South Dakota State wins its first-ever FCS title, and this could just be the beginning

FRISCO, Texas — The South Dakota State Jackrabbits used a devastating run game and a rallying cry of unfinished business to roll over their border rivals North Dakota State 45-21 on Saturday en route to their first-ever FCS championship win. That was the goal for many Jacks players as they stood on the field and watched the confetti fall on Sam Houston two years ago in Frisco, Texas, as they scored 23-21 on a 10-yard throw from the Bearkats. Pass were defeated 16 seconds left. Now adorned in a championship shirt, hat and confetti still resting on his shoulders, Jack’s quarterback Mark Gronowski smiled as he discussed closing up unfinished business in Frisco.

“It feels so great to be on the other side of that. I mean, seeing last time got us fired up. We didn’t want that feeling anymore today and this revenge came out today, so to speak,” said Gronowski. “We really just gave it to them. We just wanted to do our best and perform, and that’s what we did today. It was such a great feeling to be on the other side.”

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As soon as you entered the stadium, you could tell the Jacks felt that this revenge against the reigning FCS champion was the crowning glory. Almost all of the Jackrabbit players walked in relaxed and smiling. She gave high-fives and hugs as they strolled to the stadium entrance, flanked by an endless sea of ​​blue-and-yellow-clad South Dakota state fans. Many of the players wore cowboy hats and soaked up the full atmosphere as their first trip to the FCS Championship was still half full due to COVID-19 restrictions.

This was in stark contrast to the NDSU walk-up, which felt cold and unattached to the moment. There weren’t nearly as many hugs and not many of the players had smiles on their faces. It was as if the confidence or swagger wasn’t at the level you’d typically associate with a North Dakota State squad. For a team conditioned to come to Frisco, it could easily be explained or justified by treating it like a business trip. But the results of the game would tell a different story.

The jackrabbits defeated the bison in every area that forecasters believed would decide the outcome of the game. They overtook the Bison 283-160. Isaiah Davis, the Jacks’ leading rusher, finished the game with 103 yards rushing and a touchdown. But it was sophomore Amar Johnson – who led the team with 126 yards on nine carries – who delivered the runs that crippled the Bison defense.

“Yeah, I always tell my roommate, Angel, if I get there and get comfortable, it’s going to be a long day for the other team,” Johnson said. “I also told my boy Chris that at the end of the day it will be part two for NDSU (and) what I did to them the first time.”

South Dakota State also won the turnover fight (no turnovers for the Jacks and three for the Bisons). They gained possession time, holding the ball for 32 minutes compared to 28 minutes for the Bison. Part of that period of possession dominance was Gronowski’s ability to convert in third place. Even North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz knew his team needed to get the Jacks off the field third.

“We had to be better than nine out of 14 in third place. We’ve lost the last few games against them,” said Entz. “I think they average about 65 percent conversion on third down.”

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This was South Dakota State’s first win in the FCS championship game. (Chris Jones / USA Today)

Gronowski, who was injured on the game’s first drive in the 2020 championship, was named Most Outstanding Player…and his Most Outstanding Games came in third place. In third place and one from North Dakota State’s 44-yard line, Gronowski took the shotgun shot for a predictable quarterback run to get the short yardage for a first down. As Gronowski neared the line of scrimmage, the Bison defenders attacked to prevent him from gaining yards. That’s when he stopped and fired a quick pass at the tight end of Michael Morgan, who was completely uncovered and jogged in for a jackrabbit touchdown. Gronowski finished the game 14-to-21 for 223 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran the ball for 57 yards five times, including a 51-yard touchdown run on the second-half’s opening run.

Eight offensive starters for South Dakota State returned to Frisco. In addition to Gronowski and Davis, receivers Jaxon and Jadon Janke also left their fingerprints throughout the game. Jadon caught five passes for 61 yards and also had the key block that got Davis for a touchdown. Jaxon caught three passes and two of them were on touchdowns. Both tight ends Zach Heins and Tucker Kraft and offensive linemen Mason McCormick and Garret Greenfield all experienced the agony of defeat and now they can enjoy the thrill of victory.

From all appearances, the Jacks don’t think they’re done. With many key contributors already suspended for a run in 2023, there is little doubt they will be the clear favorites to win the championship again. And they don’t shy away from expectations.

“Hopefully, like Mark said, it’s the start of not necessarily a bunch of them, but competing for a bunch of them,” said coach John Stiegelmeier. “It was a good experience down here and we left a memory. For me, I live through our players and always will, always have. That is why my joy today is great because their joy is great. I love these guys and I’ll leave it at that.”

(Photo above: Chris Jones / USA Today)

https://theathletic.com/4071669/2023/01/09/fcs-championship-south-dakota-state-2/ South Dakota State wins its first-ever FCS title, and this could just be the beginning

Russell Falcon

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