During last Friday’s press conference, South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier reflected on his team’s loss in the national title game back in May of 2021 to Sam Houston and admitted to media members “We stayed on the field and watched the trophy presentation. It was a decision our players made ... in the end it got to their hearts.”
That moment was the one that undoubtedly served as a springboard to what transpired in Toyota Stadium on Sunday afternoon. This time the Jackrabbits, many of whom were on that 2021 team, were crying again but not tears of sadness. For the first time in its 122-year history, top-seeded South Dakota State hoisted the FCS national championship trophy, having just beaten rival North Dakota State in what is unquestionably the biggest win Jacks fans have ever witnessed for their team. And now, after 27 years of trying, Stiegelmeier will get to don a ring.
SDSU’s defense got off to a strong start by forcing a quick three-and-out. Quarterback Cam Miller was stuffed on third and short and the Bison had to punt away before two minutes had ticked off the clock.
It didn’t take long for the Jacks to give their fans something to cheer about. Signal-caller Mark Gronowski, who was injured in this very game against Sam Houston two years ago, connected with tight end Tucker Kraft on the opening SDSU play for a first down. One play later, running back Isaiah Davis busted ahead to move the chains again.
With the Jackrabbit faithful in a crescendo, it was Davis that gave them reason to erupt into a full-on madhouse. Receiver Jadon Janke threw a big block for Davis to break free into the end zone on a 16-yard run to put the Jacks up 7-0 early. In the first drive alone, Davis picked up 50 total yards on five carries.
North Dakota State found their footing shortly after Davis’ score. On a trick play, Miller took the fleaflicker flip and found receiver Zach Mathis for a big 27-yard gain. A few plays later, Miller used more trickery on a fake end-around to find tight end Joe Stoffel over the middle. Stoffel hauled in the pass behind the SDSU defense and rumbled over the goal line to knot the game up.
The Bison caught another break on the ensuing kickoff when Janke mishandled the ball and got stopped at his own six-yard line while recovering it, giving the offense poor field position. The NDSU defense stifled Gronowski and company, forcing a quick punt.
Gronowski got another chance, however, when the Jackrabbits defense rose up and forced a punt of their own. Early in the second quarter SDSU regained the lead with their second rushing touchdown, this one behind Amar Johnson. Johnson cut it free to the outside and sprinted 32 yards for the score. It was Johnson’s seventh TD of the season and it gave the Jacks a 14-7 edge with 12:50 to go until halftime.
North Dakota State’s tough position got even tougher when Kobe Johnson fumbled on the opening play of the following drive and SDSU jumped on it. The Jackrabbits made NDSU pay for the turnover when Jaxon Janke got underneath a wide open pass from Gronowski and came down in the end zone. What was once a tie game was now a 21-7 lead for South Dakota State.
Facing their largest hole in their championship history, the Bison needed a spark. That spark, though, wouldn’t come as the Jacks defense continued to pour it on. On third and eight, linebacker Isaiah Stalbird hit TK Marshall bringing him down well short and made NDSU boot it away once more.
Johnson and Davis kept bursting through the line behind a dominant showing from the SDSU offensive front and NDSU had no answers. It was a passing play, though, that was the backbreaker. On third and short, Gronowski appeared as if he was going to run the ball but, at the last second, he went over the top to senior fullback Michael Morgan. Morgan, who only had six receptions all season up to that point, went 44 yards untouched to make it 28-7.
Michael Morgan with nothing but green grass and the Bison end zone in front of him ... 44 yards and the third Jackrabbit touchdown of the second quarter— SDSU Football (@GoJacksFB) January 8, 2023
South Dakota State 28, North Dakota State 7
3:30 to play in Q2#GoJacks pic.twitter.com/yW8a0EDpJT
The Bison were stunned and, now lagging behind by 21 points, they were left searching for some semblance of hope before the break. That hope came in the form of receiver Eli Green. Miller threaded a throw up over the Jacks secondary and found Green for a much-needed 44-yard touchdown strike of their own to make it 28-14 with 2:03 to go until the break.
