FARGO — After a month of sitting around wishing they could play football, No. 4 South Dakota State returned to the field with a vengeance on Saturday, snapping No. 2 North Dakota State’s 32-game home winning streak with a 27-17 win at the Fargodome.
The win clinched the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs and means the Jackrabbits take the Dakota Marker trophy back to Brookings with them.
The spring football season has felt weird, wonky and disjointed to say the least, but nothing could inject a dose of playoff fever into the Jackrabbit program like a win in the Dakota Marker series in what was probably the biggest game of the entire FCS regular season. It was SDSU’s first win over NDSU since 2017 and first win in Fargo since 2016.
In the rare instances when the Jacks have gotten the best of the Bison in the past, NDSU has responded by taking out SDSU in the playoffs. But thanks to Saturday’s result, that potential rematch won’t be in Fargo.
And that’s hugely important to SDSU’s pursuit of its biggest goals. But on Saturday they were content to focus on the present and the good vibes that came from ending a month of uncertainty and endless practicing with a historic and deeply satisfying win.
“Man, it feels so good,” said senior linebacker Logan Backhaus. “Coming up here in 2018 and losing to them twice really hurt. Ever since then it’s lit a fire under our butts. To come back here and take what they took from us – man it just feels so good to get that rock.”
With the win SDSU (5-1) earns a share of the conference title (with North Dakota and Missouri State) and will likely be a top-2 seed in the 16-team playoff that begins next weekend. The Jacks will find out who they play and where on Sunday. NDSU will likely earn an at-large playoff berth, but for the first time since 2010, the Bison (6-2) do not take at least a share of the conference title.
SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier has just about seen it all in 24 years as the Jacks’ head coach, but one thing he’d never contended with was a month layoff in the middle of the season. Though his team clearly benefited physically from the break, coming into this game fully healthy and rested, it was anyone’s guess how rusty the players might be; how they’d respond to full speed game action, blocking and tackling. The Jacks left little doubt.
“I believe in our players,” Stiegelmeier said. “I know when the ball is snapped the guys have got to do their jobs and they did it today. For the most part we played Jackrabbit football. We played our game and we won the football game.”
You could almost say the Jacks played Bison football, though. SDSU outrushed the defending national champions 305-97. That just doesn’t happen to the green and gold. The Jacks outgained NDSU 454-246 overall and never turned the ball over (neither did NDSU, until a desperation interception on the game’s final play).
After a Cole Frahm field goal gave the Jacks a 20-17 lead with 7:55 to go the SDSU defense forced a Bison punt, and when the Jacks got the ball back with five minutes to go, they didn’t just ice the win – they emphatically clinched it. Freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski sprinted 55 yards to the Bison 16-yard line to get them in scoring range, and moments later freshman running back Isaiah Davis took it in for the score that put the game away for good.
“We were mostly thinking about trying to take time off the clock,” Gronowski admitted. “But we knew the game was in our hands at that point, everyone just had to do their 1/11th. I started rolling out and saw all the guys in front of me were covered so I just took off and saw an opening.”
Gronowski rushed for 126 yards and completed 10 of 14 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown, while Pierre Strong rushed for 95 yards and a score and Davis had 84 yards. It was the third time in six games this year that Gronowski has rushed for over 100 yards.
Adam Bock led the SDSU defense with 13 tackles, while Preston Tetzlaff had seven. Caleb Sanders and Randy Keumogne each had sacks.
Freshman quarterback Cam Miller, who did not start but played every series but one for NDSU, competed 9-of-16 passes for 149 yards and had two rushing touchdowns for the Bison.
The Jacks struck first on a 25-yard dart from Gronowski to Blake Kunz, as the freshman quarterback neatly fit the pass between defenders to give SDSU an early lead. The Bison answered with a 40-yard Jake Reinholz field goal, but from there the teams mostly had success moving the ball between the 30s but struggled to finish drives.
Trailing 10-3 at half, the Bison quickly tied things up coming out of the locker room, evening the score on a 13-yard run by Miller, but the Jacks answered, with Strong breaking tackles on his way to a 53-yard touchdown run that gave SDSU a 17-10 lead.
NDSU then got some help from the visitors to again pull even, as a slew of Jackrabbit penalties on the ensuing drive (including a targeting call that got linebacker Graham Spalding ejected) swiftly moved the Bison downfield, with Miller again doing the honors, going in from 2-yards out to tie it up at 17.
Fresh, rested and motivated, SDSU then scored the game’s final 10 points.
“I think that time off was actually great for us,” Gronowski said. “It gave us a chance to be healthy, get some rest and really improve on the things we (needed to). We really got dialed in, got better and it showed out today.”