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NDSU football

NDSU, SDSU meet in playoffs for first time

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NDSU Bison

FARGO — There were some at North Dakota State and South Dakota State who weren’t thrilled with the idea of moving up from NCAA Division II to Division I, a decision that cost both teams games against their in-state rivals.

Seven years later, both schools are enjoying success on the football field. SDSU, in fact, is faring better in Division I than it did in Division II. And after playing each other 99 times over the years, the Bison and Jackrabbits will square off in the playoffs for the first time.

“I think both schools had a lot of naysayers,” NDSU coach Craig Bohl said of the colleges moving up to Division I. “We linked arms several years ago and took a long-term approach. We didn’t do it the quick way and take a bunch of transfers. We developed players.”

The Bison had a proud history in Division II, winning nine national titles, including six after a playoff system was instituted. Most expected them to make their mark quickly in Division I, and they did. Last season’s Championship Subdivision championship came in NDSU’s fourth year of D-I eligibility.

The Jackrabbits qualified for the postseason just once in 31 years of the Division II playoffs, losing in the first round in 1979. They’ve made the FCS playoffs twice and coach John Stiegelmeier’s program has now posted winning records in seven of its nine seasons in the FCS.

The move cost both teams their longtime rivals, when the University of South Dakota and University of North Dakota opted to stay in Division II. Asked if SDSU boosters thought the jump to Division I was a good move, Stiegelmeier conceded there were mixed feelings.

“There was no reference point,” Stiegelmeier said. “I don’t know if we were naive to some of the stuff, including all the benefits. It took a little while, but I would say the state is 100 percent behind what we’ve done so far.”

The two schools have sweetened the pot with an award for the winner of the football matchup. The Dakota Marker, a replica of the quartzite monuments that used to mark the border between North and South Dakota, has turned out to be a tough trophy. NDSU has won it five times, SDSU on four occasions.

Justin Sell, the SDSU athletic director, calls it one of the “coolest rivalries” he’s been a part of because the schools have many similarities.

“We are partners. And when we’re not playing, we’re good friends,” Sell said.

The playoff game today comes three weeks after NDSU held off visiting SDSU 20-17 in a game that ultimately decided the Missouri Valley Football League championship. While the Bison were enjoying a bye last week in the first round of playoffs, SDSU opened the postseason by whipping Eastern Illinois 58-10.

“Everyone says it’s tough to beat a team twice,” said NDSU offensive lineman Billy Turner. “To play a team twice in the same year, especially within three weeks, is crazy, but hopefully it’s a challenge we’ll be able to overcome.”

Most believe the matchup boils down to NDSU’s defense on SDSU running back Zach Zenner. NDSU leads the FCS in total defense (196 yards allowed per game), passing defense (129), rushing defense (67), and scoring defense (11.82 points per game).

Zenner leads the FCS in rushing with an average of more than 166 yards per outing.

“It starts with their running game and it starts with Zenner,” Bison linebacker Grant Olson said. “So if we can shut that down, that will give us the best chance to win.”

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