Five Things to Watch: Montana Grizzlies Face South Dakota State for FCS National Title

It’s the first time since the spring 2021 title game that the teams seeded No. 1 and No. 2 will square off in the playoffs

Montana defensive tackle Alex Gubner (99) and Montana linebacker Tyler Flink (54) sack Furman quarterback Tyler Huff (6) during the FCS quarterfinal playoff game between Montana and Furman at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, Friday, Dec. 8, 2023. Ben Allan Smith | Missoulian

FRISCO, Texas — The two best teams in the Football Championship Subdivision will duke it out for the national championship at noon Sunday at Toyota Stadium.

South Dakota State is ranked No. 1 in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25 poll and seeded No. 1 in the playoffs. Montana is ranked and seeded second.

It’s the first time since the spring 2021 title game that the teams seeded No. 1 and No. 2 will square off in the playoffs. It’s the first time since October 2022 that the teams ranked first and second in the polls will match up.

SDSU enters with a 14-0 record and has won 28 straight games, the third longest streak in subdivision history behind 39- and 33-game streaks by North Dakota State. UM holds a 13-1 mark and has won 10 games in a row.

The Griz are making their eighth title game appearance and first since 2009. SDSU is making its third appearance, all in the past four seasons. UM is 2-5 in the chipper with wins in 1995 and 2001, while SDSU is 1-1 with a title in 2022.

This is the 13th consecutive season at least one MVFC team is in the title game. It’s the third time in the past six seasons a Big Sky team is in the game. The Big Sky hasn’t won a title since Eastern Washington in 2010.

Montana is led by head coach Bobby Hauck, who is in his 12th season overall and fifth season of his second stint. SDSU is led by first-year head coach Jimmy Rogers. Hauck is 0-3 in national title games. UM is 8-0 all-time against SDSU. One of those zeroes will go away.

Here are five things to watch in the game, which will be televised on ABC, streamed on ESPN+ and broadcast on the Grizzly Sports Radio Network.

Start fast

SDSU is outscoring its opponents 127-26 in the first quarter and 183-39 in the second quarter for a first-half mark of 310-65. There’s not much letup after that as the Jackrabbits have a 107-14 edge in the third quarter and a 120-57 mark in the fourth quarter for 537-136 overall.

Montana has outscored its opponents 103-51 in the first quarter and 163-62 in the second quarter after regularly making early game adjustments. The Griz are 185-122 in the second half and overtime for a total of 451-235.

It’s now all about who performs in the one game that matters. With three weeks off for both teams since the semifinals, how many new wrinkles might have been installed that haven’t been shown on film and how long will it take for both teams to adapt?

“They do similar things that we’ve seen and they do some things that we haven’t seen,” Rogers said. “They play with extremely wide splits up front and at times they don’t. We’re going to need to adjust in the game. Nothing that we come out with will always be perfect. We’re going to have to adapt and see what they’re doing and see how they’re attacking us on defense and adjust. It’s going to be a four-quarter game.”

SDSU is third in the FCS in scoring offense at 38.4 points per game and first in scoring defense at 9.7 points per game allowed. In 14 games, the Jackrabbits have given up 15 touchdowns, the fewest in the FCS. They allowed zero, 12 and zero points in three playoff games.

UM is 16th in scoring offense at 32.2 points per game and fifth in scoring defense at 16.8 points per game allowed.

Montana has been battle tested more, which may benefit the team if the game ends up being tight late. The Griz played back-to-back overtime games in the playoffs. SDSU has played in two games decided by a single possession, with the last such game on Oct. 21.

“They’re a resilient group,” Rogers said of UM. “They’ve had multiple games where they’ve battled to the wire and they figure out a way to win. That right there in itself is the sign of a championship program.”

