2023 Division I FCS National Championship Game Preview: #3 North Dakota State vs. #1 South Dakota State

FCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP MATCHUP: NORTH DAKOTA STATE VS. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
WHERE: TOYOTA STADIUM, FRISCO, TEX.
WHEN: SUNDAY, JANUARY 8, 2:00 PM EST
TV/STREAMING: ABC / WATCHESPN

For the second time in the last decade, two teams from the Missouri Valley Football Conference will play each other for the national title. The last time this happened also involved North Dakota State when the Bison won a narrow win over Illinois State in 2015. This year, it will be NDSU playing Dakota Marker rival South Dakota State.

For the Bison, this is old hat. This is NDSU’s tenth trip to Frisco in the last 12 years. The two missing years were the 2021 spring contest–held then due to the COVID-19 and in 2016 when James Madison upset NDSU in the semi-final round. And all prior ten prior trips to north Texas have resulted in the Bison capturing the crown.

For South Dakota State, this is their second trip to the national title game after the Jackrabbits went to the 2021 spring title game that was a late game loss to Sam Houston. A year ago, SDSU fell in the semi-finals at Montana State.

Overall, North Dakota State has a 63-45-5 series edge to this series dating back to 1903. However, SDSU has won the last three games versus the Bison including a 23-21 win in Fargo this season. SDSU has five wins over NDSU since 2011–NDSU’s first Division I championship season, while no other team has beaten the Bison twice. Here are some highlights of the game earlier this season:

The Dakota Marker, the rivalry trophy established in 2004 for NDSU-SDSU football games, is only up for grabs during regular-season matchups between the two programs. This is the fifth postseason meeting between the Bison and Jacks. NDSU won all four previous playoff games in Fargo in the 2012 second round (28-3), 2014 second round (27-24), 2016 quarterfinals (36-10) and 2018 semifinals (44-21). NDSU has a 10-9 edge in the Dakota Marker series.

Here is a look at how these two squads match-up statistically overall this season:

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North Dakota State Bison (12-1, 7-1 MVFC)

LOCATION: Fargo, N.D.

HEAD COACH: Matt Entz (4th Season, 49-6 @ NDSU & Overall)

NDSU is in the title game in Frisco for the tenth time and third time under Head Coach Matt Entz. Frisco has become what many Bison fans call “Fargo South”. NDSU has never lost yet in Frisco in their prior nine trips and will be looking to make it ten straight, what those fans might saw home wins.

This year’s Bison team reminds many Bison fans possibly of the first Division I championship team in 2011 with mostly a strong running game and a stout defense.

NDSU easily won its first two playoff games against Montana and Samford that set-up an epic semifinal game against Incarnate Word, who had defeated #2 seeded Sacramento State the week before.

The Bison would prevail 35-32 led by the efforts of RB Kobe Johnson, who rushed for 136 yards and three touchdowns and S Dawson Weber, who intercepted two passes. NDSU came back from being down 16-0 early in the game to take the lead 17-16 at the half. The see-saw affair went back and forth in the second half with the Bison winning in the end. See highlights of this classic semifinal game below:

NDSU QB Cam Miller has been the starter all season after leading the team to last year’s national title. Miller has been more of a game manager and has used his legs at times to help the Bison reach this year’s title game.

The big question for the Bison coming into this game will be the health of the team. RB TaMerik Williams and FB Hunter Lupke likely are both out. Both were key members to last year’s title run and likely NDSU will have to use RB Kobe Johnson more in this game.

For NDSU to win the defense will likely need to come up strong like it did in the first half of the game against SDSU earlier this season. The Bison got out to a 21-7 lead at home, and then – after picking off the Bison in the end zone – it was all SDSU the rest of the way scoring 16 unanswered points. The Bison defense has given up just over 18 points per game and may have to have a similar number as well as force some turnovers for the Bison to be victorious.

Key Player: QB Cam Miller

I would expect SDSU’s defense to line-up much like it did against Miller and the Bison in the second half and stack the box to stop the NDSU running game. Miller has not shown consistently he can throw the ball so this likely will be the area of the SDSU defense that could be exploited.

Miller completed just one pass remarkably in the NDSU semi-final win so he will need to be able to use his arm if NDSU wants to move the ball.

South Dakota State Jackrabbits (13-1, 8-0 MVFC)

LOCATION: Brookings, S.D.

HEAD COACH: John Stiegelmeier (26th Season, 198-112 @ SDSU & Overall)

For the second time in the last three seasons, South Dakota State will be playing for the national title. The Jackrabbits lost to Sam Houston 23-21 in that 2021 spring title contest. It is odd that that was the same score it beat NDSU by earlier this season.

For the playoffs this year, the Jackrabbits easily got by Delaware in the second round in its first playoff game after a bye and then after a close game for the first three quarters was able to outlast Holy Cross in the quarterfinals.

In the semifinals, SDSU avenged the loss it had on the road last year in the same round to easily get by Montana State 39-18. See highlights of this game below:

The Jackrabbits were the top seed in the playoffs for a reason. The lone loss SDSU had was at Big Ten Iowa, who was a bowl winning team this year. That loss was the season opener and the Jacks have won 13 in a row since.

SDSU has the nation’s best run defense that takes over games. It has forced its opponents into 3rd and long plays and gets its offense into favorable field position.

The Jackrabbit offense has not been like it has been honestly in the past where the pass game may have been the key to moving the ball. RB Isaiah Davis has 1348 yards and 14 scores and heads the offense. But the Jacks also still can pass the ball with QB Mark Gronowski to the Janke twins (Jaxon & Jadon) as well as his TEs Tucker Kraft and Zack Heins.

Key Player: QB Mark Gronowski

Gronowski came onto seen in the 2021 spring season in his true freshman season but was injured in the national title game against Sam Houston with a torn ACL. He had to sit out all of the fall 2021 season but has made a recovery to be the starter all season long for the Jacks this year.

In the earlier game against NDSU, he went 16-for-21 passing for 152 yards. I feel the NDSU defense will be looking to stop RB Isaiah Davis and company to start the game so Gronowski will need to use his arm a little more and also keep away from turnovers for the Jacks to win this game.

Fearless Predictions:

Kent: On paper, this game favors South Dakota State. The Jacks have been to Frisco before but not in a fall season so this will be slightly new and will see a full stadium as well (the spring 2021 season had a half capacity maximum). NDSU seems to have a magic touch and has not lost to the same team twice in a season in its Division I history. The Bison are 7-0 in FCS playoff rematches with regular-season opponents. Two of those victories came after regular-season losses to Montana in 2015 and South
Dakota State 2016. But I think this is the time for the Jackrabbits to finally get over the hump and get their first national title and do it against the team that has stopped them several times in the last decade from advancing but it will be a fight until the end. South Dakota State 24 North Dakota State 21

Chuck: It’s hard to understate how lucky the Bison were to get past Incarnate Word – and how lucky they were to get a desperately needed layoff between the semifinals and finals to finally get some semblance of health. The Jackrabbits, relatively speaking, have coasted through the playoffs, beating very tough competition handily. But North Dakota State all season has had to navigate the injuries of Hunter Luepke (out for season) and have needed to manage the health of TyMerik Williams and Kobe Johnson all season, and it looks like Williams, Johnson and QB Cam Miller will all be healthy at the same time for the FCS Championship game – something that wasn’t the case the last time these two teams played. I think this will play out as another close, thrilling matchup of these rivals – with the luck of the Bison, and maybe some more Frisco magic, being the difference. North Dakota State 27 South Dakota State 23

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