Fans in the Dakotas have waited a long time for it happen and now it finally has. Missouri Valley Conference foes North Dakota State and South Dakota State are meeting to renew their storied rivalry on the grandest of stages. The “Dakota Marker” has been featured everywhere from College GameDay to the playoffs in recent years but now it makes its way to Texas for the first time ever to decide a national title. There’s no love lost between the Bison and Jackrabbits and this Sunday could be the most heated meeting of all when the two FCS powerhouses come together before the nation’s eyes. Someone is going to walk out of Toyota Stadium with the ultimate bragging rights and someone will have to live with a stomach-churning defeat for a long, long time.
The Quick Hits
The Bison did what they do best this year and strung together a 12-2 overall record to get back to the big game. As is commonplace, the road kept NDSU at home for the duration of the tournament and homefield advantage kicked in yet again. They sent Montana, Samford and Incarnate Word packing in that order and now they’re here playing for their 10th title in the span of 12 years. A smothering run game pairs well with their bruising, ball-hawking defense and it’s a formula that’s paid off in a big way. They only lost two games all season but the catch there? One of those losses was to the team they’re lining up against this weekend.
South Dakota State has never won an FCS championship but has probably never been closer than they are right now. The Jacks lost their season opener against Iowa by an impressive 7-3 margin (those seven points weren’t even a touchdown) and since then have reeled off 13 in a row. Delaware, Holy Cross and Montana State all saw their seasons end at the hands of the Jacks after they locked up the #1 seed for the first time in program history. The nation’s best run defense resides in Brookings as does a pretty solid ground attack on the other side. Riddled with guys who will soon be playing in the NFL, SDSU seems poised to give the Bison the toughest task they've ever had in Frisco.
South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier has the opportunity to get his first championship this weekend and finally erase the sour taste of losing this very game just two short years ago in the COVID spring season. Stiegelmeier has been with the Jackrabbits for 26 years dating all the way back to the program’s Division II days and has accomplished nearly every feat under the sun except taking home the big one. He won this year’s Eddie Robinson Award, an accolade given annually to the FCS’ best head coach. Stiegelmeier is easily the winningest coach in school history and holds a 11-19 all time record against North Dakota State.
On the other side will be Matt Entz who has walked away from this game victorious twice already in his four seasons at the helm with the Bison. Entz has compiled a staggering 49-6 overall record since taking over as the head man back in 2019 but has struggled against SDSU, beating the Jacks just once in his four tries. He has won 12 postseason games with North Dakota State and has yet to taste defeat in Frisco.
North Dakota State Offense vs South Dakota State Defense
The Bison know that SDSU has that #1 run defense and they’ll do their best to test it. When the two teams met back in October, NDSU ran the ball 37 times and they’ll likely try it even more this time around. TK Marshall and TaMerik Williams saw minimal touches in that game but have gotten an increased workload since. With no Hunter Luepke at their disposal, Kobe Johnson could be the X factor here if he goes. Johnson didn’t play in the last meeting and is a question mark for Sunday. He has put up great numbers in the playoffs this year, running for 136 yards against Incarnate Word in the semifinals and putting up 206 versus Montana back in the second round.
South Dakota State linebackers Adam Bock and Jason Freeman will be vital in slowing down the NDSU rushing attack. Bock, who registered eight tackles in the semifinals, has 273 career stops in his four seasons at SDSU while Freeman leads the team with 74 tackles this year. The duo have combined for 14.5 tackles for loss this year and, with making contact with Bison rushers at or behind the line being of the utmost importance, these two will play a significant role. They are a big reason why the Jacks only allow 15.4 points per contest.
Cam Miller will be throwing passes for the Bison... maybe. The North Dakota State signal-caller will undoubtedly play in the game, but he might not pass a ton. Against Incarnate Word, Miller only completed one throw for 12 yards but that’s because he didn’t need to take to the air hardly at all. He has connected on 142 of his 214 pass attempts this year for 1,715 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is just as much of a threat to run, though, with 497 yards and 15 scores on 109 carries.
When Miller does throw, he will likely turn to either receiver Zach Mathis or tight end Joe Stoffel. Mathis leads the Bison in receiving yardage this season (397) and catches (28) while averaging over 14 yards per reception. Stoffel, who has 235 yards on the year, has hauled in 22 passes and his lone touchdown came in the playoffs against Samford.
The Jackrabbits pass defense surrenders just over 180 yards per outing and is led by safety Cale Reeder and corner DyShawn Gales. The pair have combined for six total interceptions this year along with 61 tackles. Each also has registered three stops behind the line while Gales alone is responsible for four PBUs. Also patrolling the secondary will be Huerter Colby who has two picks and 39 tackles.
South Dakota State Offense vs North Dakota State Defense
When the Jackrabbits aren’t stuffing the run they’ll be looking to make life difficult for the Bison defense with their own talented rushing attack. Isaiah Davis has been a man possessed in the playoffs this year, rushing for 416 yards and four touchdowns over the last three games. Davis has tremendous breakaway ability and is a threat to score whenever he has the ball in his hands.
