South Dakota State’s Road to Their First-Ever FCS National Championship Game

South Dakota State finally has gotten over the hump. The Jackrabbits will play in their first ever football national title game this Sunday, May 18th. SDSU’s third semi-final round appearance finally got the Jacks a win to get to the national title game.

SDSU has made the Division I FCS Playoffs each year over the past nine seasons. And the only other FCS team that can make that claim has been the nemesis the the Missouri Valley Football Conference in North Dakota State, who has made the playoffs 11 seasons in a row.

The Jacks defeated NDSU in the last regular season game in Fargo this year to win the automatic bid to from the MVFC and share of the MVFC title. That win lead SDSU to be the top seed in this spring’s playoffs.

How were the Jackrabbits viewed in the preseason?

SDSU was picked third in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in the preseason polls.

Defending conference and national champion North Dakota State was picked to win with Northern Iowa picked second.

How did South Dakota State go through the regular season schedule?

The season started with SDSU defeating Northern Iowa on the road in very closely contested game but showed the coming out with freshman QB Mark Gronowski, who finished this spring season runner-up in the STATS Jerry Rice Award (given to the top freshman in FCS).

The Jacks would lose their only game of the spring in Game 2 of the season at North Dakota. The Jacks had three turnovers that keyed UND to the win with two those takeaways in the fourth quarter that led to a 28-17 set back for SDSU.

From that one loss, SDSU rose two win their first two home games over Western Illinois and Youngstown State next on the slate. The WIU win was rather easy but the YSU win was a nail bitter as PK Cole Frahm kicked a 29-yard field goal with 31 seconds remaining to lift the Jacks to a 19-17 victory.

The Jacks moved on from that close YSU win to their most decisive win in the spring at Southern Illinois that really put SDSU on the map as a top team this spring in FCS. And surprisingly, SDSU had to do this win without All-MVFC RB Pierre Strong, Jr. Without Strong, it showed it had a very capable second back in freshman Isaiah Davis. Overall, the Jacks rushed for 400 yards in the win over the Salukis that finished with a 44-3 final in Carbondale.

And as has been the case with many football teams from all Division I levels this past fall and spring, the COVID 19 and opt-outs came for the Jacks the next weeks that caused SDSU to lose games against Illinois State and South Dakota and to move the game at North Dakota State to the last weekend of the season, which the MVFC slated for any make-up games this spring. The Jacks would go from March 20th in the last win at Southern Illinois to not playing again until April 17th at NDSU.

Despite not playing for nearly a month, South Dakota State went to North Dakota State for what virtually was the MVFC championship game. SDSU took a tie game into the fourth quarter 17-17 and would end the game with the final ten points to win the Dakota Marker Trophy for the first time since 2017.

That win over NDSU propelled SDSU to the #1 overall seed going into the playoffs with its 5-1 overall and MVFC record. With the top seed, the Jacks would play all three rounds before the national title game in Brookings should they win each round.

How did South Dakota State win its opening round playoff game?

QB Mark Gronowski threw a season-high three touchdown passes to the WR Janke (Jaxon & Jaden) brothers and the Jackrabbit defense held Patriot League champion Holy Cross out of the end zone as top-seeded South Dakota State opened the playoffs with a 31-3 victory.

The win moved the Jacks to the quarterfinals where SDSU would get a familar foe in MVFC mate Southern Illinois.

How did SDSU beat Southern Illinois in the quarterfinal round?

This game was a much different game than the two MVFC foes had in the regular season game. SIU raced to an early lead but the Jacks turned the tide with a goal-line stand and ensuing 67-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter by QB Mark Gronowski to turn back Southern Illinois, 31-26.

SDSU needed to overcame a 20-7 first-half deficit after the Salukis scored on four of their five first-half possessions. But it was Gronowski that led the Jacks with the come back. He accounted for 325 yards of total offense, completing 9-of-16 passes for 183 yards and rushing 13 times for a game-high 142 yards.

The win propelled SDSU to its third FCS semifinal round appearance in the last four seasons. The Jacks also made to this level in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. This year, though would be the first that SDSU would get to host against Delaware.

How did the Jackrabbits defeat Delaware in the semi-final round?

After allowing a field goal on Delaware’s first possession of the game, the Jacks defense went to work to shut the Blue Hens down the rest of the game. The defense matched a program playoff record with seven sacks and put together a big second quarter offensively to almost put the game away at the halftime break with a 27-3 lead.

The Jacks would get two more field goals in the second half to wrap up a convincing 33-3 win over the Colonial Athletic Association and previously undefeated champions.

The win moved SDSU to its first ever national title game where they will play Sam Houston State for the right to be crowned this season’s national titlist.

What is the prior history of postseason play for South Dakota State?

As mentioned, this season was the ninth straight season in the playoffs for the Jackrabbits so that streak started in 2012. SDSU also made the playoffs following the 2009 season so SDSU has made the FCS playoffs ten times in their history since moving up to the Division I ranks starting with their transition in 2004 and being fully eligible in 2008.

The coach for the entire Division I run has been John Stiegelmeier. He actually began his head coaching career in Brookings in the Division II days in 1997. And before that, Stiegelmeier had been an assistant coach for SDSU since 1988.

Stiegelmeier was also a student assistant coach for the Jacks in 1979, which was the only season that SDSU made the Division II football playoffs in their history. That season, SDSU lost to now MVFC mate Youngstown State in the opening round.

For the Division I side, SDSU now holds a 11-9 playoff record following the three wins this season. Four of the ten playoff seasons, North Dakota State had been the cliff to climb with the Jacks not able to defeat the Bison but all four of the contests were in Fargo.

Ready for Frisco

This FCS season has not gone great for any team really having to play in the spring but SDSU has made the most of the season to go the farthest it has ever went. While having NDSU as its rival, South Dakota State yearly knows how it needs to compete not only in the Missouri Valley Football Conference but also on a national basis.

This year’s team went to Fargo to beat NDSU and now has a chance to win its own national title.

The team has a leader in Gronowski, who was named not only the MVFC Newcomer of the Year but also the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year. Along with a strong running game led by Strong, Jr and Davis, along with a strong receiving corps, the Jacks offense is clicking now after sputtering a little to begin the season.

The defense though is really what has been the anchor for the Jackrabbits. Three All-MVFC performers in DT Caleb Sanders, LB Logan Backhaus, and CB Don Gardner have been the leaders to propel this team to the national title game. The Jacks defense will look to stop a very prolific offense in Sam Houston in the title game.

But if it can do that, it will make for the first national title for the school since the women’s basketball team won the Division II national title in 2003. This year’s SDSU football team looks just like it will do that.

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