FRISCO – Jackrabbits. By a mile.
For the first time ever, South Dakota State is the national champion, and for the first time ever, North Dakota State has been defeated in the FCS title game at Toyota Stadium.
SDSU absolutely blew the doors off their rivals on Sunday, a 45-21 win in front of 18,023 fans. It was about a 50/50 split of green and blue, and the fans in blue were treated to nothing short of the most memorable day and impressive performance in the 123-year history of Jackrabbit football.
“It was unreal man,” said offensive tackle Garrett Greenfield. “It was a fantastic atmosphere. We knew if we could just come out and handle all the extra stuff and settle in and play football we’d do good things and that’s exactly how it played out. I just couldn’t be prouder of our team.”
The Bison are still the 9-time champions. They’ll be back. So will the Jacks.
But for all the progress SDSU has made in recent years, for how far they’ve come since jumping to Division I in 2004, the lack of a national championship trophy left a very big gaping hole in the program.
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That hole has been filled. If the Jacks never win another title, and things being what they are that seems unlikely, what they accomplished in 2022/23, their 14-win journey that began in August against the Iowa Hawkeyes and ended in January with their second win over the Kings of FCS in one season, can never be taken away from them. When the team arrives back in Brookings, they can put the Dakota Marker and the National Championship trophy on display, right next to each other, a permanent symbol of the most significant accomplishment in the history of South Dakota team sports.
“I always knew this was within the program’s reach,” said tight end Tucker Kraft, who heads straight to Nashville to begin preparing for the NFL Draft following the win. “There was never a doubt in my mind. To do it today, in front of thousands of screaming Jackrabbit fans, former players, former coaches – I don’t have the words to describe it.”
There were, if you were willing to look past NDSU’s 9-0 history in Frisco, some reasons to believe a dominant SDSU win might be forthcoming. The Jacks already beat them once, in Fargo, without Kraft, the future NFL tight end. After a slow start in that game, they dominated the second half.
And since then, the Bison only lost key players to injuries and the transfer portal, none bigger than All-American fullback Hunter Luepke, arguably their best player. This time NDSU wouldn’t have the Fargodome to fall back on. They wouldn’t have Luepke.
And let’s face it, they probably didn’t have the same sense of urgency. Not to say NDSU didn’t want to win this. Of course they did. They shed tears in the aftermath just like any team would that came so close to glory only to fall short. But NDSU has been here so many times. They’ll surely be back.
For SDSU, this was an opportunity they could not squander. The No. 1 seed, as healthy as they’ve been all year, with a possible 1st-round draft pick having spurned big money from bigger programs to leave. They’ll have more chances to win it all, but the stars might never align like they did this year. The Jacks had to walk through that door, finally. But they didn’t just walk through. They kicked it down and set it on fire.
“I wouldn’t say there was much pressure that we felt as a team,” said quarterback Mark Gronowski, who was named the game’s MVP after throwing for 223 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for another 57 and a score. “We felt like we’d been playing really well and our coaches were coming up with great game plans. We just had to play our game.”
They did, pretty much from the jump.
SDSU struck first on an Isaiah Davis 16-yard touchdown run. NDSU answered quickly to tie it 7-7, but then SDSU took over. A 32-yard scamper by Amar Johnson, and after a Bison fumble, an 18-yard touchdown pass from Gronowski to Jaxon Janke to make it 21-7. It was the first time in 10 national championships that NDSU ever trailed by more than a touchdown, but SDSU was just getting started.
On 3rd and short Gronowski faked a quarterback run and dumped a pass off to H-back Mike Morgan, who ran 44 yards for a touchdown.
Again the Bison answered, but you could already feel it getting away from them. The Jacks added a 30-yard Hunter Dustman field goal before the half to make it 31-14 at the break, and they were getting the ball to start the second.
They wasted no time, with Gronowski breaking off a 51-yard scoring run to make it 38-14.
“That (second quarter) helped everybody,” said Johnson, who rushed for 126 yards on just nine carries. “It made everybody more comfortable, and when we play comfortably nobody can stop us. We’re the best team in the nation and we proved it today.”
Indeed, it was complete and utter domination. The Jacks (14-1) finished the year with 14 consecutive wins, 14-0 against FCS competition. It’s their first time beating NDSU (12-3) in the playoffs, and their fourth straight win over the Bison overall.
“We had a ton of juice today and I have to thank Jackrabbit nation for that,” Gronowski said. “There was more blue than yellow out there – I know that for a fact. It was just really awesome to hear that and they gave us energy the whole game. When we got it rolling in the second quarter – that was awesome.”
Davis finished with 103 yards rushing as SDSU racked up 283 yards on the ground. Jaxon Janke had two touchdown catches and Jadon caught five balls for 61 yards. The offensive line of Greenfield, Mason McCormick, Gus Miller, Evan Beerntsen and John O’Brian pushed around a banged-up NDSU defensive line, and the defense held NDSU to 21 points for the second time this season. Jason Freeman had 10 tackles and an interception, Isaiah Stalbird seven stops and Adam Bock six. Reece Winkelman had a sack and DyShawn Gales had a late interception.
Bison coach Matt Entz insisted that his team did not play its best football, but also made no excuses, even though he had some available to him via injuries and other defections. NDSU fans may not want to hear it, but the better team won on Sunday.
“We played a very good football team,” Entz said. “I’m not going to take anything away from our opponent. That would be disrespectful. Coach (John Stiegelmeier) has done a tremendous job with his program.”
It was a treat for the entirety of the Dakotas to see these two teams finally square off in Frisco, but it’s almost certainly not the last. Chances are the Bison will strike back in this rivalry sooner than later.
But for now, there’s only one FCS champion, and it’s the Jackrabbits.
“It was a fun game for the Jackrabbits,” Stiegelmeier said in the press conference, surrounded by four quite and well-behaved grandchildren. “We are honored to come away with a national championship. I love our team and I thank God for them every day. And our fan support was beyond our imagination. We made a memory.