youngstown State. They both aim to build on their strong home wins when they hit the road in the Round of 8, facing opponents from the Big Sky and Missouri Valley Football Conferences. 

Villanova at South Dakota State

Reigning national champion South Dakota State marches into the national quarterfinals on a 26-game winning streak overall, the last defeat coming Week 1 of the 2022 season vs. Iowa. The Jackrabbits have not lost to an FCS opponent since the 2021 semifinals in a matchup at Montana State, set up when SDSU beat Villanova in the quarterfinals, 35-21.  

Each roster has its share of turnover from two years ago, including the ascension of Wildcats quarterback Connor Watkins since replacing standout signal-caller Daniel Smith. South Dakota State's most noteworthy change since then came on the sidelines, where longtime program legend John Stiegelmeier retired on top after last season. 

His successor, Jimmy Rogers, won the Eddie Robinson Award as Coach of the Year in FCS for overseeing the Jackrabbits' dominant run through the regular season. 

But each side also features prominent figures who played key parts in the 2021 season. Villanova coach Mark Ferrante noted Isaiah Davis, the Jackrabbits' big and powerful running back who at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds sets the tone for South Dakota State's physical style. 

Davis functioned as the Jackrabbits' change-of-pace back two years ago, complementing All-American Pierre Strong to the tune of 701 yards and seven touchdowns on just 95 carries. But against Villanova, Davis erupted for 174 yards and three touchdowns, setting the tone for his move to being the featured ball-carrier. 

This season, he's racked up 1,192 yards on 178 carries with 14 touchdowns. 

Davis shares the backfield with quarterback Mark Gronowski, one of the three finalists invited to the Walter Payton Award ceremony before next month's National Championship Game in Frisco. Gronowski has completed 170-of-248 passes for 2,517 yards with 24 touchdowns against just four interceptions. 

The SDSU quarterback is the second of the top-three Payton Award finalists the Villanova defense will see this season. The Wildcats held New Hampshire quarterback Max Brosmer to 27-of-40 passing for 259 yards with three interceptions and a touchdown in Villanova's 45-33 win on Nov. 4. 

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The defeat of UNH is part of a winning streak Villanova extended to seven games with its 45-28 FCS Playoffs win over Youngstown State. The Wildcats defense shined against South Dakota State's MVFC counterparts from YSU, holding a high-powered Penguins offense to just one touchdown until the late fourth quarter when the game was no longer in doubt. 

Christian Sapp and Isas Waxter interceptions of YSU quarterback Mitch Davidson punctuated an especially strong performance from a Villanova pass defense that held Penguins All-America caliber receiver Bryce Oliver in check. The Wildcats will try to replicate last week's effort, starting in the front seven with the pressure linebackers Shane Hartzell and Brendan Bell generate. 

Hartzell and Bell each had three quarterback hurries vs. Youngstown State. Hartzell recorded his fourth sack of the season β€” he joins Jake Reichwein and Camden Gagnon among Wildcats with at least four β€” and Bell notched tackle for loss 10.5. 

Villanova's tenacious defense against the big, imposing South Dakota State offensive line should make for an excellent chess match. The flipside of the ball is if a Wildcats offense that has thrived at generating explosive plays can create enough of those opportunities against what has been the nation's best defense. 

South Dakota State is holding opponents to 10.3 points per game, 3.2 rushing yards per carry and a scant 5.9 passing yards per attempt. Contrast that passing yield with Watkins throwing to the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers in FCS for yards per reception: Jaylan Sanchez at 25.6, and Rayjuon Pringle at 25.2. 

But while Sanchez and Pringle are leading the way for Villanova's explosiveness in the passing game, Jaaron Hayek's produced longs of 40, 43 and 51 yards this season. He hauled in a 36-yarder vs. Youngstown State on a day that Antonio Johnson and Luke Daly added catches for 34 and 45 yards. 

Establishing the run effectively enough to open things up for those downfield throws is essential for Villanova. It's also been futile for the 12 prior Jackrabbits opponents. Still, Villanova's versatility and variety of playmakers both in the passing game and the rushing rotation of Jalen Jackson, DeeWil Barlee and TD Ayo-Durojaiye β€” with Watkins as a capable fourth option β€” should give the Wildcats a chance against an opponent that has overwhelmed much of its competition. 