Which team can dictate the tempo from the start could go a long way in determining the outcome. Whoever can grab a lead and run the ball with authority to shorten the game might put themselves in position to win. SDSU is 21st in time of possession at 31:41. UM is 25th at 31:26

Montana quarterback Clifton McDowell is 11-0 as a starter in his college career. SDSU All-American quarterback Mark Gronowski is 35-1 against FCS teams in games he started and finished. He has shined since he took SDSU to a national runner-up finish in spring 2021 as a true freshman. He left that game with a torn ACL in the first quarter and missed that fall.

SDSU has been on this stage and gone through the buildup. The only offensive starter the Jackrabbits lost from last year is Tucker Kraft, who is playing for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.

“The ‘it’ factor is Mark,” Rogers said. “He’s a winner. He doesn’t ever feel like he’s down and the moment’s never too big for him and he doesn’t get rattled. I think that’s a rare trait and I think it’s really hard to find and I think if you try to look for it you’ll fail more than you end up right. Mark has all the intangibles.”

Win the trenches

SDSU’s offensive line goes by the nickname “605 Hogs,” a reference to the area code for the entire state. It’s widely considered the best position group in the FCS this season.

The left side of the line is a big, physical strength. Left tackle Garret Greenfield is a three-year All-American, left guard Mason McCormick is a four-year All-American and center Gus Miller got his first All-America honors this year.

The five starters boast some beef at 306 pounds on average, ranging from 295 to 320 and 6-foot-3 to 6-7. Whoever controls the trenches could have a leg up in deciding the outcome.

“We got to be ready for a lot of looks,” McCormick said of prep for UM’s defense. “They’re very multiple with their box and how they align. They play super hard. That’s one of the most impressive things. Week to week you think teams play hard, but these guys play extremely hard.”

Behind that line, SDSU is fifth in rushing offense at 230.5 yards per game, sixth in total offense at 456.1 yards and 42nd in passing offense at 225.6 yards. UM is 17th in total defense at 311.2, 12th in rushing defense at 102.8 and 58th in pass defense at 208.4

SDSU ranks sixth in the FCS by allowing 0.71 sacks per game and is first with 2.71 tackles for loss per game allowed. UM’s athletic defensive front, centered by All-American nose tackle Alex Gubner, is 29th in sacks at 2.43 per game and 36th in TFLs at 6.1 per game.

“It helps a lot playing in such a tough conference in the Missouri Valley just because you got a tough defense you’re facing every single week and they have so much variety throughout our conference, so we’re kind of ready for different things that Montana is going to be able to throw at us,” Gronowski said.

Gronowski controls the signals. He’s third nationally with 28 passing TDs and 14th with 2,883 passing yards. He has numerous weapons with twin 6-foot-3 receivers Jaxon and Jadon Janke and All-American tight end Zach Heins (6-7).

Then there’s All-American running back Isaiah Davis. He ranks first in the FCS with 1,491 rush yards, third with 17 rushing touchdowns and eighth with 6.78 yards per carry.

“We’ll have to be aware of everything they’re doing and whether they’re moving or motioning guys or trading for sure,” UM All-American linebacker Braxton Hill said. “But they’re going to want to run the ball. They’re versatile, they got good receivers on the outside, good running back, a quarterback who can run, good offensive line, so we’ll have our hands full.”

Montana will need to hold up one-on-one in coverage if it loads the box. The Griz could possibly confuse SDSU with their unique 3-3-5 scheme.

“They play relentless,” Rogers said. “You can tell they are coached to run to the ball constantly because it’s the first thing that shows up is their pursuit to the football and if one guy misses the tackle, there’s another guy there. I think it’s a sign of a great defense. … They do a good job being physical at linebacker. They attack you and can knock O-linemen back into gaps and win the line of scrimmage.”

Hit explosive plays

Montana’s offense showed week-by-week growth since McDowell took over. That continued through the second round but dropped off the past two games.

In the quarterfinals and semifinals, the Griz offense managed 23 points in regulation. They needed 21 points from special teams to get both of those games to overtime.

