Jackrabbits open the scoring and never look back
When looking at the records that North Dakota State football has accomplished in its storied history, it would be foolish to consider the Bison as an underdog under any circumstance. Even as they faced their fiercest rival South Dakota State on the game’s biggest stage, the Bison have been champions too many times to be a dark horse. This past October, we witnessed quite possibly the greatest regular season matchup in Fargodome history and it certainly lived up to the hype. This time around, South Dakota State dominated the Bison by scoring the most points by any team in a title game in Frisco en route to the school’s first-ever athletic championship in their Division I history.
The Jacks’ offense came out firing right from the start despite being pinned back at their own 15-yard line. That didn’t faze Mark Gronowski, Isaiah Davis and the South Dakota State offense. Already running for two first downs on the drive, Davis broke free and went untouched to the end zone just as he did in the Fargodome earlier this year. Davis’ 16-yard scamper gave South Dakota State an early 7-0 lead with 9:12 remaining in the first quarter.
The Bison offense turned around and provided an emphatic response initiated by a big gain by Zach Mathis. After Kobe Johnson pitched the ball back to Miller on a flea flicker, Mathis wrenched the ball away from multiple Jacks defenders on a jump ball. Two plays later, on third and two, Miller floated a pass over the top of the Jackrabbits’ defense to Joe Stoffel who rumbled in for a 27-yard score to tie the game with 6:31 remaining in the first quarter.
The Jackrabbits continued to punish the Bison run defense with Davis and Amar Johnson. After a 12-yard run on a 3rd and six by Davis to extend the drive, Johnson took a handoff and followed a convoy of blockers and broke free up the middle, peeling away from Bison defenders into the end zone for a 32-yard score. With 12:50 remaining in the first half, the Jackrabbits took back their lead at 14-7.
“When I get in there and get comfortable it’s going to be a long day for the other team,” Johnson asserted. “Me and (Isaiah Davis) feed off each other, compete at practice every day, he makes me better as a running back as somebody to chase and I make him better as a running back too.”
The Bison look poised to respond as Kobe Johnson broke a first down run but at the end of the play, the ball was popped loose by Steven Arrell and recovered at the NDSU 34-yard line by cornerback Dalys Beanum. This turnover was detrimental and changed the course of the game as South Dakota State got a huge burst from the play. Coach Entz was rather candid in the significance of winning the turnover margin.
“If you lose the turnover margin by one, statistically or analytically you’re going to lose 60% of the time and when you lose by three it’s almost impossible to win,” Entz stated. “It’s something that we continually harp on all the time.”
The Jacks took full advantage of the turnover and scored in just four plays, which culminated in an 18-yard strike from Gronowski to Jaxon Janke. The Bison had a chance to get off the field the play before but Gronowski connected with Jadon Janke for 16 yards on a third and 10. The Jacks went 9-14 on the day on third down which was a pivotal piece in their success.
“That was one of our keys,” Bison safety Michael Tutsie stated of the Bison’s third-down struggles. “We talked about how we got to be better on 3rd down on both sides of the ball but on defense too and especially third and longs. They executed when they needed to.”
Shortly after the Bison were forced to punt, the Jacks made quick work of the Bison again. Garnering most of their success on the ground throughout the drive, Gronowski took off to his right and surprised the Bison defense when he flipped the ball over the heads of the secondary to Michael Morgan for a 44-yard score. Morgan’s second touchdown of the year on just his seventh reception boosted the Jacks’ lead to 28-7 with 3:30 to go in the half.
“Mike Morgan really stepped up and he wasn’t really practicing that play all week,” Gronowski said of the play. “It was really awesome to see him score a touchdown in this game and it brings juice to every single player whether that’s offense or defense.”
Just when the Bison looked like they were at a point of no return, they pushed the ball right down the field. On the fourth play of the drive, Miller looked downfield and connected with receiver Eli Green for a 44-yard touchdown, the first of his career. With the score, the Bison trimmed their deficit to 28-14 with 2:03 remaining in the half.