Whatever life that play gave the Bison, though, was quickly sucked away when Johnson broke free for a 55-yard run to get the Jackrabbits right back into scoring position. With under a minute to go before half, the North Dakota State defense got a small victory by stopping Davis short on third down. Hunter Dustman tacked on the 30-yard field goal and, as the teams headed to their respective locker rooms, the Jackrabbits led 31-14.
This year the Bison have been tremendous on defense this season, allowing under 20 points per contest. South Dakota State, though, had almost doubled that number just 30 minutes in. Davis and Johnson had combined for 178 yards on the ground at halftime and it had NDSU in very uncomfortable and uncharted territory.
The Jackrabbits got the ball first in the second half and picked up right where they left off. Davis picked up a 25-yard gain on his first run of the drive then pitched a huge block for Gronowski a few plays later. Gronowski jetted 51 yards down the sideline for the touchdown. South Dakota State was now up by 24 and the third quarter was just starting.
NDSU was in a spiral and the experience was starting to get religious for South Dakota State fans. RaJa Nelson bobbled the ensuing kick in the end zone and, although he recovered for a touchback, it was obvious that the Bison were rattled.
The North Dakota State frustration reached a boiling point when offensive lineman Jake Kubas delivered a late hit on a third down. What would have been fourth and manageable became a punting situation; a death penalty against an offense that was clicking like SDSU’s was.
After only the second SDSU punt, the Bison finally started to construct a drive. Miller led his offense into Jacks territory but defensive tackle Ryan Van Marel clobbered Green for an eight-yard loss and made it 3rd and 18. Miller connected with Jake Lippe for an 18-yard pickup. On fourth and short Miller himself took it for the first down.
As the fourth quarter began, North Dakota State got the score it desperately needed. Johnson pushed himself and a pile over the chalk on an hard-hitting nine-yard touchdown run. Instead of trying a two-point conversion, though, the Bison opted to kick the PAT as normal, making the score 38-21 with 13:44 to play.
Touchdown Bison! Kobe Johnson and the rams up front pound one in for a score. SDSU 38, NDSU 21. 13:44 left. pic.twitter.com/8k7A2DIjLI— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) January 8, 2023
Riding the momentum of that score, the NDSU defense made the Jacks punt, giving Miller and the offense another opportunity. Mathis helped move the chains and get another positive series going but linebacker Jason Freeman put a quick end to the comeback bid. Freeman, who injured his arm in the semifinals three weeks ago, stepped in front of a pass from Miller and picked it off much to the delight of the Jackrabbits fans.
From there South Dakota State put the finishing touches on it. On 3rd and 17 with the clock winding down, Gronowski dropped a teardrop pass into Jaxon Janke’s arms. As Janke tumbled to the ground, retaining possession, the SDSU fans went berserk. With 8:05 to go, the Jacks took a commanding 45-21 advantage.
One more late interception from DyShawn Gales pounded the final nail in. A few more first downs and that was that.
The usually stout Bison rush defense could not stop the Jackrabbits on the ground. Davis, Johnson paved the way for a rushing attack that put up 284 total yards. Gronowski completed 14 of his 21 pass attempts for 223 yards and three touchdowns. Jaxon Janke was responsible for two of those scores. The offense held the ball for 32 minutes compared to NDSU’s 28 minutes.
The Jacks defense forced three turnovers and allowed just 160 rushing yards, an exceedingly low number for the Bison. Miller connected on 18 of 29 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns along with two interceptions. Miller was also the leading Bison rusher with 64 yards.
What a win for Stiegelmeier and his team. If the “little brother” narrative still existed around SDSU in the “Dakota Marker” rivalry it’s assuredly dead now. South Dakota State is the team in FCS football right now and they left no doubt about at that this season. North Dakota State, for as good as they are, will no longer be seen as untouchable in the playoffs. The Jacks, if anything, gave the upper crust of the FCS’ most competitive teams hope that the Bison can indeed lose on the biggest stage.
None of that matters right now, however. For the Jacks and their fans this was one for the ages. Stiegelmeier is no longer among the ranks of coaches without a title and the redemption story for Gronowski is now complete. If any team was going to dethrone the Bison it was going to be this one. A school-best 14-win season was capped by a game that will be remembered forever in Brookings.