South Dakota State gets another shot at national title against rival NDSU

The Jackrabbits were 16 seconds away from winning the national championship two seasons ago. Now they’re back in Frisco with a chance at redemption.


Zoey Schentzel

Quarterback Mark Gronowski runs for a touchdown in a FCS quarterfinal game against Holy Cross at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

Skyler Jackson, Co-Sports Editor (He/Him)

19 months after the most heartbreaking loss in program history, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits are back in Frisco.

Their second appearance in the national title game at Toyota Stadium is against Dakota Marker rival and defending national champion North Dakota State.

SDSU first went to Frisco in the spring 2021 season. That season, the Jackrabbits went 5-1 in the regular season and were the top seed in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. After three-straight home wins to get to Frisco, the Jackrabbits were defeated 23-21 by Sam Houston State.

Only five plays into the game, quarterback Mark Gronowski, the Missouri Valley Football Conference player of the year that season, left the game after an injury.

Despite losing Gronowski, the Jacks fought back from down 17-7 to take a 21-17 lead, thanks in large part to Isaiah Davis. He ran for 187 yards and three touchdowns, including an 85-yard score to give SDSU the lead. They only needed one last defensive stop to become national champs.

But Sam Houston State scored with 16 seconds left, and the Jacks fell short of their first national championship by just one play.

After the game was over, Jackrabbit players stayed on the field near their locker room, watching the Bearcats celebrate and hoist the trophy they felt should have been theirs. That feeling has motivated them ever since.

SDSU went back to work the following season, going 11-3 before falling in the FCS semifinals to Montana State.

Following that loss to the Bobcats, SDSU went into this season with a “national championship or bust” mindset, a different approach compared to past years.

“It’s been kind of a culture shift for the team,” defensive end Reece Winkelman said. “We focused this year on winning the national championship. And that kind of came from the weekly mentality. I think this year more than years in the past, we’ve really focused on each week.”

That change in mentality has appeared to help the Jacks this year.

They went 13-0 against FCS opponents, 8-0 in the MVFC and dominated their way through the postseason. They avenged their loss to Montana State in the semifinals by crushing them 39-18 to get back to Frisco.

Many players going to Frisco this season were there two seasons ago. One of which is Gronowski, who sat out the fall season last year after tearing his ACL against Sam Houston State.

He fully recovered and returned to the starting lineup this year, intent on returning to Frisco to finish what he started 19 months ago.

“I felt really disappointed that I let my teammates down in that game and I couldn’t end up finishing it,” Gronowski said. “Ever since that injury, my entire focus was getting back to this point and getting back to this opportunity of playing in a national championship.”

Gronowski has made the most out of his return, playing consistently well throughout the season and continuing to step up as a leader, something his teammates and coaches have noticed.

“I would say he’s honestly earned his way back,” guard Mason McCormick said. “He’s worked really hard to get back to this point, we’re really excited to see what he can do and hopefully he can play his best ball.”

And it does seem fitting that Gronowski and the Jackrabbits will face longtime rival North Dakota State, a title game matchup fans throughout the Dakotas have been waiting for.

The Bison are making a 10th trip to Toyota Stadium in the last 12 years and have won nine national championships. NDSU has clearly been the standard in FCS football over the past decade. Many teams have tried and failed to dethrone them along the way.

One of those teams was the Jackrabbits. When both programs joined Division I and the Dakota Marker trophy was introduced in 2004, NDSU owned the rivalry at the start, winning 8 of the first 12 matchups. The Jacks have also never beaten the Bison in the playoffs, going 0-4 against them, each loss coming at the Fargodome.

But some have suggested that the Bison aren’t as dominant as they used to be and that the Jacks have closed the gap.

There’s plenty of reason to believe that, considering the Jacks have beaten the Bison in five of the last seven Dakota Marker matchups, including the last three in a row.

If SDSU wants to win its first-ever national championship, it will be a tough task. They’ve come close many times before. But this team seems motivated to not let this opportunity get away from them.

“It’s going to be a battle and I think it’s a neat storyline,” coach John Stiegelmeier said. “It’s a rivalry, and it’ll be two teams with, so to speak, home team crowds. We’re looking forward to it.”