FCS semifinal-round playoff review: South Dakota State, Sam Houston are Frisco-bound

NCAA Football

(STATS) – To say anything less than the right two teams will square off for the FCS national championship is surely an understatement.

The May 16 title game in Frisco, Texas, is a matchup of South Dakota State (8-1), the No. 1 playoff seed, and Sam Houston (9-0), the No. 2 seed.

Both teams posted impressive wins in Saturday’s semifinals, although in different fashion.

SDSU throttled Delaware 33-3 to advance to the national championship game for the first time in program history, also giving the Missouri Valley Football Conference a finalist for the 10th straight season. Southland Conference champ Sam Houston overcame a 21-point halftime deficit to stun third-seeded James Madison 38-35, setting up the chance to win its first FCS title in its third attempt.

The two finalists have never met previously. Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler, who led Delaware to the 2003 national title, will seek to become the first coach to lead two different programs to FCS championships.

Here’s a quick review of the national semifinals:

No. 1 seed South Dakota State (8-1) 33, Delaware (7-1) 3

How the Game Was Won – The Jackrabbits scored touchdowns on their final four possessions of the first half, building a 28-3 halftime lead in the one-sided semifinal. Mark Gronowski passed for two touchdowns and scored on a 24-yard catch-and-run on a toss back from running back Pierre Strong Jr., who also rushed for a TD.

Game Ball – Credit SDSU’s swarming defense, which allowed a mere field goal for the second time in the playoffs and the third time in the last five games. Linebacker Logan Backhaus (12 tackles, two tackles for loss) and defensive end Reece Winkelman (eight tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) led the way.

Key Stat – There was a glaring difference at the line of scrimmage considering SDSU had seven sacks for 51 yards in losses and five more tackles for another 10 yards in losses (12 for 61 overall), while Delaware didn’t record a sack and had two tackles for three yards in losses.

Up Next – South Dakota State will face Sam Houston in the FCS championship game on May 16 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. With seven straight victories, the Jackrabbits have matched their 2006 and ’17 teams for the longest winning streak of their Division I era (since 2004).

No. 2 seed Sam Houston (9-0) 38, No. 3 seed James Madison (7-1) 35

How the Game Was Won – Sam Houston, which trailed by as much as 24-3 at halftime, scored four touchdowns in a span of 5 minutes, 6 seconds of the third and fourth quarters, turning a 27-10 deficit into a 38-27 lead. The Bearkats then held on to improve to 16-0 all-time in home playoff games.

Game Ball – Speedy Jequez Ezzard changed the complexion of the game with a 69-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown and an 80-yard punt return for a TD just 1:40 apart to pull the Bearkats within 27-24 late in the third quarter. The grad transfer finished with four receptions for 107 yards and 187 all-purpose yards.

Key Stat – Like Ezzard, Bearkats quarterback Eric Schmid made the big plays count, completing six passes of at least 15 yards and four times carrying the ball for over 10 yards, including a go-ahead 20-yard TD to end the third quarter and an 11-yard scoring run early in the fourth quarter.

Up Next – Sam Houston will face South Dakota State in the FCS championship game on May 16 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The Bearkats made back-to-back appearances in the final in 2011 and ’12, losing to North Dakota State both times.

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