Quarterback Mark Gronowski, like Davis, has unfinished business as far as this game is concerned. In the 2021 spring championship, Gronowski went down with an injury and just got back on the field this year. On the season he’s thrown for 2,744 yards and 23 touchdowns while only tossing five picks.
Interceptions, though, could swing this game and North Dakota State’s Dawson Weber is really, really good at snagging them. Weber has five interceptions this fall and ten on his career. What’s more impressive than the sheer numbers, though, is the timing of his picks. Weber has a knack for coming away with the ball in the biggest moments, having grabbed two away from UIW quarterback Lindsey Scott in the semifinals (one to ice the game) and getting one last year in the title game.
Going up against the likes of Weber will fall largely on receivers Jaxon and Jadon Janke. The twin brothers are the go-to guys on the outside for Gronowski and have lit it up this season. Each are up over 700 receiving yards with Jaxon leading the team at 57 catches. In the semifinals they combined for 92 yards. Tight end Tucker Kraft... a likely NFL draft pick this upcoming spring... will also be a headache for the NDSU defense. Kraft, despite missing some time with an injury this season, has 318 yards and three touchdowns. He's as good of a blocked as he is a pass catcher and covering him is no small feat.
North Dakota State linebacker James Kaczor will look to accomplish said feat, however. Kaczor leads the Bison with 94 total tackles (5.5 for loss) and has three sacks to his name. Joining him that task will be fellow linebacker Nick Kubitz and defensive end Spencer Waege. Kubitz has 66 stops this season while Waege has been a nightmare for opposing lines with nine sacks.
Also of note for the NDSU defense will be the return of DE Loshiaka Roques to the lineup. Roques was injured in the semifinals three weeks ago.
The Special Teams
The kicking battle in this game will exist between NDSU’s Griffin Crosa and SDSU’s Hunter Dustman. Both have good legs but, as far as accuracy is concerned, Crosa is one of the best. He has nailed 10 of his 11 field goal tries this year with his long coming from 47 yards. Dustman, meanwhile, has made 17-of-24 field goal attempts with his longest being a 45-yarder.
When they need to punt, the Bison will turn to Kaedin Steindorf who has been steady as ever throughout his career. This season Steindorf has booted the ball away 46 times averaging nearly 40 yards per kick. He has set opposing offenses up inside their own 20-yard line 21 times in 2022 and has not had a punt blocked. On the other side, South Dakota State will lean on Dustman again in the punting game. He averages 41.7 yards per kick and also has not had a punt blocked while only registering two touchbacks all year.
When Dustman punts it will likely be to NDSU return specialist Jayden Price. Price, who averages 15.5 yards per return, has made one house call this year on a 66-yard return against Drake way back in Week 1. He also picked up a 41-yard runback against UIW a few weeks ago.
Kickoff returns could be interesting for the Bison as normal return man RaJa Nelson will be a no go this weekend. Nelson, who also missed the semifinal game, will likely be replaced by Johnson (if he plays) or Jalen Bussey. Bussey took three kickoffs against UIW for 61 total yards but had not seen return time up to that point.
Jadon Janke will field punts for the Jacks, having run back 14 this year for an average of 11.4 per return. He does not have a touchdown but does have a season-best 58 yard runback under his belt. He and fellow receiver Tyler Feldkamp will do kick return duties. Each has taken seven kickoffs this year but, again, neither has notched a touchdown.
The History At Stake
If North Dakota State Wins: A victory would give the Bison their 10th FCS championship and would ensure they remain undefeated in the title game and in Toyota Stadium. NDSU has already won the most titles of any school in the subdivision with Georgia Southern (since gone to the FBS) behind them with six. A win would also give the program its 17th national championship all time dating back to its NCAA College Division and Division II days. It would be the Bison’s second consecutive championship as well as their FCS-leading 45th all time postseason victory.
If South Dakota State Wins: The Jackrabbits will claim their first ever FCS championship with a win and be the first team to ever beat NDSU in the title game. South Dakota State would pick up its 14th win of the season giving the program its first ever 14-win campaign. The Jacks can get their fourth straight win over North Dakota State as well. Doing so would mark the first time since 1947-1950 that SDSU won four consecutive games over the Bison.
As we get into the prediction segment here, it’s important to footnote this: there’s a very real possibility this could go down as one of the best title games Frisco has ever seen. North Dakota State is the greatest dynasty in all of sports right now (and it’s not even close) but if ever a team existed that could dethrone them it’s this Jackrabbits group. The Bison have the experience advantage in spades here but the Jacks, unlike many other teams that have met NDSU in this venue, are actually built to handle everything that the boys in green and gold can throw out. All the staples of what North Dakota State does to suffocate its opponents the Jackrabbits are designed precisely to stop. Of course actually handling the Bison is a whole lot easier said than done but the Jacks have a chance here... a really good one.
Score: North Dakota State: 27 - South Dakota State: 28
The game will kick off at 2:00 PM (ET) on ABC on Sunday.