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‘Playing for the prize:’ SDSU, NDSU put finishing touches on championship preparations

“You’ve just got to go beat them; you can't outsmart them,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said of the Bison. “… We're looking forward to the challenge.”

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Crews paint South Dakota State's blue and yellow checkerboard endzone on the grass as part of the final preparations for the FCS national championship game on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Landon Dierks / Mitchell Republic
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FRISCO, Texas — The final countdown is on.

With South Dakota State and North Dakota State arriving in Texas on Thursday and taking on the gamut of team photos, media responsibilities and (closed) practices on Friday, less than 48 hours remain before the Dakota Marker rivalry is played before a national TV audience for the first time.

No, the 75-pound stone trophy isn’t at stake this time around — that’s always been the case when the Jacks and Bison have met in the postseason — but something far greater, a trophy that will never leave the display case, is on the line Sunday afternoon.

“It's not the Dakota Marker game, which has a life of its own. Obviously, in Frisco, you're playing for the prize,” said SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier. “But it's against a rival, and I think that's a neat story for both our programs, both our universities and the Missouri Valley Football Conference.”

Stiegelmeier and NDSU head coach Matt Entz were both complimentary of each other’s programs and acknowledged that the two team’s familiarity with one another has added an extra wrinkle to the preparations for this championship game.

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“There's familiarity on both sides. We both have a pretty good bead on personnel, a good bead on what each team likes to do from a schematic standpoint,” Entz said. “So I anticipate there'll be a little bit of a chess match at different times on Sunday, but at the end of it, it's the team who's able to execute the best and make the fewest errors that’s going to have the greatest chance to win.”

Entz also alluded to several players who suffered recent injuries being limited or unavailable, saying “we weren’t ever going to get as healthy as I’d like to,” though he didn't provide specifics.

Stiegelmeier noted that the Bison will field plenty of talent at every position regardless of injury status. However, the loss of utility back Hunter Luepke, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in November that required surgery, is likely to make the Bison offensive approach “a little different” to what SDSU encountered in October.

Neither coach was keen to discuss prior championship experience at length, even with its disparity both in volume and success — NDSU is 9-0 in Frisco, while SDSU is 0-1.

Instead, both opted to underscore that all prior results effectively go out the window upon reaching this stage. Teams that advance as far as a national championship don’t do so by accident, they have the talent, coaching and confidence to win the one game necessary to end the season as national champions.

Underdog, favorite, it hardly matters. All that’s left is to play the game and crown a champion.

“You’ve just got to go beat them; you can't outsmart them,” Stiegelmeier said. “… They are the best coached team we faced in the Missouri Valley, so we're looking forward to the challenge.”

“The fact that we're down here, there's a great opportunity and our kids have earned this opportunity,” Entz said. “I think that's all the motivation that they need right now. We get to play for a national championship on Sunday and we're excited about that.”

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“We have this opportunity again, and I'm just really excited for the chance to play there,“ said Gronowski, who was injured on the first series of the spring 2021 FCS championship game.

Dierks covers prep and collegiate athletics across the Mitchell Republic's coverage region area, focusing on Mitchell High School football and boys basketball and area high school football, volleyball and basketball, as well as Dakota Wesleyan women's basketball. He was also the lead on the Mitchell Republic Gridiron Spotlight, producing video and providing live play-by-play for the traveling weekly prep football broadcast during its first season in the fall of 2021. Dierks is a Mitchell native who graduated from South Dakota State University with his bachelor's degree in journalism in May 2020. He joined the Mitchell Republic sports staff in August 2021. He can be reached at ldierks@mitchellrepublic.com and found on Twitter at @LDierksy.
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