FINALLY: South Dakota State emerges victorious in Frisco


Marshall Minihan

South Dakota State players celebrate with the Football Championship Subdivision trophy Jan. 8 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

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

FRISCO – Finally, South Dakota State is the national champion.

After years of playoff disappointment and a narrow runner-up finish in the championship game two seasons ago, the Jackrabbits have finally made it to the top of Division I college football.

They did it by crushing rival North Dakota State 45-21 Jan. 8 in the Football Championship Subdivision title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.

“I’m proud of our program,” Jacks coach John Stiegelmeier said. “It was a fun game for the Jackrabbits and we’re really honored to come away with the national championship.”

For the Jackrabbits (14-1), it’s their first Division I national championship in any sport. For the Bison (12-3), it is their first loss in the national title game, having previously gone 9-0 in the game.

The national champions dominated from the start, jumping out to a quick three-touchdown lead and never looking back. The Bison tried to claw their way back, but every time they searched for momentum, the Jackrabbits responded.

After tearing his ACL in the national title game 19 months ago, quarterback Mark Gronowski got another chance, this time fully healthy and he was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player. He finished 14-21 for 223 yards and three passing touchdowns, adding 57 yards and a score on the ground.

“It means the world to me,” Gronowski said. “I’ve got to thank my parents and I’ve got to thank Charlie (Miller), our athletic trainer for getting me back to where I am right now. There’s no better feeling in the world.”

On the first drive of the game, the Jackrabbit defense forced an NDSU three-and-out. SDSU’s offense took over and struck first on a 16-yard touchdown run untouched from Isaiah Davis to put the Jacks ahead 7-0.

The Bison quickly responded with a 27-yard pass from NDSU quarterback Cam Miller to Joe Stoffel to tie the game. After one, the Jacks and Bison were tied at 7-7.

At the start of the second quarter, The Jackrabbits struck again on a 32-yard scoring run from Amar Johnson to retake the lead. They would never relinquish the lead for the rest of the game.

Johnson finished with 126 yards on just nine attempts, averaging 14 yards per carry.

“I think at the end of the day we feed off each other when the defense goes out there and makes plays and the offense makes plays,” Johnson said. “And then having Jacks nation right behind us making all that noise for us. Shout out to Jacks nation, much needed.”

On the Bison’s next drive, SDSU’s Steven Arrell forced a fumble from Kobe Johnson. Dalys Beanum recovered, and the Jacks looked to further gain momentum.

They capped off the fumble on an easy 18-yard touchdown pass from Gronowski to Jaxon Janke.

The SDSU defense forced another NDSU punt and was looking to potentially put the game away. They then stretched the lead when Gronowski connected with a wide-open Mike Morgan for a 44-yard touchdown. The lead was 28-7.

When the Jacks last played NDSU in October, it was the Bison who came out with a quick start. This time, the roles were reversed.

“It was huge for us, and we talked about it last time and in these last few weeks that we need to come out with a fast start, and we can’t start slow,” Gronowski said. “These guys are going to fight no matter what.”

The Bison managed to score on their next drive when Miller hit Eli Green for 44 yards to cut the lead back to 14. They forced a Jackrabbit punt on defense and for a moment, it looked like NDSU could steal some momentum.

But with a little over three minutes to go in the first half, the Jackrabbits were driving down the field again, aided by a 55-yard run from Johnson. The drive stalled at the NDSU 13, and kicker Hunter Dustman connected on a 30-yard field goal to end a high-scoring first half. The halftime score was 31-14 Jackrabbits.

The Jackrabbits quickly added to their lead to start the second half, when Gronowski escaped for a 51-yard touchdown run to increase their lead. At the end of three, the Jacks led 38-14.

Time was running out on the Bison. They responded with a Kobe Johnson touchdown from nine yards with 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter to keep the Bison in the game.

They quickly got the ball back and again looked to gain momentum. But SDSU’s Jason Freeman intercepted a Miller pass, setting up the Jackrabbits at the NDSU 42-yard line.

The Jacks again capitalized off a turnover when Janke scored his second touchdown on a 30-yard pass from Gronowski to provide the winning margin.

Isaiah Davis ran for 119 yards on 23 carries. Jadon Janke finished with 61 receiving yards on five receptions. Jaxon Janke was close behind with 60 yards on three catches. Tucker Kraft, playing in his final collegiate game, had two receptions for 30 yards.

The Jackrabbit defense forced three turnovers, the ninth time they’ve forced multiple turnovers in a game this season. Freeman led the defense with 10 tackles, followed by Isaiah Stalbird with seven and Adam Bock with six.

For the Bison, Miller finished 18-29 for 260 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. He added 13 carries for 64 yards rushing. Kobe Johnson finished with 63 rushing yards on 11 carries. Zach Mathis caught seven balls for 123 yards while Stoffel caught three for 41.

Defensively, it was a struggle for the Bison, especially up front. They allowed 522 yards of total offense, 299 of them rushing yards. Michael Tutsie finished with 12 tackles and James Kaczor had 10.

“I love our football team and I thank God for them every day,” Stiegelmeier said. “They’re an unbelievable group of young men. And then our fan support was beyond our imagination. We made a memory.”