FRISCO, TEXAS — For almost half of his near three-decade tenure as head coach of South Dakota State, head coach John Stiegelmeier knew that all he had to do to witness the emergence of the new gold standard in the Football Championship Subdivision was to look across the state border, and his Jackrabbits, over time, crept as close to championship glory than the driving distance between themselves and the dominance force of college football. On Sunday, Stiegelmeier and his Jackrabbits did more than just win another battle of the Dakotas, but did so with the national championship on the line.
The new “it” team in the FCS just crossed state lines, and it’s possible that it may reside there for a while.
South Dakota State won its first national football championship in school history as its offense rolled up 522 yards of total offense in defeating hated rival and nine-time champion North Dakota State 45-21 in the FCS Championship game at Toyota Stadium just outside of Dallas. Quarterback Mark Gronowski, playing in his second championship game, threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns while adding 57 yards rushing and a touchdown on the ground on his way to the game’s Most Valuable Player honors.
“It’s fun to be the first [FCS championship team],” Stiegelmeier, completing his 26th season as head coach of the Jackrabbits, said after the game. “Very proud of our program. I want to compliment North Dakota State for their program and their tradition down here…It was a fun game for the Jackrabbits and we’re honored to come away with a national championship.”
The tradition that the Bison came to town with almost needed no introduction: nine national championships a 12-year span, with all of FCS Championship rings being won in Frisco and sporting a 9-0 record in those title games. It appeared that the only kryptonite in the Fortress of Solitude that the Bison have formed for themselves in Frisco was a bitter rival who has had recent success against NDSU; the Jackrabbits came from behind to win in Fargo earlier this year, their third consecutive victory against the FCS’ leviathan.
No comeback was needed for South Dakota State on Sunday, and the Jackrabbits took the lead on their first drive of the ball game, a nine-play, 85-yard march that ended with an Isaiah Davis 16-yard touchdown run. The Bison responded with a touchdown on the ensuing drive, with North Dakota State quarterback Cam Miller completing a 27-yard touchdown to Joe Stoffel just past the midway point of the first quarter to level the score at 7-7.
It was the second quarter where the Jackrabbits started to create separation, scoring the game’s next 21 points to take control of the game. Amar Johnson, on his way to rushing for 126 yards, scampered into the end zone from 32 yards out early in the second quarter to give South Dakota State the lead for good, and the Jackrabbits soon doubled their lead soon after the Bison’s Kobe Johnson fumbled at his own 34-yard line on North Dakota State’s next offensive play from scrimmage. Four plays later, Gronowski found Jaxon Janke for an 18-yard touchdown pass and a 21-7 SDSU lead.
Late in the second, Gronowski threw his second touchdown pass of the quarter, hitting Michael Morgan from 44 yards out to give SDSU a three-touchdown lead at 28-7 with 3:40 remaining.
Gronowski, who started the 2021 FCS Championship game as a freshman during that pandemic-affected season and tore his ACL during the Jackrabbits’ loss to Sam Houston State, completed 14 of his 21 passes today as the Jackrabbits did not turn the ball over while converting nine of their 14 third downs.
“It means the world to me [to win the championship this time],” Gronowski said. “I have to thank everybody that has helped me along this journey. The guys played an awesome game today and I’m so proud of them. I have to thank my parents and our athletic trainer for getting me back where I am right now. There’s no better feeling in the world.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Sunday afternoon’s game, with all photos taken by Dallas-area photographer Ross James. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 36 pictures in total.