SDSU football retains Dakota Marker trophy, beats NDSU 27-19

BROOKINGS – So maybe the moose on the field was a good omen.

About 24 hours after a moose ran wild across the turf at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium, South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong took a handoff on the second play of the Dakota Marker game against North Dakota State and raced towards the same corner of the field where the moose exited, scoring a 75-yard touchdown run to give the 12th-ranked Jackrabbits a lead that they’d never relinquish on their way to a 27-19 win over the Bison in front of 18,122 fans.

“I think I’m faster than the moose,” a beaming Strong said in the postgame press conference. “He might be bigger, but I’m faster.”

The win ensures the 75-pound Dakota Marker trophy will reside in Brookings for another year, knocks NDSU (8-1, 5-1) from the ranks of unbeaten and vaults the Jackrabbits (7-2, 4-2) back into the playoff seed picture. It was SDSU’s first win this year against a Division I team with a winning record, and their first home win in league play in three tries.

After a spring season in which they went all the way to Frisco for the national championship SDSU’s recent home struggles had many wondering what’s wrong with the Jacks, but they potentially saved their season with Saturday’s well-earned rivalry win.

“It’s good medicine,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said of the win. “We needed it big-time.”

South Dakota State's Pierre Strong, Jr. avoids a tackle by North Dakota State's Michael Tutsie in the annual Dakota Marker game on Saturday, November 6, 2021 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings.

Added Strong, who rushed for 156 yards to go over 1,000 for the season (for the third time in his career): “It felt great. To keep (the Marker) at home for another year means the world. We’ve got our confidence and our swagger back.”

The Jacks led by 20 at one point, the same margin, you may remember, that they couldn’t hold a month ago against Southern Illinois. And while the Bison rallied, cutting a 27-7 lead down to 27-19 (with the help of an intentional safety by the Jacks) they couldn’t finish the comeback. After NDSU had pulled within eight on a 33-yard Jake Reinholz field goal, Cale Reeder snagged the onside kick in traffic with a minute to go to seal the win.

SDSU can now turn its attention towards another rivalry game – they visit South Dakota next week, the first meeting since the Coyotes scored their first win in the Division I era of the series back in 2019.

The Jacks have now won four of the last six Dakota Marker meetings, and they’ve narrowed the series ledger to 10-8 in favor of the Bison.

Don Gardner returns to defense after injury

The Jacks got a major boost to their efforts before the game even started, as All-American cornerback Don Gardner returned to the lineup after missing the last five games with a broken arm. Nobody really expected Gardner to play all week, but he was given the green light at 12:15 – less than two hours before kickoff. He played well, with a cast on his left arm, but more than anything provided an emotional lift to his teammates.

North Dakota State's Zach Mathis is tackled by multiple South Dakota State players in the annual Dakota Marker game on Saturday, November 6, 2021 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings.

“The biggest play he made was when he was named off as a starter in the locker room before the game,” Stiegelmeier said. “The energy that came from that was unbelievable.”

That energy paid off immediately.

Strong’s early touchdown came stunningly easy – once he got past the line of scrimmage there was nobody home from the NDSU defense and he cruised to the end zone. Given SDSU’s recent home struggles, a slow start could’ve caused anxiety with the home team. Instead, Strong’s run set the tone – for both teams.

“Just a missed fit. Somebody in the wrong gap,” said Bison linebacker Jackson Hankey. “Things like that happen, good teams are able to capitalize and it turns into a big play. Unfortunately, it's seven points. We gave them 27.”

Strong was hardly finished. After NDSU pulled even on a touchdown pass from Cam Miller to Josh Babicz and a 1-yard run by Strong put SDSU back up 14-7, a key sequence unfolded.

Trick play results in 21-7 lead for Jackrabbits

After NDSU forced a stop deep in Jacks territory, the Bison were flagged for roughing the punter, a 15-yard penalty that extended the drive. Later, NDSU got another stop on third-and-long, but this time they were whistled for a face mask penalty. Another 15 yards, another first down, and SDSU would move all the way down to the goal line. That’s where the Bison again stuffed the Jacks on third down, and on fourth and goal from the 1, offensive coordinator Jason Eck reached deep into his bag of tricks.

South Dakota State fans cheer as the team scores a touchdown in the annual Dakota Marker game on Saturday, November 6, 2021 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings.

The Jacks lined up with quarterback Chris Oladokun under center and Strong directly behind him. Center Wes Genant snapped the ball through Oladokun’s legs, back to Strong, who then paused two seconds, pretending the play had been busted. Tight end Tucker Kraft slid off a block into the end zone, and Strong lofted him the ball for an easy touchdown and a 21-7 lead.

“We’ve had that play dialed up for awhile, we just haven’t had an opportunity to get it called,” said offensive tackle Aron Johnson. “I was thinking it’s about damn time.”

Quipped Stiegelmeier: “We won’t be able to use that again for three years.”

A pair of Cole Frahm field goals in and out of halftime pushed the lead to 27-7, at which point the NDSU defense began to corral the Jacks. The Bison ended up outgaining SDSU 365-349, but they didn’t show much urgency even when trying to rally, and other than a 40-yard connection between Miller and Christian Watson, had few big plays. The Bison had two turnovers, SDSU had none.

A Miller to RaJa Nelson touchdown pass cut the lead to 27-14, and SDSU gave the Bison two points when they took a safety from their own 1-yard line rather than attempt to punt and risk a block. That did crack the door for NDSU to tie with a field goal, touchdown and 2-point conversion, but they could only get the three.

South Dakota State's Tucker Kraft takes a bow after a trick play that turned into a touchdown in the annual Dakota Marker game on Saturday, November 6, 2021 at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings.

“I think we have a better football team than what we put out there today,” said Bison coach Matt Entz, who is now 1-2 against SDSU and 30-2 against everyone else. “That’s a good football team over there and you can’t spot them a couple, three touchdowns and turn the ball over like we did and think you’re going to be able to compete with a good football team. I expect more out of how we play.”

As for the Jacks, they insisted the recent home struggles weren’t much on their mind coming in, but proving to themselves (and their fans) they can play well in this kind of home environment was important.

“It feels great,” Gardner said. “We knew going into this we had to win it for the home crowd. We lost two games at home so we had something to prove, and we did just that.”

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: South Dakota State Jacks retain Dakota Marker trophy, beat NDSU 27-19