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Three keys to Montana State at South Dakota State in FCS semifinals

South Dakota State Jackrabbits wide receiver Jadon Janke (9) scores a touchdown during an NCAA college football game against the Montana State Bobcats in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Bozeman, Mont. (AP Photo/Tommy Martino)
South Dakota State Jackrabbits wide receiver Jadon Janke (9) scores a touchdown during an NCAA college football game against the Montana State Bobcats in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021, in Bozeman, Mont. (AP Photo/Tommy Martino)

North Dakota State is going back to Frisco. Again.

Seventh-seeded Incarnate Word gave the Bison all they could handle, jumping out to a 16-0 lead and fighting back to take the lead again after NDSU scored 24 unanswered points to go up by eight, but the defending champs prevailed.

This marks the third time since 2017 that NDSU won its semifinal while on the other side of the bracket from SDSU, giving the Jackrabbits a chance to create a Dakota Marker national championship. As we know, the Jacks failed the last two times, including last year, when they lost at Montana State, the team they’re now hosting today on what figures to be an absolutely arctic day in Brookings.

Here are a few things to watch for today when the Jackrabbits host the Bobcats.

1. Who wins up front – SDSU defense or MSU running game?

We’ve talked about Touchdown Tommy Mellott and SDSU’s history of struggling to defend running quarterbacks ad nauseum. Obviously the Jacks know what they’re up against, but they knew what was coming from Holy Cross, too, and still gave up 213 yards to Crusader quarterback Matthew Sluka.

More:Can South Dakota State slow down Montana State's running quarterbacks?

MSU’s QB runs are more by design than improvisation, but that should only provide small comfort – the Bobcats two QBs have combined for almost 2,000 rushing yards and over 2,000 passing yards, and even if they keep the QBs contained, MSU has a couple stud tailbacks, too, notably Isaiah Ifanse, who rushed for 162 yards last week and over 1,600 yards last year.

SDSU is the No. 1 run defense in the nation, and Bobcat coaches sounded every bit as concerned about the Jacks front seven as the SDSU coaches are about Mellott and company.

2. Can the SDSU offense keep up if it becomes a shootout?

The Jacks only scored 17 points in last year’s meeting in Montana, including none in the second half. Last week’s win over Holy Cross would’ve been a little less stressful if the Jacks had finished some first half drives that ended in field goal attempts.

SDSU has confidence in its defense, as it should, but the Montana State is just loaded. Expecting to hold them under 20 points is asking a lot. If the Jacks offense can protect the ball (a frequent issue in previous semifinal losses) and finish drives they can keep their defense fresh and potentially get the Bobcats into passing mode, and while MSU certainly can throw it, that’s not their strength.

3. Will the weather be a factor?

It’s supposed to be nine degrees at kick-off. Nine. 9. Nueve. That’s cold.

There’s no snow in the forecast, though, and the field should be in good shape by gametime. Still, throwing and kicking might be tougher, and mental discipline can be a factor when it gets next-level cold.

More:Zimmer: C'mon South Dakota State football fans, the cold isn't that bad

Montana State is used to the cold and the Jacks are, too. Everyone’s curious what the crowd will look like given the weather, but I’m as sick of talking about playoff attendance as everyone else. We know the fans who will be there will be loud. Will be interesting to see how many fans make the trip from Bozeman.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Three keys to Montana State at South Dakota State in FCS semifinals