FCS Playoff First Round
Holy Cross (3-0 Patriot) at No. 1 seed South Dakota State (5-1 Missouri Valley)
Site: Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings, South Dakota
Kickoff – 3 p.m. ET Saturday
TV Coverage – ESPN3
Series – First meeting
Coaches – Holy Cross: Bob Chesney (15-12, third season; 82-37 overall); South Dakota State: John Stiegelmeier (171-106, 24th season)
3 Players to Watch – Holy Cross: QB Matthew Sluka (10 of 14, 111, 2 TDs, 1 INT; 212 rush yards, 4 TDs), LT Brian Foley (three-time All-Patriot first team), OLB Jacob Dobbs (28 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery); South Dakota State: QB Mark Gronowski (76 of 133, 1,051 yards, 8 TDs, 3 INTs; 383 rush yards, 6 TDs), RB Pierre Strong Jr. (80 carries, 453 yards, 2 TDs; 12 receptions, 1 TD), LB Logan Backhaus (39 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT)
The Skinny – A 27-17 win at three-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State last Saturday helped South Dakota State secure the No. 1 playoff seed. The Jackrabbits have earned nine straight FCS playoff bids under Stiegelmeier, the second-longest active streak to NDSU. The ‘Rabbits reached the national semifinals in 2017 and ’18, but have never played in the championship game. They’ll pound the run, having gained 11 individual performances of at least 84 rushing yards between Strong (four), Gronowski (three), Isaiah Davis (three) and Jordan Meachum (one). There’s also something SDSU likes about the second quarter – its 62-7 advantage is the third-largest point margin (55) in the FCS. Holy Cross has a playoff-experienced squad from last year, but it’s basically turned over the offense to Sluka, a freshman. He’s a stronger rusher than passer, leaving season-opening starter Conner Degenhardt to possibly mix in off the bench. The Crusaders, who run the ball over 70 percent of the time, average only 86 passing yards per game, and SDSU’s pass defense is excellent, with safety Josh Manchigiah collecting three of the unit’s 10 interceptions. The Holy Cross defense needs defensive end Benton Whitley to build off a big performance in the Patriot League championship game. It’s received steady play out of Dobbs and cornerback John Smith, who has an interception in each win. Place-kicker Derek Ng has made five of seven field goal attempts this season and 22 of 32 (68.8 percent) in his career.
Up Next – The winner will play either Southern Illinois or Weber State in the second round on either May 1 or 2.
Prediction – South Dakota State 34, Holy Cross 10