FRISCO, Texas – Jackrabbits. By a mile.
For the first time ever, South Dakota State is the national champion, and for the first time ever, North Dakota State has been defeated in the FCS title game at Toyota Stadium.
SDSU blew the doors off its rivals on Sunday, a 45-21 victory in front of a crowd of 18,023. It was a 50/50 split of green and blue, and the fans in blue were treated to nothing less than the most memorable day and impressive performance in the 123-year history of Jackrabbit football.
The Bisons are still the 9-time champions. They will return. So will the jacks.
But for all the progress SDSU has made in recent years, for how far they had come since jumping to Division I in 2004, the lack of a national championship trophy left a big, gaping hole in the program.
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That hole has been filled. If the Jacks never win another title, and things being what they are that seems unlikely, what they accomplished in 2022/23, their 14-win journey that began in August against the Iowa Hawkeyes and ended in January with their second win over the Kings of FCS in one season, can never be taken away from them. When the team returns to Brookings, they can display the Dakota Marker and the National Championship trophy, right next to each other, a permanent symbol of the most significant achievement in South Dakota team sports history.
There were, if you were willing to look past NDSU’s 9-0 history in Frisco, some reasons to believe a dominant SDSU win could be coming. The Jacks already beat them once, in Fargo, without future NFL tight end Tucker Kraft. After a slow start to the match, they dominated the second half.
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And since then, the Bison have only lost key players to injuries and the transfer portal, none bigger than All-American linebacker Hunter Luepke, arguably their best player. This time, NDSU wouldn’t have the Fargodome to fall back on. They didn’t want Luepke.
And let’s face it, they probably didn’t have the same sense of urgency. Not to say NDSU didn’t want to win this. Of course they did. They shed tears in the aftermath, just as any team would who came so close to glory only to fall short. But NDSU has been here so many times. They will definitely be back.
For SDSU, this was an opportunity they could not waste. No. 1 seed, as healthy as they’ve been all year, with a possible first-round pick turning down big money from bigger programs to leave. They will have more chances to win it all, but the stars may never line up like they did this year. The Jacks had to go through that door, eventually. But they didn’t just go through. They kicked it down and set it on fire.
SDSU struck first on an Isaiah Davis 16-yard touchdown run. NDSU quickly responded to tie the game at 7-7, but then SDSU took over. A 32-yard scamper by Amar Johnson, and after a Bison fumble, an 18-yard touchdown pass from Mark Gronowski to Jaxon Janke to make it 21-7. It was the first time in 10 national championships that NDSU had ever trailed by more than a touchdown, but SDSU was just getting started.
On third and short, Gronowski faked a quarterback run and dumped a pass to H-back Mike Morgan, who ran 44 yards for a touchdown.
Again the bison answered, but you could already feel it getting away from them. The Jacks added a field goal before the half to make it 31-14 at halftime and they had the ball to start the second.
They wasted no time, and Gronowski broke off a 51-yard scoring run to make it 38-14.
It was complete and utter dominion. The Jacks finish the year with 14 straight wins, 14-0 against FCS competition. It’s the first time they’ve beaten NDSU in the playoffs, and their fourth straight win over the Bison overall.
It was a treat for all of the Dakotas to see these two teams finally square off in Frisco, but it almost certainly won’t be the last. Chances are the Bison will bounce back in this rivalry sooner rather than later.
But for now, there’s only one FCS champion, and that’s the Jackrabbits.
North Dakota State opens the 2023 season Sept. 2 in Minneapolis, one of the school’s largest alumni bases, against perennial FCS playoff contender Eastern Washington.
South Dakota State is still hoping to fill an open spot on the 2023 schedule for Labor Day weekend. For now, the first set game is Sept. 9 at home against 2021 national runner-up Montana State, who the Jackrabbits beat in this season’s national semifinal game.
Contributor: Associated Press