North Dakota State vs. South Dakota State rivalry to take center stage in FCS championship


Joclyn Haven

South Dakota State’s Tucker Kraft scores a touchdown against North Dakota State in the Dakota Marker game Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.

Marshall Minihan, Sports Reporter

The premier rivalry in Division I Football Championship Subdivision will finally take place in the national championship, as the South Dakota State Jackrabbits take on North Dakota State Jan. 8 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

The Jackrabbits (13-1) last made it to Frisco in the 2021 spring season where they fell short to Sam Houston State 23-21. While SDSU is searching for a different outcome than its last, North Dakota State (12-2) is pushing for a 10th national championship in 12 years.

The two teams met Oct. 15 in the annual Dakota Marker game, where the Jacks erased a 21-7 deficit to beat the No. 1-ranked Bison in Fargo. Since then, SDSU has been ranked the No. 1 team in the nation.

Here’s how each team performed this season and key players to watch ahead of Sunday’s matchup.

About SDSU:

After losing 7-3 in week one in an offensive struggle against Iowa, SDSU has gone undefeated, storming through the regular season and playoffs, despite losing key players like Isaiah Davis, Tucker Kraft and Adam Bock to injuries throughout the season. After a three-week break, the Jacks are the healthiest they’ve been all season.

After a close 24-22 home-opening win against UC Davis, SDSU dominated their next four opponents in Butler, Missouri State, Western Illinois and USD, winning by at least 14 points in each game before sneaking out of Fargo with a two-point win.

After beating UND and Indiana State the next two weeks, the Jacks faced UNI in Cedar Falls and narrowly escaped with a 31-28 victory thanks to a tie-breaking field goal from kicker Hunter Dustman. That would be their last close game for the rest of the season.

After cruising the rest of the way through the regular season, the Jacks finished undefeated in FCS and Missouri Valley Conference games for the first time in program history. Because of that, they earned the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

After two consecutive bye weeks before their first playoff game, SDSU crushed Delaware 42-6 in the second round before facing Holy Cross in the quarterfinals. The game was tied going into the fourth quarter before the Jacks pulled away with 21-straight points to beat the Crusaders 42-21.

A rematch of last year’s semifinals was next, against No. 4 Montana State. The Jacks avenged their loss to the Bobcats a year ago, beating them by three touchdowns to make it back to Frisco.

“Most people only get one opportunity to play in the national championship if not any,” quarterback Mark Gronowski said. “And it’s just a great opportunity for us and it shows just how hard we have worked.”

Gronowski has led the Jacks this season, completing over 65% of his passes for 2,744 yards and 23 touchdowns along with 351 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.

“(Gronowski’s) contribution to our football team is far greater than what you see on the field and in the stands,” Jacks coach John Stiegelmeier said. “He’s our best leader and he was our best leader as a true freshman.”

He has completed 218 passes this year, nearly half of them to the Janke twins. Leading the team in both receiving yards and touchdowns is Jaxon who has 57 catches for 797 yards and seven touchdowns while his brother Jadon follows closely behind him with 713 yards and six touchdowns on 46 receptions.

Tucker Kraft, playing in his final Jackrabbit game Sunday after declaring for the NFL draft, has shown that he is a top tight end in the nation, with 318 yards and three touchdowns despite missing six games.

Isaiah Davis has been SDSU’s featured tailback, rushing for 1,348 yards and 14 touchdowns. Backup running back Amar Johnson is showing his talent as well with 649 rushing yards and six scores.

Jason Freeman leads the nation’s top-ranked rush defense (83 yards allowed per game) in tackles with 74 while Bock is close behind with 70. Both Cale Reeder and DyShawn Gales have three interceptions this season to lead the team and Reece Winkelman put up seven sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss to go along with two forced fumbles.

About NDSU:

The Bison are making their 10th appearance in Frisco, having won nine of the previous 11 national titles. But they have never faced a more familiar opponent at this stage.

“It’s not just NDSU familiar with SDSU, but South Dakota State is extremely familiar with North Dakota State,” Bison head coach Matt Entz said. “At the end of it, it’s the team who’s going to be able to execute the best and the team who makes the fewest errors is probably going to have the greatest chance to win.”

The defending champions blew out Drake and North Carolina A&T to start the season before losing their first game to Arizona 31-28. With three wins to start conference play, the 5-1 Bison then lost to SDSU.

With four games left in the regular season, NDSU had only one close game, against Southern Illinois, winning by just three points.

With the No.3 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs, NDSU showed their dominance against both Montana and Samford, winning by at least 18 points in both games.

In the semifinals against Incarnate Word, NDSU trailed by 16 points early in the first quarter. They then quickly answered with 17 unanswered points by the end of the half. The game then turned into a back-and-forth contest and NDSU survived a UIW upset with a 35-32 win in Fargo.

Leading the Bison offense is dual-threat quarterback Cam Miller who has thrown for 1,715 yards, 11 touchdowns on a 66% completion rate. Miller also has nearly 500 rushing yards and 15 scores.

His favorite target this season is Zach Mathis, who has caught 28 passes for 397 yards. Joe Stoffel is behind him with 22 receptions for 235 yards and a touchdown.

Three Bison players have over 600 rushing yards, Kobe Johnson, TaMerik Williams and Hunter Luepke. Williams leads the team with 979 yards, followed by Johnson with 898 and Luepke with 621.

With 94 tackles on the season, James Kaczor leads the Bison defense while Michael Tutsie has 73. The Bison have 16 team interceptions this season, five coming from Dawson Weber. Spencer Waege leads the team with nine sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss.

Like the Jacks, NDSU also has a dominant defense. They are currently ranked fifth in the nation in total defense with 18.5 points allowed per game.

“We’ve got to tackle well,” Tutsie said. “You know they’ve got really good running backs, and we have to get them down and we just have to get off the field on third down. Field goals won’t kill us, but we can’t give up touchdowns.”

Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. and the game will be nationally televised on ABC.