The future was uncertain. That was about the only thing that was certain for North Dakota State and South Dakota State when they met at the North Dakota/South Dakota border along Interstate 29 near Hankinson, N.D., in April 2004 to announce the Dakota Marker trophy. The flagship universities of their respective states were about to join the ranks of Division I athletics while their in-state rivals decided to remain in Division II.
Without those long-time intrastate rivalries, and a new road ahead, the NDSU Blue Key student group and SDSU Student Association partnered up to sponsor the Dakota Marker, the brainchild of then NDSU Blue Key president Adam Jones. Few in the crowd that April morning envisioned that, within a decade, despite the skeptics, the battle for the Marker would become one of the marquee games in the entire Football Championship Subdivision.
Today, the battle for the Dakota Marker, a 75-pound replica of the real quartzite monuments that literally mark the border between the two states, regularly appears on preseason lists of “must-watch” FCS games, and is viewed as one of the top rivalries in all of the FCS.
This Saturday, the No. 3-ranked Bison (2-1) face the No. 5-ranked Jacks (3-0) in the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener for each team. According to Jones, a 2004 industrial engineering and management graduate, the new rival down I-29 was a good fit. “It was a natural start for both schools,” said Jones, who is now the Director of Project Management for Verisae, Inc., out of Minneapolis, but lives in Fargo with his wife, Jessica, and their two children. “It’s added a flavor and intensity to the game, and I think all the people involved should be proud of that.”
The first matchup for the Marker didn’t go quite as planned for the Bison. The Jacks scored on a 22-yard touchdown pass with 39 seconds remaining in the inaugural game for a 24-21 win at Coughlin-Alumni Stadium in Brookings, S.D. “The fact SDSU was very successful at the beginning of the series added to the level of competition and intensity,” Jones said. The Jacks won four of the first six Dakota Marker games. Since 2010, though, it’s been all Bison with NDSU winning seven straight, including playoff games in 2012 and 2014.
“I know our guys are excited to play for the Dakota Marker, it’s a great tradition,” said Bison head coach Chris Klieman. “It’s going to come down to being able to execute and being able to control the line of scrimmage. Both teams offensive and defensive fronts are really good and that’s going to be a pivotal factor in who wins.”
In Klieman’s first year as head coach, the Bison ended the Jacks season with a 27-24 playoff win in the second-round of the FCS playoffs at the FargoDome in a contest that came down to the final minute. After SDSU receiver Jake Wieneke put the Jacks up 24-20 on a three-yard touchdown catch with 3:18 left in the game, the Bison marched 76 yards in eight plays, capped by Carson Wentz’s 12-yard touchdown pass to RJ Urzendowski with 54 seconds remaining. That catch propelled the Bison towards their fourth straight national championship.
Earlier in the week, Jones had an opportunity to visit with this year’s NDSU Blue Key club about the Marker. “It was never a one-man show, it was always the will of the group to make this happen,” explained Jones, citing the work of other Blue Key members involved in the creation of the trophy and stressing the importance of teamwork. Jones described the initial challenges Blue Key faced when creating the Marker, and praised the students for their continued efforts to take care of the trophy. “I had no doubt they would care for it and make it a really important part of Blue Key.”
For their part, the Bison football team has nothing but respect for the interstate rivalry. “I think it brings the best out in both teams,” Klieman said. “There is a tremendous amount of respect between our staff and their staff and the players.” So much so, Klieman pointed out that the Jacks were one of the top four teams in the FCS last year. “When we played them in that playoff game, I thought they were one of the top four teams in the country.”
So what goes through Jones’ mind during the battle for the Marker that he came up with? “It’s fun. Every year, especially when the Bison raise the trophy, seeing the players and the excitement on their faces is what’s really cool about it. That’s always a special moment,” concluded Jones. “I remember that first game, seeing a picture of the SDSU players hoisting the trophy and the looks on their faces. For me, it was 50 percent disgust, but also seeing that they really seemed to be happy about it, it was something they really wanted to win.”
And this weekend, like Jones, Bison fans are hoping that the father of the Dakota Marker will be feeling the former emotion rather than the latter, and watching NDSU hoist the Marker into the South Dakota night for the sixth straight year.