FRISCO, Texas (AP) — A different Dakota is celebrating a national championship nearly two decades after the border-state rivals moved up together to the Division I level.
“I continue to think back in 2004 and wondering how it was going to work out. Well, this is pretty sweet how it’s worked out,” coach John Stiegelmeier said after South Dakota State won its first Football Championship Subdivision title Sunday.
Mark Gronowski threw three touchdowns and ran 51 yards for another score as the Jackrabbits won 45-21 win over North Dakota State, which lost for the first time in its 10 FCS title game appearances since the move from NCAA Division II.
As a true freshman two seasons ago, Gronowski tore the ACL in his left knee on the opening series of the FCS title game. Now nearly 20 months after a loss in that unprecedented spring finale, and after the quarterback missed the entire 2021 season, the Jackrabbits (14-1) are national champs in Stiegelmeier’s 26th season at his alma mater.
“It’s really a storybook ending for us,” Gronowski said.
“We made a memory,” Stiegelmeier said. “I live through our players and I always will, always have. And so my joy is great today because their joy is great.”
Amar Johnson rushed for 126 yards and Isaiah Davis had 119 for his ninth 100-yard game this season, and both scored touchdowns for South Dakota State. Gronowski, who completed 14 of 21 passes for 223 yards had his scoring run on the third play of the second half to stretch the lead to 38-14.
“We knew NDSU was going to fight until the end of the game and we knew that we had to come out in the second half and just start fast, score early,” Gronowski said.
Cam Miller threw for 260 yards with two TDs and two interceptions for the Bison (12-3), who went from Fargo to Frisco for the 10th time in 12 seasons.
“So tough to lose,” Bison coach Matt Entz said. “Not something we like to do, not something we’re going to make a habit of at NDSU. But I’m more concerned about our players right now. … They’ll bounce back, I know that.”
The Jackrabbits have won the last four meetings between the Missouri Valley Football Conference rivals, all in less than two years. The previous three had been in regular-season games for the Dakota Marker trophy that wasn’t up for grabs in the MLS soccer stadium nearly 1,000 miles from the border of their states. Their 114th meeting since 1903 was only the fifth in the FCS playoffs, and first in the title game.
South Dakota State’s only other FCS title game appearance was a last-minute loss to Sam Houston State in May 2021 after the lower-division season was pushed back to the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Jackrabbits beat NDSU in that abbreviated regular season, then again later that fall before a 23-21 win last October.
Johnson’s 32-yard TD run broke a 7-all tie early in the second quarter. The Jackrabbits got the ball right back when Steven Arrell stripped the ball from running back Kobe Johnson at the Bison 34. Gronowski hit wide-open Jaxon Janke for an 18-yard TD four plays later — Janke also had a 30-yard TD catch in the fourth quarter.
There was an exchange of 44-yard TD passes right before halftime. Before Miller hit Eli Green for an NDSU score, Gronowski on a third-and-1 play went forward like he was going to try to run for the first down when he instead stopped and threw to Mike Morgan all alone behind the entire defense.
“It means the world to me,” Gronowski said of his comeback from the injury to being the game’s most outstanding player and winning a championship. “There’s no better feeling in the world.”
North Dakota State: The Bison have a 44-4 record in the FCS playoffs, and missed a chance to match the record of 45 wins by Georgia Southern, which is now playing at the FBS level. They have only 14 losses overall since 2011, when they won the first of their record nine FCS titles, and six of those losses are to South Dakota State — no other team has multiple wins over NDSU in that span.
South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits have won a school-record 14 games in a row since opening this season with a 7-3 loss at Big Ten team Iowa.
North Dakota State opens the 2023 season on Sept. 2 in Minneapolis, one of the school’s largest alumni bases, against perennial FCS playoff team Eastern Washington.
South Dakota State still hopes to fill an open slot on its 2023 schedule for Labor Day weekend. As of now, the first set game is Sept. 9 at home against 2021 national runner-up Montana State, which the Jackrabbits beat in this season’s national semifinal game.