The Dakota Marker traveling trophy was birthed in 2004, its existence announced in a ceremony along the North Dakota-South Dakota border near Hankinson, N.D., on a windy, cold April day. North Dakota State president Joe Chapman, South Dakota State president Peggy Miller, the athletic directors from both schools and a number of student representatives were there to say that the universities' football teams would henceforth play for a replica of the 720 quartzite monuments that were used to establish the states' border in the early 1890s.
The Marker was the brainchild of Adam Jones, at the time president of NDSU's Blue Key Club. On one side of the trophy are the letters "N.D." On the other is "S.D." Just like the real monuments. T-shirts were made asking the question: "NDSU vs. SDSU: Which side of the marker are you on?" Very cute, actually.
It was, it seemed at the time, a desperate measure by NDSU and SDSU to gin up a rivalry between two football programs that didn't have one in their previous 100 years of competition. But you know what they say about desperate times. The schools made the risky leap to NCAA Division I together, leaving behind their natural rivals and safe haven in Division II, and they needed something to sell the fans.
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The move to Division I-AA football (now Football Championship Subdivision) was particularly tricky for SDSU, a basketball school in a basketball state that had no history of success on the gridiron. While the Bison had already won eight national championships in football by 2004, the Jackrabbits made only a lone Division II playoff appearance in 1979. They lost 51-7 to Youngstown State in the first round.
There was no football rivalry between the schools prior to April 21, 2004, when the Dakota Marker trophy was trumpeted, because there was really no competition. In the 40 games between 1964 and 2003 prior to the invention of the Dakota Marker, the Bison won 35. That included 17 straight from 1976 to 1992. The game was such a non-entity in the minds of Jackrabbit football fans that only 3,172 (announced) showed up at decrepit Coughlin-Alumni Stadium in 2002 to see SDSU beat NDSU 25-20 in the final Division II game played in Brookings between the schools.
This is why what is going to occur Saturday, Oct. 26, in the eastern South Dakota town of 25,000 is so remarkable.
ESPN's College GameDay is coming to Brookings to broadcast its show prior to the Jackrabbits taking on the Bison in an FCS game of large proportions. NDSU is ranked No. 1 in the country and has won seven of the last eight national championships. SDSU is ranked third and, with the Bison and James Madison, is considered one of the elite FCS programs in the nation. It is high praise considering the Jackrabbits are the only one of the trio who haven't won a national championship.
Rece Davis, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Co. will set up shop on a campus that prior to 2004 didn't give a hoot about football, unless the game was against in-state rival South Dakota. There are those Bison fans who will say SDSU fans still don't give a hoot about football, given the Jackrabbits' struggle to attract fans to the 19,000-seat, $65 million Dana Dykhouse Stadium outside of NDSU games. Their point is not altogether off the mark.
Saturday's television festivities will be SDSU-centric, just as GameDay's trips to Fargo in 2013 and 2014 focused on NDSU. Bison head coach Matt Entz said an ESPN crew might travel to Fargo on Wednesday to shoot practice for a possible feature story, but he and his team will have no TV obligations in Brookings. It's all about the Jackrabbits.
That makes Saturday the biggest day in the 120-year history of Jackrabbit football. A national television audience of nearly 2 million will tune into ESPN for the SDSU infomercial before the game — do you think there's any chance Corso isn't going to put on the Jackrabbit head when he makes his pick for the game? — and at 2 p.m. the Jackrabbits will have a chance to take control of their playoff destiny against the much-disliked Bison.
An SDSU victory would be a major step toward getting a top-two seed for the playoffs and possibly knocking NDSU to a third seed or worse. There are four regular-season games remaining after Saturday, but a win over the Bison would help the Jackrabbits leap-frog them in the seedings. That would guarantee SDSU home games through the semifinals as long as they won in the playoffs and, just as important in Jackrabbit eyes, get the Bison out of the Fargodome for at least the semifinals.
This has a chance to be the best Saturday ever for the Jackrabbits. Given how their seasons have ended the last three years — a 36-10 loss at NDSU in the playoff quarterfinals in 2016, a 51-16 loss at James Madison in the semifinals in 2017 and a 44-21 loss to NDSU in the semifinals in 2018 — it would shoot to the top of the list. A win would mean the only thing SDSU hasn't accomplished in football is a trip to Frisco, Texas, for an appearance in the FCS title game.
That, and actually winning a championship.
If you would've taken a poll of anybody who knew anything in 2004, less than 5 percent would've given SDSU's football program a chance to be where it sits today. Men's and women's basketball being good in mid-major competition? Yes. A virtually ignored football team that had to manufacture a rivalry with a powerhouse to the north attracting College GameDay? No way.
Perhaps Oct. 9, 2004, served as foreshadowing. In the first game contested for the Dakota Marker, quarterback Brad Nelson led the Jackrabbits on a 14-play, 80-yard drive in the final 2 minutes that ended with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Chris Molitor and a 24-21 SDSU victory. There were 12,322 fans at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium that night.
Bison-Jackrabbits games have been tremendous ever since. An intense rivalry, built from thin air. Another chapter will be added Saturday, this one allowing a national TV audience to learn about it.