Here are the top storylines and players to watch in this weekend’s two showdowns to decide the national championship matchup.
After a 44-3 regular season win over Southern Illinois, top seed South Dakota State saw a much stronger fight from SIU in their quarterfinals rematch. SDSU trailed 20-10 at halftime before rallying for a 31-26 win, clinched by a red-zone interception on SIU’s final drive.
Now the Jackrabbits take on Delaware, the lone unseeded team left in the semifinals. The Blue Hens upset No. 4 Jacksonville State 20-14 in the quarterfinals, holding JSU to only 200 yards of offense and eight first downs.
Key storyline: While both quarterbacks are capable of starting big plays, this very well could be a low-scoring battle. Unseeded Delaware has allowed just 24 total points through two playoff games. It’s worth noting Jacksonville State QB Zion Webb’s early exit due to injury in the quarterfinals, but UD held JSU to a season-low 200 yards of total offense and held the time of possession edge by nearly 17 minutes. Top seed SDSU is a tough team to hold at bay for long though, as seen in its late escape against SIU.
South Dakota State’s players to watch: Freshman QB Mark Gronowski was highlighted in last week’s quarterfinals preview, and followed with a 325-yard, three-touchdown performance against SIU. His 67-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter gave SDSU its first lead of the second half. His two passing touchdowns both went to Jadon Janke, who had two catches for 49 yards and two scores. Jadon and his brother Jaxon Janke each have a team-best five touchdown catches this year.
Delaware’s players to watch: Junior QB Nolan Henderson got hit hard early and often in the quarterfinals against Jacksonville State, but stood tall with 269 total yards. Henderson is completing 69 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns through seven games. One of the anchors for Delaware’s stingy defense is redshirt sophomore Noah Plack, who has an interception in both playoff games — his first two of the year.
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Two teams will put their perfect records on the line in Saturday’s second semifinal game. No. 2 Sam Houston (8-0) sent three-time defending champion North Dakota State home in a 24-20 victory. Quarterback Eric Schmid’s 6-yard rushing touchdown with 3:39 left served as the game-winner, keeping NDSU out of the semifinals for the first time since 2010.
James Madison (7-0) is now the most recent national champion still playing, last capturing the title in 2016. The Dukes defeated North Dakota 34-21 in the quarterfinals behind standout days from QB Cole Johnson (251 yards, two touchdowns) and RB Percy Agyei-Obese (128 yards, two touchdowns).
Key storyline: Sam Houston didn’t allow a single touchdown to North Dakota State’s offense, led by the inexperienced Cam Miller in just his second career start under center. Both of the Bison’s touchdowns came on special team returns. Now SHSU will face redshirt senior Cole Johnson, supported by a strong ground attack putting up 243.1 rushing yards per game. The Bearkats counter with the fourth best rush defense (68.9 yards per game).
Sam Houston’s players to watch: Southland Conference player of the year Eric Schmid finished 25-of-37 for 227 passing yards and a touchdown, but it was his late rushing score that powered SHSU into the semifinals. Junior DB Isaiah Downes has an interception in back-to-back playoff games, including one in the end zone to clinch the Bearkats’ opening round win over Monmouth. His leaping pick against NDSU set up Sam Houston’s first scoring drive in the quarterfinals.
James Madison’s players to watch: Senior running back Percy Agyei-Obese has reached the 100-yard mark in consecutive playoff games, with three touchdowns. He’s found the end zone at least once in all six games he’s played this season. Cole Johnson found receiver Antwane Wells Jr. seven times for 143 yards and two touchdowns against North Dakota. It marked Wells’ first career two-touchdown game and placed him fourth all-time on JMU’s single-game playoff receiving yards list.