South Dakota St. comes to Target Field, ready to show championship style

The last time South Dakota State played football in the Twin Cities was when it lost a nail-biter to the Gophers 28-21 in front of 49,000 fans at TCF Bank Stadium in 2019.

The Jackrabbits couldn't pull off the upset that night, but they made a statement that they were a program to be taken seriously on a national level.

In January, South Dakota State won the school's first FCS national championship in its second title game appearance since 2020. When the Jackrabbits play Drake on Saturday at Target Field, this will be a chance to further establish their brand.

"We've been blessed to have continued success here," said first-year SDSU coach Jimmy Rogers, who was defensive coordinator last season. "Playing in a venue like that, it has everything to do with years of success. It's not just last year's success. It's continued brand of seeing the Jackrabbit logo."

North Dakota State had long been the face of FCS college football. The Bison, who opened this season beating Eastern Washington at U.S. Bank Stadium, also played the first football game at Target Field against Butler in 2019.

But now it's the other dominant Dakota program's turn to be on top. The Jackrabbits earned it. South Dakota State defeated NDSU twice last season, including in last year's national title game. SDSU has beaten the Bison four straight times after losing 12 of 14 meetings from 2010 to '19.

South Dakota State proved worthy of the No. 1 preseason ranking after holding off No. 3 Montana State 20-16 last week at home.

"It's special," Rogers said about playing at Target Field on Saturday. "It's the rise in the brand of South Dakota State athletics. Obviously being ranked No. 1 in the country, which draws attention."

The Jackrabbits, who went 14-1 last season, promoted Rogers this year to replace John Stiegelmeier, who retired after recording 199 wins in 26 seasons in Brookings. SDSU had nine-win seasons in eight of the past 11 years, also including two Missouri Valley titles in three years.

"A lot of work and a lot of people helped to push our whole program forward," SDSU athletic director Justin Sell said. "We worked really hard the last 10 years to get over that hump and be a serious contender to be a national champion. It didn't come fast. It didn't come easy, but last January made all the work so worth it."

The Jackrabbits have a significant alumni presence in the Twin Cities, which is evident with SDSU Night occurring annually at Twins games since 2018. Former South Dakota State pitcher Caleb Thielbar has been in his second stint with the Twins since 2020, and his wife, Carissa, is associate head coach of the Jackrabbits women's basketball team.

"It's a big deal to be able to play in the Twin Cities in front of our fans and alums," Sell said. "It's also a great place for our university to recruit."

Sixth-year senior linebacker Saiveon Williamson remembers playing as a redshirt freshman in front of a near sellout crowd back home against the Gophers four years ago.

"I remember the environment," Williamson said. "I never thought being from Waseca that I'd even make it that far. If you ask me, I think we should've won that game. … It was a great opportunity for us to showcase that even though we don't get the same attention, that we can compete with anyone."

Much like the other five Minnesotans on the South Dakota State roster, kicker Hunter Dustman has attended Twins games, but he has never stepped foot onto Target Field.

The atmosphere will surely be much different Saturday against Drake, but the Jackrabbits are a championship team for a reason.

"It's going be fun to play in front of some of the people who haven't seen me play since high school," said Dustman, an ex-St. Francis standout. "But we're focused on each other and trying to get better every single day. We're trying to continue to build the South Dakota State name throughout the Midwest and throughout the country."