Sep. 16—MINNEAPOLIS — The Jackrabbits knocked their Target Field debut out of the park.
South Dakota State, the top-ranked team and defending national champion of the Football Championship Subdivision, put on a show for a Twin Cities crowd of 18,174 with a 70-7 win that was heavier on the experiences and memories made than it was on competition.
Quarterback Mark Gronowski, a former baseball standout in his home state of Illinois, led the way for the Jacks, throwing five touchdown passes and rushing for another, as SDSU scored 70 unanswered points after spotting the Bulldogs a 7-0 lead. Chase Mason, one of the greatest prep baseball players in the history of South Dakota, had a 69-yard touchdown run for the Jacks, while the environment at the home of the Minnesota Twins (on a positively gorgeous late summer afternoon) felt decidedly like a Jackrabbit home game through and through.
But the best moment all game, at least from the standpoint of the baseball connection, came when reserve tight end Kevin Brenner, a converted defensive end, caught the first pass of his college career for a 3-yard touchdown to give SDSU their first lead, then celebrated the score by mimicking a baseball swing, lifting an imaginary home run into the upper deck.
"The home run celebration was obvious," said Brenner, an apparent Cubs fan, having grown up an hour from the Windy City in Silver Lake, Wisc. "I thought I'd hit one out of Wrigley before here, but I had to hit it here. That was an awesome moment. I was not expecting to score a touchdown today."
The rest of the Jacks skill players probably liked their chances, however. That SDSU found the end zone 10 times wasn't terribly surprising, given the Bulldogs (0-3) were coming off a loss to an NAIA team. The Bulldogs scored first, with quarterback Luke Bailey hitting Colin Howard for a 53-yard gain on Drake's first play from scrimmage and then again a few plays later for a 35-yard touchdown, but it was all Jacks from there.
"We knew Drake was gonna come out and give us their best shot," said SDSU linebacker Saiveon Williamson. "It's college fotoball and nobody's gonna come out and roll over for you. They caught us in man with some deep shots but we made the adjustment and the rest kind of took care of itself."
The 70 points for SDSU was the most scored by the Jackrabbits since their 90-6 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2018, and they surpassed 600 yards of offense for the first time since that season as well. By the time the Jacks (3-0) had built their lead to 63 points, the Pride of the Dakotas marching band was belting out 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' from their seats in left-center field.
"It was kind of surreal to be playing on a baseball field," said Gronowski, who completed 18-of-25 passes for 226 yards. "This was one of my dreams as a kid. Getting this opportunity was a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
That was a common sentiment. Jacks coach Jimmy Rogers made a point to open his postgame remarks by thanking the Twins organization for welcoming the Jacks and their fans, and Drake coach Todd Stepsis was grateful, too, despite the lopsided score.
"It got out of hand a little bit but the experience itself was pretty remarkable," Stepsis said.
Added Howard, who had three catches for 103 yards for the Bulldogs: "The whole game was a surreal experience. It was really cool to be a part of."
Jaxon Janke caught seven balls for 85 yards for SDSU, joining Brenner, Isaiah Davis, Zach Heins and Griffin Wilde as receivers to find the end zone. Angel Johnson had 90 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries (one touchdown went for 66 yards), while Davis rushed for 77 yards on eight attempts and Amar Johnson had 63 yards on 12 carries. Daeton Mcgaughy led SDSU's defense with nine tackles.
While the crowd was the smallest of the three college football games Target Field has hosted, SDSU seemed pleased with the turnout. It's a boon in recruiting, brought out Twin Cities alums (literally thousands of Jacks fans filled the neighborhood bars and restaurants hours before kickoff) and was clearly a rewarding experience for a team that won its first national championship last year and still sees itself as on the rise.
Rogers, who played for SDSU in the early days of the Division I era more than 15 years ago, got emotional comparing Saturday's scene to where the program was when he was a linebacker.
"You guys remember the trailers?" he said, referring to the makeshift offices and locker rooms SDSU used back then. "This is quite a bit different than the trailers, right? This is awesome. This program just keeps elevating, and we're not stopping anytime soon."