Although they didn’t reach the end zone, John Stiegelmeier’s squad did eclipse the 30-point threshold before the break. Following a 55-yard burst from Amar Johnson, South Dakota State entered the RedZone. Just a few plays later, Stiegelmeier let the clock run down and Hunter Dustman hit a 30-yard field goal as time expired to push the halftime lead to 31-14.
Coming out of the break, South Dakota State wasted no time piling on. After Isaiah Davis broke a 25-yard run on the first play of the half, Mark Gronowski took the ball to the house two plays later on a 51-yard dash. Just one minute and 47 seconds into the second half, the lead had ballooned up to 38-14. Prior to Sunday, the Bison had only trailed in an FCS national championship game four times, all by seven points or less.
Eventually, the Bison would get back on the board after a lengthy drive. After being pinned at their own 1-yard line, the Bison proceeded to drive 99 yards, capped by a 9-yard rush by Kobe Johnson. The 16-play drive that spanned nearly eight minutes pulled the Bison closer, but they still trailed 38-21 with 13:44 remaining in the game.
North Dakota State would get another opportunity to score shortly after but that drive ended when Miller was intercepted by Jason Freeman near midfield. The Jackrabbits would add insult to injury and put a final touchdown on the board. On 3rd and 16, Gronowski connected with Janke again on a 30-yard strike for his third touchdown pass of the day. The final score of the game with 8:05 remaining marked the most points North Dakota State has allowed in a game since 2009 against Sam Houston State.
On the ensuing Bison possession, Miller would be picked off for the second time by DyShawn Gales. The last time Miller was picked off twice in a game was in the quarterfinals of the 2021 spring season in a loss to Sam Houston State, which was also on a Sunday.
North Dakota State’s offense would get one final chance to score before Jacks Nation stormed the field. On fourth and seven from the 13-yard line, Miller tossed up a 50-50 ball for Mathis, but it fell incomplete. The Jackrabbits entered victory formation and sealed the deal. In his 26th year as the head coach, John Stiegelmeier won his alma mater their first-ever national title.
“It’s fun to have the feeling against them,” Stiegelmeier said of winning against NDSU. “It’s a great competition rivalry. I continue to think back to 2004 and wonder how it was going to work out. Well this was pretty sweet how it worked out.”
The Bison had won each of the last nine times they’d been to Frisco, therefore losing is something North Dakota State is not accustomed to. Since the start of 2011, this is only the second season where the Bison have lost more than two games, the other being the spring season of 2021.
“It’s extremely off to me,” Tutsie said of being on the other side of things. “The expectation here is we come here and we win in Frisco but I’m more worried about just spending these final moments with my teammates and coaches.”
For some Bison players like Tutsie, this is the last time that they’ll walk off the field in a Bison uniform. As a four-time national champion who finished second in Bison history with 184 solo tackles, Tutsie and the rest of the seniors certainly made their presence known during their time.
“I would do six years over like that if I could,” Tutsie stated on his career. “I would do it all over again without question. I love the people that I’ve been able to build relationships with; coaches, players, this program, the people in the community. Been a true honor and amazing experience for me and I’ll never forget it.”
Despite the departure of Tutsie, Dawson Weber, and NFL prospects Noah Gindorff, Hunter Luepke, and Cody Mauch, the Bison still have a lot returning. With so many injuries to key players, younger players got the opportunity to add experience going into the 2023 season.
“I thought we had a really good year we just couldn’t finish it,” Miller stated. “We’ve just got to work harder this offseason. We always stress don’t ever take these opportunities for granted and I don’t think we did but we just need to execute better.”
Cam Miller; 18-29 260 Yds 2 TD 2 INT; Zach Mathis; 7 Rec 123 Yds; Michael Tutsie; 12 Tck; 1 TFL