While Sam Houston had three straight close calls to start the postseason, South Dakota State has had a little more breathing room in recent weeks.
The Jackrabbits had to comeback to beat Southern Illinois 31-26 in the quarterfinals, but delivered blowout victories over Delaware and Holy Cross by an average of 29 points in their other two playoffs games. Now, just like the Bearkats, they'll look to bring home the first FCS championship in program history.
In order to gain better insight into Sam Houston’s opponent, we caught up with South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier earlier this week:
Q: You've been an SDSU lifer — graduated from the school, and been the head coach since the 1990s. What have these past few days been like? This is the place you've called home forever, and you've taken them now to the pinnacle of FCS football.
JS: It's been rewarding, and it's been a bit humbling because of how hard so many people work for a goal like this. And it's been busy. Football week is busy. It would be different if it was the non-COVID days when you'd have three weeks to celebrate for a little bit and go after it. We had to jump right into Sam Houston, which is good.
Q: Obviously the Missouri Valley is known as arguably the best conference in the FCS. Even this year, in a weird COVID season, how well did the conference prepare you for a playoff run like this?
JS: I think at times the Missouri Valley Football Conference is a little arrogant (laughs), there are a lot of good football teams in the FCS and a lot of good conferences. We're just blessed to be in the Missouri Valley, but it prepares you in a number of ways. No. 1, you have a variety of types of offenses and defenses. You line up against North Dakota State, you better stop the power. You line up against UNI and SIU, you better be able to stop the wildcat — and good wildcat. There are a number of rivalries, with USD and NDSU, so that gets you pumped for those games. Really it's a tough game every week. Unfortunately we had two of them canceled ... but the other games prepared us.
Q: You mention that big rivalry with North Dakota State, I know there had to be a ton of emotion in that one this year to close out the regular season and lock you in to play at home all the way to Frisco. What was the thing that impressed you the most about your team's performance back in that game?
JS: The confidence we went up there with. It wasn't an arrogance, it was a confidence that when we play up to our level, we can win in Fargo — which is really tough to do. Then the maturity along the way. When things didn't go our way, nobody wavered. Nobody flinched. Then we play for this really cool trophy ... and the pride of bringing that home is just a unique sideline, but it's really special. I've said it way too many times, but I'm just proud of our football program — and I was proud of them that day.
Q: You came into this season with a little bit of a QB controversy ... and because of injuries Mark Gronowski stepped in, and has played admirably to say the least. What's it been like seeing his progression from the start of the season — and even the start of the fall?
JS: Our players surprise me in a positive way many more times than I'm disappointed in a player. I'm amazed at what Mark has accomplished, but I don't think it's by accident. We had two guys that started the year before ... and both of those guys were penciled in as potential starters. What ended up happening was Mark got every rep in the fall, and the other two had to miss some stuff due to contact tracing and COVID and so on. Mark kept plodding along and the other guys were set back — and they're all great young men, great student-athletes — but here's what cinched it. I had starting offensive linemen coming into my office asking me, 'Is Mark going to be the starter? Because we're behind Mark, we believe in Mark.' They obviously don't make the call, that's the quarterback coach's call, but they were behind him. He's very mature, very skilled and a fun guy to be around.
Q: One of the things that's stood out from watching Mark from afar this season is his ability to not only run the football, but to be a power rushing threat behind center. You don't see that very often, usually they dual-threat quarterbacks are speedsters. How unique is it to have a quarterback where if you need two or three yards, he's as goof of an option as any?
JS: It's a real positive. I'm a defensive coordinator by trade, and at one point I felt like they should outlaw quarterbacks running the football because it's truly an advantage. You have a guy that's really a running back, then you spread people out, eliminate bodies and run the dog gone power with a quarterback. I think it should be illegal, but we're OK with it now that we have Gronowski on our side.
Q: When you look at what Sam Houston has accomplished and you see them on film, what stands out right away?
JS: A team that has no weaknesses. There's no corner you can attack, an offensive lineman you can pass rush, a quarterback that's a dropback guy and can't run ... across the board do they not only not have weaknesses, but they have guys that are differences. I'm not a name guy, but No. 12 at wide receiver (Jequez Ezzard), No. 3 at quarterback (Eric Schmid) and two or three of their D-linemen are scary good and scary skilled. Their secondary is solid, and then they all run. Every position runs really well. Coach Keeler has done a tremendous job of building this program of his.
Q: We talked about it earlier, and I know this is a place that's near and dear to your heart. What would it mean for y'all to bring home that first FCS national title?
JS: It would be really emotional. I went to school here, I've been here 33 total years, I've been the head coach 24 ... that's somewhat unheard of in coaching. To be able to have invested and then reap the benefits through the great efforts of so many people would be very rewarding and emotional, but I hope we don't feel that we've arrived if we're lucky enough to do it. We feel like it's the start of something special, and that would be the goal I think of any coach.