FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Jimmy Rogers never dreamed of playing at South Dakota State, and certainly never anticipated becoming coach of the Jackrabbits.
The kid from Arizona who was a standout linebacker and captain of their first playoff team in 2009, then defensive coordinator for their first national title last season, is now the first-year head coach as the top-seeded Jackrabbits (14-0) try to repeat in the Football Championship Subdivision. They take a 28-game winning streak into Sunday’s game against No. 2 seed Montana (13-1).
“My reality becoming a dream means I wanted to do it at the highest level, and we’ve taken South Dakota State to the highest level,” Rogers said. “To be the head coach of it, I never envisioned that 18 years ago. … But I did envision winning national championships here.”
Less than two weeks after the Jackrabbits beat Missouri Valley Conference rival North Dakota State last January to become champions in John Stiegelmeier’s 26th season as head coach, he retired and Rogers was immediately named his successo r.
“I don’t think during the season there was ever really kind of that we’re playing for his last year-type vibe,” linebacker Adam Bock said.
Rogers’ coaching career began as an SDSU grad assistant in 2010. He played his final game in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, when the Jackrabbits led 48-21 late in the third quarter before Montana scored 40 unanswered points. — “It sticks with me,” Rogers said.
The Big Sky champion Grizzlies then went on to lose in the FCS title game for the second year in a row, ending coach Bobby Hauck’s first stint as their coach. They are in their first title game since, and first in Frisco, where the championship game has been played since the 2010 season.
“Each of the last two teams, ‘21 and ’22, had potential to be where we’re sitting now,” said Hauck who returned to the Griz in 2018. “Last year in particular, I think it was a matter of playing four of the top five (teams) on the road over a six-week span. That’s a tall task, especially for a team that was injured as we were.”
Mark Gronowski will start his third national title game as South Dakota State’s quarterback. The AP FCS All-American has thrown for 2,883 yards and 28 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
Gronowski was a true freshman during the pandemic-affected season when SDSU made its first title game in the unusual spring finale in May 2021. He tore the ACL in his left knee on the opening series, and missed the entire 2021 fall before returning last season.
Texas native and Central Arkansas transfer Clifton McDowell is 11-0 as Montana’s starter. His 751 yards rushing are a modern-day Griz record for a quarterback, and he has 1,861 yards and 13 TDs passing.
Isaiah Davis has consecutive 1,400-yard rushing seasons for the Jackrabbits since missing the last half of the 2021 fall season injured. He had 305 all-purpose yards (178 yards rushing, 114 kickoff return yards and 13 yards receiving) as a true freshman in that spring 2021 title game.
The Grizzlies’ 27 playoff appearances are the most in the second-tier of Division I football. They were national champs in 1995 and 2001, and runner-ups in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2009 — the last three of those under Hauck.
All three of South Dakota State’s title games have come in the past four seasons.
SOME EASIER THAN OTHERS
South Dakota State has two lopsided shutout victories in this playoff run — 41-0 over Mercer and 59-0 over Albany. Those games sandwiched a 23-12 win over Villanova in a game affected by 45-mph wind gusts.
After opening the playoffs with a 30-point win over Delaware, the Griz needed overtime to beat Furman, and two overtimes to win their semifinal against North Dakota State.
“We’re a hard-nosed tough team that fights our tail off,” said Grizzlies senior defensive tackle Alex Gubner, a first-teamer on AP FCS All-America team.
ON TV, ABC
For the fourth time in five years, ABC will broadcast the FCS title game. It will remain on that over-the-air network as part of a $920 million, eight-year agreement between the NCAA and ESPN announced this week that includes exclusive rights to 40 championships.
“Sometimes people think, well, ABC’s not that big a deal. It’s a big deal,” said Ty Halpin, the NCAA director of championships and alliances for Division I football. “Montana fans and SDSU fans are going to find the game wherever it is. … We’re trying to get to those people that maybe don’t really watch FCS football very often to grow what we’re doing.”
REMEMBERING COACH READ
Former Montana coach Don Read, who retired after leading the Griz to their first national title in 1995, died Wednesday. He was 90.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football