FRISCO, Texas — Both South Dakota State and Sam Houston are banging on the door for their first national championship in NCAA Division I FCS football.
But by Sunday evening, only one will have broken through for the glory.
The South Dakota State football program has climbed to the top of the FCS pile by reaching the title game. But a win would fulfill the trek for a title that began after SDSU moved from Division II to Division I in 2004.
“We have more than 1,000 Jackrabbit alumni that have played football here for us,” SDSU linebacker Logan Backhaus said. “They’re supporting us the whole way. I feel like it’s really important for us as a team to keep building on the legacy that they left us.”
Sunday’s game kicks off at 1 p.m. from Toyota Stadium in suburban Dallas, and is televised on ABC. SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said his coaching staff is not magnifying the game more than any other week
“We’re always just going to be us,” SDSU defensive lineman Xavier Ward said. “Any team can beat any team and it just takes a will and a drive. And at the end of the day, we’re going to be us and play our game.”
If there’s one pregame theme both teams agree upon, it’s that Sunday’s showdown will be a physical battle. That is a major storyline with the 9-0 Bearkats, a program that had earned the reputation of playing in a offensive-focused, defense-optional Southland Conference. The Bearkats, which has built to be a tougher team on the offensive and defensive lines, will try to “match physical with physical,” Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler said.
“I think you have two very good teams that are battle-tested playing for a national championship,” Keeler said. “It’s not a fluke that we’re both here.”
The premier battle is when SDSU (8-1) has the ball, seeking to run the ball against Sam Houston’s difficult defensive front. The Jackrabbits are among the nation’s top rushing offenses, averaging almost 231 yards per game and about 6 yards per carry. Sam Houston’s defense allows 79 yards of rushing per game and just four touchdowns on the ground all year, as part of a defense allowing under 20 points per contest. The Bearkats have gone 20 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
“I think these are the situations where guys really rise up,” Stiegelmeier said. “It’s one of our strengths against maybe their strength and that’s our personality, that’s our signature, running the football. The big guys, the hogs will be ready for the challenge. Take a lot of pride in us moving the ball on the ground.”
On defense, SDSU is allowing only 14 points per game, which has been third-best in the country this year and allows 280 yards of offense to opponents. For the third straight week, SDSU will face a quarterback that has shown a propensity to run in Eric Schmid, the Bearkats’ signal-caller who has thrown for nearly 2,600 yards and 17 touchdowns, but also has eight rushing touchdowns.
“There are no weaknesses. I would say there are a lot of strengths,” Stiegelmeier said of Sam Houston. “Their quarterback is very good, there’s a lot of skill on offense, their lines are very good. If you said where have they improved the most from the Sam Houstons I’ve watched in the past, it’s been their total defense and especially their defensive line.”
Keeler and the Bearkats said this week they believe they are finishing a run of playing the three best teams in the country (not including themselves in that conversation). They defeated perennial champions North Dakota State 24-20 in the quarterfinals and defeated No. 3 seed James Madison 38-35 after rallying from a 21-point halftime hole.
“They can score fast and they can change games really quickly,” Backhaus said. “That’s something we’ve focused on all year, once we get the lead, stay on the gas. Keep moving forward and don’t let up until the game is over. That’s going to be really important this week.”
Keeler, who is seeking to become the first coach to win national championships at two different FCS schools after leading Delaware to a title in 2003, noted that both teams play “very edgy” and in an aggressive manner. A win on Sunday would make him the winningest coach in FCS playoff history, breaking a record held by former Youngstown State and Ohio State coach Jim Tressel.
“This is the one that you get the gold ring for,” Keeler said. “This is the one that is the ultimate goal for everyone who plays this sport.”
SDSU quarterback Mark Gronowski is a freshman but has been well-schooled in the battles the Jackrabbits have waged in past seasons. He said the team is battle-tested, having rallied in the fourth-quarter three times this season for victories and holding six wins over FCS playoff teams this year.
“Those semifinals in those past years were really tough and just trying to get over this hump has been a great deal,” Gronowski said. “Winning the conference has put a great chip on our shoulders and given us the confidence and motivation during this season and we’re feeling great going into this week.”