It’s just a big ol’ block of stone. It isn’t sculpted. It’s not bronzed or dipped in gold. It hasn’t been carved into the image of a football or a dude carrying a football. There are no corporate logos. Just simple black block letters embossed into three sides of the rectangular rock, reading “S.D.”, “N.D.” and “190 M.”
The quartzite it is made from is roughly a billion years old, exposed on the Earth’s surface by the flow of the Big Sioux River after its spigot was turned on more than 10,000 years ago. Yet this trophy is so young it couldn’t yet buy itself a drink if it wanted to. But somehow, in only 18 years, it has become as timeless as the forces that forged it, the rough-hewn reward for winning what might very well be college football’s most intense rivalry.
It is the Dakota Marker, and all 75 pounds of it will be hoisted this weekend on the floor of the Fargodome by either the North Dakota State Bison or the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. A pair of schools separated by only 190 miles (see: that “190 M” engraving), divided by a border that is watched over by the 800-pound, 130-year-old quarried ancestors of the trophy they fight to possess.
“The Marker would be special all on its own just because it’s so cool and the history behind it is amazing. It’s the story of the Dakotas,” Carson Wentz explained this summer when the Bison-turned-Washington Commanders quarterback was asked about the rivalry in which he went 2-0 as a starter. “But then you add what is at stake in this game, what always seems to be at stake in this game, and it just multiplies what the Marker means by a hundred.”
When the rivals kick off Saturday (3:30 PM ET, ESPN+), they will do so as the nation’s No. 1 (NDSU) and No. 2 (SDSU) teams in the FCS. The victor will seize an undisputed top ranking while moving into the inside lane for both the Missouri Valley Conference championship and home-field advantage throughout the FCS playoffs.
The Bison are seeking their mind-bending 10th FCS championship since 2011. The Jacks are still hunting their first, having lost the title game by two points just two seasons ago. This will be their 10th straight meeting as top-10 teams. Two of those came in the playoffs, the most recent an NDSU win in the national semifinals. North Dakota State has lost only two regular-season FCS games over the past two seasons, and both were Dakota Marker losses to the Jackrabbits. Last December it appeared the two teams might be on track for the ultimate postseason rematch in the national title game until SDSU lost to Montana State in the semis.
There are 18 North Dakotans on the Bison’s roster and three South Dakotans. On the Jackrabbits’ roster there are 29 South Dakotans and exactly zero players from “the state to the north.” NDSU linebackers coach Grant Olson won three national titles as an All-American Bison linebacker. SDSU quarterbacks coach Zach Lujan threw 29 TD passes as a Jack, and passing game coordinator Josh Davis still holds the school record with 16 catches in a single game. NDSU assistant coach Tyler Roehl was an All-American running back who ran for 263 yards against Minnesota in a Big Ten “money game.” SDSU assistant Jimmy Rogers registered 312 tackles and three forced fumbles as a Jackrabbits linebacker. One of those was via a head-in collision with Roehl, a turnover that all but clinched South Dakota State’s taking of the Dakota Marker in 2007. Now they match wits as offensive coordinator versus defensive coordinator.
“There’s a level of frustration because you can’t go back in time and redo what you did as a player,” says Roehl, visibly working hard not to furrow his brow as he talks more about the two Marker games he lost as a player than the one his team won. “But that’s why I am back. You can continue to work to have an impact on the game from a coach and continue to put our players in position to be successful. I respect them. I just really want to beat them.”
“It consumes me, to be honest,” Rogers confesses, sitting at a desk covered in old-school playbook pages. “Not hoisting the Marker. Don’t ask what that feels like because I’ve never done that. Not as a player or a coach. I let the other guys do that. I don’t want to be running to that and miss my favorite part.”
And, what’s that, Coach?
“Watching them walk off the field. Watching them have to leave that field knowing they have lost.”
Oh, damn. So, that’s how it is.
“We all know each other so well, maybe a little too well,” fourth-year NDSU head coach Matt Entz says with a laugh. “We recruit the same kids. So many of the guys I tried to sign are down there, and so many they tried to sign are up here. Years ago, I almost went to work for Coach Stig at SDSU. Imagine how different our worlds would be then, right? That’s how close this all is.”
“I think the measure of a true rivalry probably comes with the question how much do people talk about the game,” says John Stiegelmeier, aka “Coach Stig.”
Stiegelmeier is in his 26th season as head coach and his 36th straight year on the staff. The Selby, South Dakota, native is also a South Dakota State alum. “Here in Brookings, they talk about this game 365 days out of the year. It wasn’t always that way. But now, that is most definitely the case.”
