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Why the FCS title is South Dakota State’s to lose after a thrilling win over Montana State

Two plays. 34 seconds. One touchdown. One stop. That’s all it took for No. 1 South Dakota State to complete its second-half comeback against No. 3 Montana State in an early candidate for 2023’s FCS game of the year. 

After a thrilling 20-16 comeback victory, the Jackrabbits answered any and all questions about their ability to defend their FCS championship. Now, the statement win has South Dakota State as the clear FCS frontrunner.

The big-time win

The Jackrabbits have now won 16 straight games dating back to 2022 after defeating Montana State Saturday. In fact, the last FCS team to beat the Jacks was… Montana State in the 2021 FCS semifinals. 2023’s meeting marked the third meeting between the schools in as many seasons, but the first time the FCS powers have met in the regular season during that stretch.

“I would say this is a new rivalry,” South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski said. “To get a win against a great team, it’s just gonna keep us rolling throughout the rest of the season.”

The latest chapter in an emerging rivalry between South Dakota State and Montana State featured a new head coach on the Jackrabbit sideline, Jimmy Rogers.  Yet, even with Rogers in his second game at the helm, he steadied the troops to rally from a 10-0 halftime deficit and outscore the Bobcats 20-6 in the second half.

That’s why Saturday’s win sets the Jacks apart. Rogers proved the lights weren’t too bright for him on one of the biggest stages any FCS team will see this regular season. Rogers’ leadership kept South Dakota State and its players focused on the task at hand to get the job done.

“We’ve just gotta play at our best and do what we do best and not get complacent by what we’ve done to where we take our gas off the pedal,” Rogers said.

The implications

Week 2’s victory will have an impact far beyond Saturday. South Dakota State now has the momentum to carry it through the rest of its always-tough Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule. The Jackrabbits still have another preseason top-three team on the schedule in No. 2 North Dakota State, and they can use the Montana State game as a building block. It’ll be another home game as South Dakota State hosts the Dakota Marker — a rivalry the Jackrabbits have owned during the decade. 

Furthermore, South Dakota State’s win over Montana State will likely remain on the mind of the FCS playoff committee come November. The top eight teams each year are seeded, and unless the Jackrabbits or Bobcats fall off a cliff, both teams should be in contention for a playoff spot and/or seed. Teams with a top-two seed get home-field advantage until the title game in Frisco, so South Dakota State’s win in September could be why it gets to play in front of its home crowd in December.

The crowd

If the Jackrabbits get home-field advantage in the FCS playoffs for the second year in a row, they’ll be an even harder out. The South Dakota State home crowd was deafening at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, especially when Montana State had the ball. The Bobcats had NINE false starts, seven coming inside the South Dakota State 20-yard line near the student section on the closed end of the stadium. Three of the false starts came on third or fourth down.

South Dakota State fans haven’t seen a home loss in 15 games, dating back to 2021, creating the atmosphere needed for the Jackrabbits to thrive. With 11 of the last 12 FCS championship game participants only playing home games through the FCS semifinal round, the impact of the early-season win over Montana State could be a difference in another Jackrabbit championship run.

The talented team

There might not be a more talented team in the FCS than South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits are loaded with returning All-MVFC players and their fair share of preseason All-Americans including cornerback Dyshawn Gales, running back Isaiah Davis, offensive lineman Mason McCormick and wide receiver Jaxon Janke to name a few. 

The only weak spot in Brookings might be the defensive line. Montana State gained 211 rushing yards, Week 1’s DII opponent Western Oregon gained 102 rushing yards and South Dakota State has zero sacks through two games. However, depth elsewhere on the roster counters the defensive line’s struggles. All-American linebacker Adam Bock didn’t play against Montana State, but the rest of the defense didn’t miss a beat for most of the second half.

For all the talent on the roster, the quarterback position is the glue that holds the Jackrabbit title hopes together.

The quarterback

In DJ Khaled fashion, all quarterback Mark Gronowski has done is win since taking over the reins as a true freshman. Gronowski is now 24-2 in games finished as a starter two weeks into his fourth year with the Jackrabbits. He’s never failed to take South Dakota State to the FCS title game in his two healthy seasons as a starter, and he’s now more than two years removed from a knee injury that kept him out a year. 

Gronowski’s winning ways were needed in the fourth quarter Saturday and he provided them. Trailing by three points with two minutes to play, it only took two of his passes to find the endzone for the go-ahead score.

“That’s Mark Gronowski, he’s clutch,” said Coach Rogers. “He didn’t play his best game and he knows that, but he delivered in the biggest moment.”

Gronowski played like the veteran he is during crunch time. His experience and poise showed. He hasn’t lost a beat from last season, in fact, he’s gotten better. With Gronowski at the helm, the ceiling has grown for the Jackrabbits.

The favorite

If South Dakota State wasn’t your FCS title favorite before Week 2, it should be moving forward. While “the game of football is fickle” in the words of Coach Rogers, the Jackrabbits proved worthy of such expectations in Saturday’s win.

South Dakota State showed the resiliency needed for another deep postseason run. It has the players, the coach, the fans and most importantly, the belief that can carry this team back to the top of the FCS. 

“Believe is our key,” Gronowski said.

Source: NCAA