Nearly two decades after the border-state rivals moved together to Division I, a different Dakota is celebrating a national championship.
“I continue to reflect on 2004 and wonder how things would turn out. After South Dakota State won its first Football Championship Subdivision title on Sunday, head coach John Stiegelmeier said, “Well, this is pretty sweet how it’s worked out.”
The Jackrabbits defeated North Dakota State 45-21, their first loss in 10 FCS title game appearances since moving from NCAA Division II. Mark Gronowski threw three touchdowns and ran 51 yards for another score.
Gronowski tore the ACL in his left knee while he was a true freshman two seasons ago during the opening series of the Football Championship Subdivision title game. The Jackrabbits (14-1) defeated their border-state rival for the biggest prize in coach John Stiegelmeier’s 26th season at his alma mater, nearly 20 months after a loss in that unprecedented spring finale and the quarterback’s absence for the entire 2021 season.
Gronowski stated, “It’s really a storybook ending for us.”
“We made a memory,” stated Stiegelmeier. “I live through our players and I always will, always have. And so my joy is great today because their joy is great.”
For South Dakota State, Amar Johnson rushed for 126 yards and Isaiah Davis had 119 for his ninth 100-yard game this season. Both of them scored touchdowns. Gronowski scored on the third play of the second half, completing 14 of 21 passes for 223 yards, extending the lead to 38-14.
“We knew NDSU was going to fight until the end of the game, and we knew that we had to come out in the second half and just start fast, score early,” Gronowski said. “That’s what we did there on that play.”
The Bison (12-3), who moved from Fargo to Frisco for the 10th time in 12 seasons, were led by Cam Miller, who completed 17 of 26 passes for 256 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.
“So tough to lose,” Bison coach Matt Entz said. “Not something we like to do, not something we’re going to make a habit of at NDSU. But I’m more concerned about our players right now. … They’ll bounce back, I know that.”
In less than two years, the rivals from the Missouri Valley Football Conference have all lost to the Jackrabbits four times. The previous three had been competing in regular-season games for the Dakota Marker trophy, which was not up for grabs at the MLS soccer stadium, which was nearly 1,000 miles from their states’ borders. Their 114th meeting since 1903 was their first in the championship game and fifth in the FCS playoffs.
After the lower-division season was pushed back to the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, South Dakota State lost to Sam Houston State in the FCS title game in May 2021. After overcoming a 21-7 halftime deficit in the Fargodome, the Jackrabbits prevailed 23-21 last October after defeating NDSU in that shortened regular season.
Early in the second quarter, a 7-all tie was broken by Johnson’s 32-yard touchdown run. When running back Kobe Johnson was stripped of the ball by Steven Arrell, Dalys Beanum recovered it at the Bison 34, giving the Jackrabbits immediate possession of the ball. Four plays later, Gronowski hit Jaxon Janke wide open for an 18-yard touchdown pass; Janke also caught a 30-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Just before halftime, there was a 44-yard touchdown pass exchange. When Gronowski stopped for the line and threw to Mike Morgan alone behind the entire defense on third-and-1, he appeared to be running for the first down.
“It means the world to me. And I’ve got to thank every single person that has helped me along this journey and the guys who played an awesome game,” Gronowski said of his comeback from injury to being the game’s most outstanding player and winning a championship. “There’s no better feeling in the world.”
The State of North Dakota: The FCS playoffs have been 44-4 for the Bison, who missed out on a chance to match Georgia Southern’s 45 wins, which is now playing at the FBS level. Since 2011, when they won their first of nine FCS titles, they have only lost 14 times all together. Six of those losses have come to South Dakota State; no other team has ever won more than once against NDSU during that time.
State of South Dakota: Since beginning the season with a 7-3 defeat at Big Ten opponent Iowa, the Jackrabbits have won a school-record 14 games in a row.
On Sept. 2, North Dakota State plays Eastern Washington, a perennial FCS playoff team, in Minneapolis, one of the school’s largest alumni bases.
In 2023, South Dakota State still intends to fill a vacant slot for the Labor Day weekend. The Jackrabbits will play their first set on September 9 at home against Montana State, the national runner-up from 2021, who they defeated in this season’s national semifinal game.
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