PREDICTION: South Dakota State 24, Villanova 20

UAlbany at Idaho 

UAlbany's 2023 season has been landmark, resulting in the program's first CAA championship, its most wins as a Div. I programs with 10, and the Great Danes' first-ever trip to the FCS quarterfinals. 

Over the course of its six-game winning streak, UAlbany has been among the nation's most dominant teams. The Great Danes have won by an average of 24 points per game with no margin closer than 16 points after a 41-13 rout of Richmond in the FCS Playoffs 2nd Round. 

The opposite's been true for Idaho. UAlbany coach Greg Gattuso and his staff followed along late into last Saturday night as the Vandals rallied to force overtime in a 20-17 win over Southern Illinois, Idaho's fourth game since Oct. 28 decided by three points or fewer. 

A common thread in those games, with the exception of a 31-29 defeat at Weber State on Nov. 11, has been combined scores of 45 points or fewer whether the Vandals win or lose. 

Idaho has offensive weapons to be sure: The Vandals average 33.2 points per game with running back Anthony Woods having gone over 1,000 yards for the season last week. Woods has carried for 15 touchdowns and 1,051 yards. 

Wide receiver Hayden Hatten is one of the nation's best at his position with 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns. Quarterback Gevani McCoy β€” who beat out UAlbany's Reese Poffenbarger for the 2022 Jerry Rice Award β€” can be a difference-maker passing or running. 

However, the Idaho defense is front-and-center with this team's success. Five different Vandals have at least five tackles for loss, including Keyshawn James-Newby, who has a team-high five sacks. Dallas Afalava has been a force in opposing backfields, and Xe'ree Alexander and Marcus Harris β€” both of whom made plays critical to the win over Southern Illinois β€” are all over the field. 

UAlbany quarterback Poffenbarger leads the nation in touchdown passes, and he totaled four scores between air and ground against Richmond. With Brevin Easton and Julian Hicks each hauling in a double-digit number of touchdown receptions, the Great Danes have a pair of big-play targets to counter Idaho's pass defense β€” and that's before factoring in Marqeese Dietz, who has been an X-factor in critical spots during UAlbany's winning streak. 

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However, for both sides, defense promises to define this quarterfinals matchup. 

The UAlbany defense has been outstanding for much of the year, but especially so on the back-half. No opponent has scored more than 21 points against the Great Danes in their last six, and a variety of contributors have been active in the nation's leading sack-producing attack. 

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That continued from the jump in UAlbany's FCS Playoffs-opening romp vs. Richmond. 

"We start the game out with a sack, and that just kind of sets a tone," Gattuso said. "The pressure was there all game, and it was very physical. We were able to hit both quarterbacks consistently, and it causes overthrows and underthrows.

"For our success on defense," he continued, "We need our front four to play well, and they did in that game." 

With AJ Simon and Joseph Greaney each racking up two sacks vs. Richmond, Anton Juncaj and Elijah Hills each adding one, and Ori-Jean Charles combining with Michel Lucien for another, UAlbany pushed its FCS-leading sack total to 49 β€” eight more than the nation's second-most prolific, Montana State. 

MSU got into the backfield for four sacks when it faced Idaho earlier this season. However, the Vandals won a 24-21 slugfest by virtue of monopolizing possession and stymying the Bobcats run game. 

For the season, Idaho has limited opponent to 3.95 rushing yards per attempt and 125.1 per game. UAlbany leads the FCS in rushing defense with 2.46 yards allowed per carry and 75.9 per game. Ground yardage may come at a premium, putting the onus on the quarterbacks to deliver big plays. 

UAlbany's defense has been opportunistic between Aamir Hall's five interceptions, Bill Hackett delivering a pick-six in the Playoffs, and Larry Walker generating three takeaways. Look for turnovers to again play a part as the Great Danes look to continue their historic run. 

PREDICTION: UAlbany 28, Idaho 20