Freshman QB Mark Gronowski powers South Dakota State to cusp of national title game
Jackrabbits face Delaware in home FCS semifinal game
All season, South Dakota State has put its national championship hopes in the hands of a true freshman quarterback.
And Mark Gronowski has met the challenge.
Gronowski, a 6-foot-3 freshman quarterback, has engineered the Jackrabbits to within two victories of a national championship, and a victory Saturday over Delaware in the FCS semifinals would send the Jackrabbits (7-1) to the national title game for the first time in school history.
The native of Naperville, Illinois has had a mix of passing and rushing effectiveness in the SDSU offense, helping protect the football for a team scoring nearly 30 points per game.
Gronowski has made the three-pronged rushing attack go, alongside running backs Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis, rushing for 7.3 yards per carry in a run game that has rushed for nearly 239 yards per game.
Trailing by as many as 13 points against Southern Illinois in the quarterfinal round on Sunday, May 2, Gronowski said he knew his number would be called more often as the Salukis loaded up the box against SDSU’s run-heavy formations to stop Strong and Davis. Running Gronowski became more important — to use the one player that defenses have the hardest time accounting for.
Gronowski responded with a career-high 142 yards on 13 carries and a 67-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that put SDSU in front for good in a 31-26 win. It is his fourth game this season rushing for more than 100 yards, with SDSU winning all four games.
“I really have to give it up to our linemen,” he said after the win. “They’re just a great group of guys that are always working 100 percent, giving all of their efforts to a play. They’re really giving us the push every single time, pushing any defensive line off the ball at least three yards and it makes it easier to bounce it out, get bigger plays and just hit the holes.”
SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said this week that Gronowski looks more like a linebacker than a quarterback. But under center, Gronowski has benefitted from nearly a full year in the Jackrabbit program, starting in the summer of 2020 and all the way through a fall camp and practice season to prepare for the competitive season in February due to COVID-19.
As a defensive-minded coach, Stiegelmeier joked this week that it should almost be illegal to run the quarterback that much, given how difficult it is to defend. Gronowski has run the ball 74 times in the first eight games for 540 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Right now, it’s do or die to move on, so we’re not going to spare any plays,” Stiegelmeier said. “We’re trying to get to Frisco, Texas. That’s what we’re trying to do as coaches. Ideally in the chess game of football, we’re trying to put our players in the position to succeed. And then it’s our 11 guys trying to execute against their 11 guys.”
Gronowski continues a trend of SDSU quarterbacks more than capable of rushing the football, picking up in many ways where four-year starter Taryn Christion left off in 2018. Christion, the product of Sioux Falls Roosevelt, rushed for 1,515 yards in 48 games, with a season-high of 500 yards in his junior year.
Gronowski has already covered a third of that in just eight games, made even more impressive given that college quarterbacks have sack yardage taken subtracted from their rushing stats.
Stiegelmeier said his offense has benefited from a healthy offensive line, which he said operates as “one heartbeat and one voice.”
“And Mark is a really good football player and quite often, when he has a chance, he’ll make a play,” Stiegelmeier said.
It marks the third time this season Gronowski and the Jacks have rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit to win the game. Gronowski said SDSU has handled the pressure of being a No. 1 seed in the tournament well to this point and is trying to enjoy every moment on the field.
“As long as we continue to be us, we can do anything,” Gronowski said.
Blue Hen battle in Brookings
SDSU finds Delaware standing in between the Jackrabbits and a trip to Frisco, Texas for the May 16 national championship game. And the Blue Hens are a stout opponent, with a tough defense.
Delaware allows under five yards per passing attempt, tops in the FCS, and just 108 passing yards per game. Stiegelmeier said he found the Blue Hens most impressive on defense.
Delaware reached the semifinals on the strength of a 20-14 win at No. 4 overall seed Jacksonville State. They beat Sacred Heart 19-10 in the opening round on April 24. The Blue Hens won the Colonial Athletic Associations’ North Division, meaning they did not play perennial power and fellow CAA semifinalist James Madison, who faces Sam Houston on Saturday in the other semifinal. Delaware’s 27-20 win over then-No. 7-ranked and rival Villanova on April 17 was the regular-season crowning achievement for the Blue Hens.
On offense, Blue Hen running back Dejoun Lee was the CAA’s offensive player of the year, but has just 105 yards on 51 carries with a touchdown in the last three games. Quarterback Nolan Henderson has an ability to pass and run, but left last week’s game with the Gamecocks banged up.
Stiegelmeier said he knows there’s excitement around the home semifinal game, which kicks off at 11 a.m. and will be televised on ESPN.
“People are excited, people are proud, people are appreciative of what our program has accomplished and more importantly what our program stands for,” Stiegelmeier said. “I would love to even try to daydream about what it means to go to Frisco … but right now, we’ve got to a win a semifinal, which we have not done also.”