Sunday’s FCS title tilt will be “Battle of the Dakotas”

January 5, 2023

(UNDATED (AP)–The tiny South Dakota town of Rosholt isn’t all that far from the North Dakota state line and is a place where allegiances are split between the Jackrabbits and Bison year-round — and never more pronounced than this week.

The South Dakota State Jackrabbits from Brookings and North Dakota State Bison from Fargo will play for the Football Championship Subdivision title in Frisco, Texas, on Sunday. It’s a matchup fans have been hoping for since the schools, separated by 189 miles, began their moves to Division I together in 2004.

Friends Lisa Braun and JoAnn Foltz sat at the same table during happy hour at the Corner Bar in Rosholt this week. Braun is Team Jackrabbit. Foltz is Team Bison.

Braun’s son went to SDSU, and the recently retired physician’s assistant used to drive across the state line to her job in Wahpeton.

“I was one of three SDSU fans at the clinic there having to put up with all the Bison fans for about 15 years,” she said. Braun considers it a respectful rivalry but, speaking for fellow Jacks fans, said: “We’re tired of the Bison always winning.”

SDSU is a proud program that produced, among others, Pro Football Hall of Fame center Jim Langer and 24-year NFL kicker and career scoring leader Adam Vinatieri.

Still, the Jacks have been overshadowed for decades by the Bison, who were voted Division II national champions three times in the 1960s, won five Division II playoff titles from 1983-90 and will be playing for their 10th FCS crown in 12 years.

Jason Mork of Sioux Falls, who attended SDSU and has gone to Jacks games for 50 years, said something just feels right about playing NDSU in the final.

“There would be nobody more satisfying to beat,” he said. “At the same time, there probably is nobody more horrible to lose to.”

The game will mark the 114th time the teams have squared off since 1903, when the school then known as the North Dakota Agricultural College won 85-0. The Bison have won the three previous FCS playoff meetings and hold a 63-45-5 lead in the series.

The gap has narrowed recently. SDSU has won the last three meetings, including a 23-21 come-from-behind victory in Fargo on Oct. 15.

NDSU (12-2), however, continues to be the standard bearer in the second tier of Division I football. The Bison beat Montana State last season for their latest championship, and their record is a gaudy 179-32 since they became full-fledged Division I members in 2008.

South Dakota State (13-1) made its only previous title game appearance in May 2021, losing to Sam Houston State in the COVID-19 season pushed back to spring. The Jacks are an impressive 124-56 in their FCS era but remain the little brother in the dynamic with their neighbor to the north.

Watch parties will be held across the Dakotas, and the most ardent fans will make the long drive down Interstates 29 and 35 to see the game in person.

Bison backers are expected to outnumber Jacks fans at Toyota Stadium. Each school received 4,500 tickets to sell, and those were gone within hours. Many NDSU fans expect the Bison to reach the championship game every year and buy their tickets well in advance. The bottom price for a ticket on the secondary market was $143 at midweek.

Adam Timmerman, a two-time Division II All-America offensive lineman for the Jacks in the early 1990s before his 12-year NFL career, said the matchup is especially meaningful to players of yesteryear.

The rivalry was born in the days of the North Central Conference. SDSU and NDSU joined as charter members in 1922, and the NCC grew into one of the most powerful Division II leagues before schools began leaving for Division I in the 2000s.

Timmerman said he was skeptical when SDSU announced it would go along with NDSU to Division I. The Jacks had been a middling Division II team in the years immediately before the transition, so there was concern about how they would fare against better competition.

Timmerman credits former school president Peggy Miller, former athletic director Fred Oien and coach John Stiegelmeier for having foresight and the perseverance to overcome opposition on several fronts.

Stiegelmeier has bridged the Division II and I eras. He was a defensive assistant under two head coaches from 1988-96 before landing the top job in 1997. Stiegelmeier recently recalled how a former player once asked him why the Jacks even got on the bus for games at NDSU when, to the player, losing was a foregone conclusion.

“I thought, ‘We’re going to change that mentality,’” Stiegelmeier said, “and, ideally, we have.”

Timmerman, who played on the 1993 SDSU team that ended a 16-game losing streak in the series, said the confidence Stiegelmeier has instilled in his players and the fan base is palpable.

“We have aspired to be what North Dakota State has been,” Timmerman said, “for a long time.”

Kickoff for Sunday’s championship game is 1:00 p.m. at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The game can be heard on 950 KWAT Radio.