The Jackrabbits are national champions, the top-ranked team in Division I's Football Championship Subdivision. The Coyotes were 6-1, winners of six in a row and ranked 4th in the country. The Missouri Valley Football Conference title and the inside track on a top seed would both be in play.
In the end, though, it was all Jackrabbits, and we maybe shouldn't be surprised. Not because the Coyotes were fake contenders, as SDSU fans will gleefully assert following their team's 37-3 drubbing of USD in front of 9,458 DakotaDome fans, but because the Jackrabbits are just that good.
We knew that, of course — they came in on a 21-game winning streak. But the Jacks apparently wanted to remind everyone in case we'd forgotten.
"We wanted to come in here and make a statement," said quarterback Mark Gronowski, who threw for 207 yards and ran for 43 more. "We wanted to show we're the No. 1 team in the nation and show what we're made of."
Some of that edge came from the attention USD's recent hot streak had attracted. Some of it also came from losing the last two times they'd been in this building. In 2019, they were outplayed in the regular season finale. And then in 2021, well, we all know what happened that year.
"The last time we came here, we left with a bad taste in our mouth," cornerback Dalys Beanum said in an understated reference to his team's 23-20 loss on a game-ending Hail Mary. "So even though we were the top (ranked) team, we felt like we had something to prove. We were locked in every day at practice this week and were ready to go when we came here."
Did USD play well on Saturday? No, not by a long shot. Would they have won if they did? Probably not. And the Jacks weren't at their best, either. They started terribly, committing two false starts and nearly fumbling when Gronowski and Isaiah Davis got crossed up on their second offensive play. USD had a 3-0 lead, and the fans in red were making noise.
But from there, the Jacks (8-0) dominated. They rushed for 266 yards, converted 7-of-10 third downs, completed big passes when they needed them and churned up yards on the ground not with the home run ball but with methodical mid-range gains behind the dominance of their offensive line.
Meanwhile, USD could get nothing going. The running game? No runs of longer than seven yards. The pass? Aidan Bouman threw two interceptions, was under heavy duress for much of the day and managed just 133 yards on 31 passes. He never looked comfortable, and a few dropped passes did not help.
"We kind of strapped it up after (USD's game-opening field goal)," Beanum said. "We didn't want them to score. We've seen they turn the (DakotaDome) lights off after they score, so that was a big thing for us. We didn't want the lights turned off."
They never were. USD never scored after Will Leyland's 50-yard field goal and barely threatened to. They had 183 yards of offense for the game. All three running backs for SDSU had more yards by themselves than the 'Yotes did as a team.
So yes, the Jacks were just better. But things went their way, too.
In the first half, Coyote cornerback Shahid Barros, who had an early interception of Gronowski, was ejected for targeting, a call that was scorned by both sides on social media. It gave the Jacks first and goal inside the 10, setting up Jadon Janke's 8-yard touchdown run on a reverse, but that wasn't half the damage.
"It's a big play when you take one of our best players out of the game," said USD coach Bob Nielson. "I disagreed with it. I watched the replay myself, but I don't get to make the call. It was a big call, and I think you've got to be 100 percent (certain) to make that call."
Later, the 'Yotes suffered another back-breaker. Trailing 14-3, they mounted a promising drive with under two minutes to go in the half and were at the Jacks' 36-yard line with a minute to go when Tucker Large leapt and batted a Bouman pass into the air, which was bobbled by a pair of SDSU defenders before Large himself snagged it before it hit the ground with 46 seconds left. Six plays later, Hunter Dustman hit a 49-yard field goal as the half ended.
USD had been poised to cut the lead to 14-6 or even 14-10. Instead, they went to the half down 17-3.
"Those two-minute swings are huge," said Jacks coach Jimmy Rogers. "That was a huge (sequence) in the game for sure."
The Jacks just poured it on in the second half, outscoring the Yotes 20-0 and limiting them to just five first downs.
By the time the Jacks capped off the scoring on a 4-yard run by Angel Johnson with the second team offense on the field, most of the fans still occupying the Dome were wearing blue and chanting 'Let's Go Rabbits' as their team extended its winning streak to 22.
"It feels incredible," said receiver and Madison native Jadon Janke, who mentioned feeling slighted that USD did not recruit he or his twin brother, Jaxon, coming out of high school. "Luckily, the greatest college in the state hit me up, and I'm playing here now. I'm truly blessed to play for this team, and to come in here and get the win the way we did feels pretty good."