To be clear, this game has roots that reach back nearly 120 years, to the first meeting of Dakota Agricultural College and North Dakota Agricultural College in 1903. They have played 112 times in all, and since 1919 the only years missing are the three years lost to World War II. But during the first century of their series, the matchup was largely venom-less, lukewarm at best, as each school’s biggest rival was the school featuring its name minus the “State”: the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks and the University of South Dakota Coyotes.
As the 21st century rolled around, both NDSU and SDSU started looking at moves from NCAA Division II to what was then known as I-AA, now called FCS.
“What we realized very quickly was that if we were going to make that jump, we needed a partner to do it,” Stiegelmeier says. “We both agreed that we would do it together. So, we met at the border and shook on it.”
It is a moment that is so Dakotas it sounds completely made up, an image taken straight out of a “Yellowstone” script. A pair of college football coaches, a pair of athletic directors and a couple of university administrators, standing along an imaginary line on the Great Plains, leaning into the wind as they leaned in to shake hands.
“We stood right by one of the Dakota Markers when we had that meeting,” Stiegelmeier recalls. “So, when we decided this game needed a name and a trophy, the Dakota Marker, that was the only way to go.”
The Dakota Territory was incorporated in 1861, the northernmost section of land acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. As the 20th century approached, the territory was earmarked for statehood but was considered too large as it was, so it was split in half, north and south. There were, of course, vicious politics and infighting and resistance from both sides, but ultimately, on Nov. 2, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison signed the papers that made North and South Dakota separate states. He had been warned that the two states were already talking 19th century smack over which one of them would become a state first, so he requested that the documents be shuffled and their titles covered so that no one could accuse him of playing favorites.
The line chosen to split the states ran along the seventh standard parallel, found at 45°56’07” north latitude. But someone needed to show everyone where the border actually was. On Sept. 19, 1891, Charles Bates of Yankton, South Dakota, began that process, armed with surveyor’s tools and guided largely by the North Star above the prairie. A team of nine men located the tristate corner where Minnesota bumps up against both Dakotas. They dug a posthole and filled it with a 7-foot-long, 800-pound quartzite marker, carried over the plains and buried halfway. The part of the marker above ground was marked on its 10-inch-wide sides with “ND” to the north, “SD” to the south and mileage from the eastern starting point next to an “M.” This first marker included an added “IN.MT” for “initial monument.”
From there, Bates and his crew marched 360.57 miles, from Minnesota to Montana. It took a year. They battled pits of snakes, clouds of mosquitoes and a two-day snowstorm that covered their work under a 30-foot snowdrift. They spiked a total 720 markers into the earth, what Bates called “silent sentinels on the prairie” that were delivered by steamboat and train to be literally picked up by his team.
Over the next century, the Dakota Markers faded out of the memories of most Dakotans. Some sank into the ground under their own weight. Others were vandalized or dug up by angry farmers and Native Americans. Many were mistaken as fence posts or cemetery headstones. Eventually, volunteer groups were formed to try to save the markers that remained, but hundreds are likely gone forever.
A drive earlier this week to find the initial monument was met with curious questions from twilight combine operators and one woman who came out onto the front porch of her farmhouse to shout: “Keep going! The marker is down this path! I can’t believe you made it all the way out here in that car!”
“People who had lived here their entire lives had no idea what a Dakota Marker was, and this is coming from a guy who was born and raised here,” Stiegelmeier said. “Now they do. Thanks to a football game.”
Not just a football game. Maybe the grandest, grittiest football game played this season or any other, no matter what NCAA designation it might be played under. Neighbors. Frenemies. Divided by a line they must cross each fall in order to bring home a marker designed to show us where that line is. But connected by a Dakota DNA that is as unique as that trophy they fight for.
And we do mean fight.
“When this game started under the new idea of the Dakota Marker, we were all in this together, right? Kumbaya, let’s move up together and this will be fun. That lasted less than one game.” Jimmy Rogers speaks of the 2004 contest, in which the Jacks threw a missile of a 22-yard TD pass with 39 seconds to go, winning the initial Marker 24-21. “From then until now, they know we mean business and we know they mean business. To do what we want to do, win a national championship, we have to beat them. Honestly, to me, we have to beat them anyway. I don’t care if we’re 0-6 going into kickoff.”
“I’ve been a part of 18 of these and my record is 11-7,” Roehl says. “I think you know now that I recall the losses more than the wins. I recall the fact that they have won the Marker two straight.”
A vein starts to rise from Roehl’s neck as he talks. The same happens to Rogers. They both start recalling old games. The 2-point conversion for SDSU at the buzzer in ’08. Easton Stick in ’18. Wentz. College GameDay at both schools. Those four playoff games.
Roehl and Rogers both sit up straight. Both get tears in their eyes. Both of their faces turn a light shade of red. The hue is unmistakable. It’s the color of quartzite.