Four of the eight remaining teams in the FCS playoffs belong to the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and two of them will vie for a spot in the FCS semifinals when the South Dakota State Jackrabbits host the Southern Illinois Salukis on Sunday night in Brookings. While the Jackrabbits allowed just three points to Holy Cross in a 31-3 first-round win, the Salukis won by just three as they handed Weber State its first loss of the spring in a 34-31 thriller.
When the Jackrabbits invaded Carbondale back in March and came away with a dominant 44-3 win over the Salukis, the 41-point margin represented the widest spread either team had all spring. The showing was the Jackrabbits’ second-highest scoring output of the spring as well as the Salukis’ lowest-scoring performance, the only game this spring in which they were held under 17 points.
It’s been tough sledding for Southern Illinois in this series against South Dakota State, as the Salukis have lost five in a row and eight of the 11 overall. Southern Illinois did prevail in the teams’ inaugural meeting, however, a 38-35 victory in 2008 which saw the Salukis score the only fourth-quarter points with a field goal in the final three minutes that proved to be the difference.
FCS Playoffs Quarterfinal: Southern Illinois at South Dakota State
Kickoff: Sunday, May 2 at 9 p.m. ET
Spread: South Dakota State -15
When Southern Illinois Has the Ball
Stone Labanowitz has certainly had a roller-coaster of a spring, as his 13 incompletions in Saturday’s win were as many as he’d thrown in the previous two weeks combined, and his interception was his first in more than a month. But while the Salukis enter this week tied for the second-most interceptions thrown (11) and turnovers lost (19) in the FCS, it’s hardly all bad news for Southern Illinois. Labanowitz has become more prominently featured in the offense ever since taking over for Nic Baker midway through the season, with 862 yards passing and six touchdowns — as well as 49 yards and another touchdown on the ground — during the Salukis’ three-game winning streak.
Labanowitz is far from the only contributor for this offense, though, as his recent play coupled with the Salukis’ top-20 rushing attack has Southern Illinois atop the MVFC — and 17th in the FCS — at 423.1 total yards per game. Javon Williams Jr. (507) and Romeir Elliott (491) have combined for 11 rushing touchdowns and just shy of 1,000 yards rushing between the two, and both are averaging more than four yards per carry this spring. Not to be outdone, Avante Cox enters with MVFC-leading totals in receiving yards (780) and touchdowns (five), while Landon Lenoir is not far behind with 461 yards and three scores to his name. One X-factor: despite Williams primarily slotting in in the backfield, he’s attempted at least one pass in four of the last five games, with five completions (on nine attempts) for 143 yards and three touchdowns in that stretch.
The Salukis’ tendency to throw interceptions would play right into the hands — literally — of the Jackrabbits, who enter this weekend with an MVFC-high 10 interceptions, paced by Joshua Manchigiah’s three. South Dakota State doesn’t just rely on takeaways, though, having surrendered just 149.9 passing yards and 266.7 total yards per game this season, both of which lead the MVFC and rank among the top 10 in the FCS. Speaking of standing atop the MVFC, the Jackrabbits have allowed just 14 points per game — the fifth-best mark in the FCS — thanks to just one opponent (Northern Iowa) mustering 20 points and two (Southern Illinois, Holy Cross) being held to just three.
When South Dakota State Has the Ball
Despite possessing an offense that has averaged a shade under 30 points and more than 414 yards per game this season, the Jackrabbits’ passing attack has been efficient but hardly the main factor in the offense’s success. Mark Gronowski’s 172 yards passing per game sits just outside the top one-third of FCS signal-callers, though his 11 passing touchdowns and 13.7 yards per completion both pace the conference in their respective categories.
Just like their opponents on the other sideline, South Dakota State supplements what is statistically a middle-of-the-pack passing offense with a potent — and diverse — rushing game, boasting an MVFC-high 239.9 yards per game on the ground that’s good for the sixth-best per-game mark in the FCS. Pierre Strong Jr. (529) leads by a single yard over Isaiah Davis (528) — despite having played in one fewer game — while Gronowski has added 398 yards rushing and sits tied with Davis for the high mark on the team in rushing scores with six apiece.
That formidable run game will likely pose some problems for Southern Illinois, who had trouble stopping the run to the tune of over 200 yards per game allowed on the ground, which was a bottom-20 average in the FCS. The Salukis also struggled to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, managing just 1.33 sacks and 4.8 tackles for loss per game, a troubling sign in advance of squaring off with an opponent who relies so heavily on efficiency in the air and on the ground.
The regular-season meeting between these conference foes was decidedly lopsided, but the Salukis have a fantastic chance to snap their losing streak against the Jackrabbits coming off their dramatic first-round win. But South Dakota State’s offensive firepower will be tough to overcome, especially for a Southern Illinois offense that has been held to 21 or fewer points more often than it’s exceeded 30.
Prediction: South Dakota State 30, Southern Illinois 13
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.