No. 3 Jacks, No. 1 Bison meet for Dakota Marker

Landon Dierks and Jakob King

Since 1903, the South Dakota State and North Dakota State football teams have met 109 times, but Saturday’s 110th meeting will have a distinctly different feel to it than the rest.

The yearly meeting between two of the Football Championship Subdivision’s top teams grabbed the attention of ESPN’s weekly college football pregame show College GameDay, which will broadcast live from Brookings on Saturday for the first time in the show’s 26-year history.

The elevated excitement surrounding Saturday’s matchup was felt instantly. Less than 24 hours after the announcement, Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium sold out for the first time in anticipation of the clash between the No. 1 Bison (7-0, 3-0 MVFC) and No. 3 Jackrabbits (6-1, 3-0 MVFC).

With a record crowd likely to fill the seats and both teams eager to back up their ranking, Saturday’s game for the Dakota Marker promises to be one to remember.

Since the Jacks’ lone loss in the season opener at Minnesota Aug. 29, they have outscored opponents 227-81 on their way to a six-game winning streak.

For much of the past eight seasons, the visiting Bison have been considered the best program in FCS football. Since 2011, NDSU owns a 119-8 overall record and has won seven of the last eight national championships. That dominance has continued against the Jackrabbits, who have only downed the Bison twice in the last 13 meetings, though both wins have come since 2016.

To understand the importance of this rivalry to FCS football, consider this: the two programs have met in the postseason four times in the past seven seasons, including last year’s 44-21 Bison victory in the national semifinal.

“It just means a little bit more every year,” said senior linebacker Christian Rozeboom, who will be playing in his sixth career game against the Bison. “I mean both teams are always on top of the FCS. There’s never a drop-off in either team, so the competitiveness every year just increases.”

Entering this game against the Jackrabbits, the two-time defending national champions are looking just as dominant this year. They’ve suffocated opponents this year with the second-ranked defense in the nation, extending their 28-game win streak dating back to 2017.

The Bison’s last trip to Brookings was also their last loss, but things have changed for both programs since that early November day in 2017.

After previous head coach Chris Klieman moved on to Kansas State, NDSU hired Matt Entz, who spent the previous five seasons as the Bison’s defensive coordinator, as the new head coach.

“This week is a big game,” said Entz in a press conference earlier this week. “Our kids are excited about it. They know South Dakota State’s a good football team and they’re a very familiar opponent.”

Entz also said the Jacks are “outstanding on offense” and called Rozeboom “as good a football player as there is in the FCS on the defensive side.”

One tradition Entz certainly has continued this year in Fargo is great defense. Led by STATS FCS preseason All-American selections in linebacker Jabril Cox and defensive lineman Derrek Tuszka, the Bison have stifled opposing running games. Just two rushing touchdowns were allowed in their first seven games. The matchup between the Bison’s tenth-ranked rushing defense and the Jacks’ 13th-ranked rushing offense will be pivotal in deciding the winner.

“It’ll be so important (to get the run game going) because we have a freshman quarterback,” said sophomore Pierre Strong Jr., SDSU’s leading rusher. We have to play a big part in the game. We have to run the football — that’s our main thing, we have to run the football.” 

Saturday’s game will be a clash of two redshirt freshman starting quarterbacks. For the Jacks, J’Bore Gibbs has thrown for 988 yards and 10 touchdowns with four interceptions and scored four times on the ground in the five games he’s started.

Gibbs’ counterpart Saturday is Trey Lance, who leads the Bison in both passing and rushing. The Marshall, Minnesota, native has accounted for 1,744 total yards and 22 total touchdowns and has not thrown an interception.

Minimizing the damage Lance creates when he runs will be a factor in whether or not the Jacks snap the Bison’s winning streak.

“It’s hard to contain a quarterback,” said head coach John Stiegelmeier. “You really have to have somebody at times do more than his job. You need to have a guy plus himself on quarterback power, you need to have a guy stay in a gap when you don’t know whether he’s going to pull the ball and run. Just stresses you out, but that’s where football has gone. When you have a guy like that, you want to use it.” 

The challenge isn’t just unique to Lance.

“At the end of the day, every quarterback can run,” Rozeboom said. “Obviously he’s probably a little bit better scrambler than most, but we faced that with (former NDSU quarterback Easton) Stick last year. We’ve been putting in some defenses to control that. Hopefully, we can keep him in the pocket.” 

Stiegelmeier maintains that while the Bison are an exceptional football team, his team has a chance to win if it sticks to doing the little things right.

“For us, we can just be ourselves and win the football game,” said Stiegelmeier. “We don’t have to be Superman. We don’t have to do something we don’t normally do or play harder than we normally play. We just need to go out and have everybody do their one-eleventh and I think we’ll definitely have a chance to win the football game.”