ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

South Dakota State FCS Championship notebook: Most outstanding player Mark Gronowski finishes what he started

Emptying the notebook from the Jackrabbits' FCS title game win, with stories including Mark Gronowski's MOP performance, dominant line play and the SDSU fanbase making an impression in Frisco.

010923.S.FF.NDSUfootball
South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski leaps for joy after the final snap as the sun sets in the win over NDSU during the NCAA FCS title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.
David Samson / Forum News Service
We are part of The Trust Project.

FRISCO, Texas — As yellow and blue confetti fluttered through the cloudless Texas sky and South Dakota State players took turns hoisting the national championship trophy, only one ceremonial element of the Jackrabbits' coronation remained — naming a most outstanding player.

But who had earned the prestigious honor was a foregone conclusion.

Quarterback Mark Gronowski, who had torn his ACL in the opening moments of the spring 2021 championship game, wasn’t going to be denied glory twice.

The sophomore signal-caller was effectively perfect in delivering a first title in program history to SDSU, completing 14 of 21 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns and adding a 51-yard rushing touchdown that kick-started the party from Frisco to Brookings to his hometown of Naperville, Illinois.

“It means the world to me,” Gronowski said afterward. “I've got to thank every single person that's helped me along this journey … for getting me back to where I am right now. There's no better feeling in the world.”

ADVERTISEMENT

NCAA Football: DI Football Championship-South Dakota State vs North Dakota State
South Dakota State Jackrabbits quarterback Mark Gronowski (11) poses with his D-I Football Championship MVP trophy after defeating the North Dakota State Bison on Jan. 8, 2023 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Chris Jones/USA TODAY Sports

As Gronowski accepted the award, chants of “MVP, MVP,” led by his teammates echoed across the field at Toyota Stadium. Almost immediately after shaking hands with the award presenter, Gronowski turned and attempted to give it to All-American offensive lineman Mason McCormick, shouting over the crowd, “This (award) is your guys’, too.”

Such a sequence perfectly encapsulates the young, charismatic quarterback that SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier has regarded as his team’s best leader since he stepped onto campus as a true freshman. And for his play, Gronowski drew high praise from the opposition.

“Their quarterback is a tremendous competitor, very talented young man,” said North Dakota State coach Matt Entz. “You can see kind of his growth as the year has unfolded. They really cut him loose here today because he's healthy, and it showed.”

“He's always been a good competitor, good moxie, runs their offense well,” added NDSU safety Michael Tutsie. “He did his thing (on Sunday). Salute to him.”

NCAA Football: DI Football Championship-South Dakota State vs North Dakota State
South Dakota State Jackrabbits quarterback Mark Gronowski (11) throws a pass against the North Dakota State Bison during the second half of the D-I Football Championship on Jan. 8, 2023 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Chris Jones/USA TODAY Sports

Domination in the trenches

During the Division I era, South Dakota State closed the gap on North Dakota State primarily through one avenue, and it's hardly a secret: building an elite group of linemen, both offensive and defensive.

“I think they're recruiting at a better level than I think they were maybe early in my career,” Entz said of the narrowed talent gap. “(SDSU has) improved play up front on the offensive line and having more skill kids.”

In recent years, a strong argument can be made that SDSU has usurped their northern rivals in the play up front on both sides of the football.

ADVERTISEMENT

And on Sunday afternoon, it was almost as if both offensive and defensive line units — the “605 Hogs” and “Chain Gang” — were taking out years of frustration pent up by prior generations of SDSU football players as the Jackrabbits whooped the Bison at the point of attack from start to finish.

One telling statistic that illustrates the brilliant line play is big plays, defined as passing gains of 15 yards or more and rushing gains of 10 yards or more. Of 60 total plays, 15 — eight passing, seven rushing — fit this criterion (11 coming in the 31-point first half), with the Jacks averaging 8.7 yards per play.

010823.FCSchampionship20.JPG
South Dakota State offensive lineman Garret Greenfield (74) raises his hands in celebration after a touchdown was confirmed by replay during the Jackrabbits' FCS national championship victory on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Landon Dierks / Mitchell Republic

The Bison managed 14 such big plays, but eight came after SDSU had pulled ahead by 24 points in the second half and shifted into a game management mode.

“It's all about belief, and our team always believed that no matter what the down was, we were going to get a big play,” Gronowski said. “We were going to score first. We were going to get a first down. We were going to score touchdowns. Continuing to do that throughout the entire day just kind of has an avalanche effect.”

Another key indicator was third downs, where SDSU accumulated a pronounced advantage despite the two sides having a similar average distance to gain (SDSU 6.9 yards, NDSU 7.3).

On offense, the Jacks converted seven of their first eight third downs to extend drives and build a big lead that was never truly threatened, finishing nine of 13 with a pair of third-down scores of 30-plus yards. Defensively, they held NDSU to 5 of 12.

“We've got to get off the field,” Entz lamented. “There's only eight to ten series a game. We can't let them have the ball as long as they do, and we have to be better on third down.”

‘Jackrabbit Nation’ showed out

In the leadup to the game, much was made of NDSU tradition of transforming Frisco into “Fargo South” and fans possessing the institutional knowledge to purchase tickets early in the season in anticipation of a championship game appearance.

ADVERTISEMENT

That pointed to a scenario in which NDSU would have a somewhat pronounced advantage over SDSU in turning Toyota Stadium into a home field-esque atmosphere.

But that reality didn’t play out on Sunday.

Though it’s nearly impossible to accurately account for numbers comprising both fanbases at the game, a quick 360-degree scan of the venue made it appear that SDSU had more support in Frisco than the nine-time champions.

010923.S.FF.NDSUfootball
South Dakota State fans celebrate the win over NDSU after the NCAA FCS title game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023.
David Samson/The Forum
010823.FCSchampionship50.JPG
South Dakota State football fans raise signs prior to kickoff of the FCS national championship game on Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Landon Dierks / Mitchell Republic

There were certainly thousands of yellow and green-clad Bison faithful in the west-side seats and dozens more dotting other areas of the venue, but the east-side seats and much of the south endzone seating was chock-full of blue.

The gravity of that support was not lost on the Jackrabbits.

“Our fan support was beyond our imagination,” Stiegelmeier said. “That was so, so fun to see them show up. We made a memory.”

“Having Jacks Nation right behind us, making all that noise for us … it makes us a better team at the end of the day,” added running back Amar Johnson, who rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. “Shout-out to Jacks Nation for coming out.”

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.
What To Read Next
Prep basketball action from around the state for Thursday, Feb. 2.
Freshman Matthew Mors had his coming out party on Thursday night at Frost Arena.
Tasos Kamateros scored 23 points to lead USD, bouncing back from a 50-point loss to Oral Roberts
New coach Jimmy Rogers with one spot left to fill on staff