McDowell and the offense will need to re-find their stride to keep up with the Jackrabbits. They’ll be in for a challenge against a defense that is first in total defense (257.1 yards), second in rushing defense (92.6 yards) and seventh in passing defense (164.4). The Griz are 39th in total offense (382.9), 21st in rushing offense (186.1) and 68th in pass offense (196.8).

“We say they’re sound, we’re talking about their scheme is sound,” Hauck said. “We’re not talking about them being average or something like that. They are an absolute elite great defense. They are the best defense in the FCS. … They’re dominant. I’m glad we got two weeks to try to find a hole in their defense because there aren’t any.”

One way the Griz could break up the defense is by hitting explosive plays instead of laboring for long drives against a stout defense that has All-Americans in linebackers Jason Freeman, Isaiah Stalbird and Adam Bock. They have a trio of standout wide receivers in Junior Bergen, Aaron Fontes and Keelan White.

Any one of them is capable of going off at any time. Bergen certainly has drawn SDSU’s attention in preparation because of his big-play potential.

“He’s definitely an outstanding player,” Bock said. “It’ll definitely be something that we need to key into and always know where he’s at. Whenever you have a guy like that, that can make explosive plays, you always got to have an eye on him with somebody.”

McDowell has shown he can get his playmakers the ball in space. He also has dual-threat ability and is capable with his legs, either on designed runs or scrambling to pick up yards or thrown on the run outside the pocket.

“It’ll come down to our D-line rising to the occasion, keeping him contained,” Bock said of McDowell. “I feel like all year, even into last year, they’ve done a really good job of doing that. It’ll be a big challenge for the D-line and I know they’re ready for it.”

It’s not just McDowell. Running back Eli Gillman is the FCS freshman of the year but has been held in check in recent weeks. He’s shown he’s capable of breaking off lengthy runs.

“They try to squeeze the interior gaps and try to spill most of the run game,” UM center AJ Forbes said. “They’re solid in their pass rush.”

The Griz will need their offensive line to step up. UM is 90th with 2.57 sacks allowed per game and 109th with 7.21 TFLs allowed per game. However, SDSU is 77th in sacks at 1.71 per game and 100th in TFLs at 4.8 per game. While the numbers aren’t great, they’re similarly ranked.

“It helps playing those teams in the Missouri Valley that have pieces of stuff we’re going to see in the championship game and just piece it all together and try to keep them under control,” Bock said.

Flip field on special teams

UM and SDSU have both scored at least one special teams touchdowns in each of the past two rounds of the playoffs. A score or field-flipping play from either of them this week could be a momentum-shifting play that factors highly into the outcome.

The Griz rank 14th nationally with 15.2 yards per punt return. Meanwhile, the Jackrabbits are third in punt return defense at 2.56 yards allowed on average. They’ve allowed just nine returns for a total of 23 yards.

Bergen has been a game changer on special teams for Montana. He’s first in the FCS with three punt return TDs and sixth with 15.7 yards per punt return. He’s returned two punts and one kickoff for scores in the previous two playoff games.

The Griz will have to get the Jackrabbits out of rhythm and off schedule to force punts. SDSU is first nationally in third down offense (54.8%). UM is third in third down defense (28.8%)

“To say you just can’t kick to somebody, he may touch the ball at any point, we got to tackle,” Rogers said of Bergen. “We got to do our part. … Nothing that he has done is shocking with the skillset in which he has. He’s a great player. He’ll create challenges. We just need to respond.”

SDSU ranks fifth in the nation with 18.3 yards per punt return. UM is giving up just 4.2 yards per punt return to rank 17th in the country, allowing 46 yards on 11 returns.

The primary returner has been Tucker Large, who ranks third in the FCS at 18.9 yards per punt return. He scored his first career punt return touchdown last week in the semifinals.

“Junior’s production over the last two games has been all-time great,” Hauck said. “He’s done a great job. We know that he can turn a game. We also know that South Dakota State’s guys can do the same thing. It should be a good battle in the special teams area.”

If the game comes down to field goals, SDSU’s Hunter Dustman is 17 of 23 with a long of 49. UM has switched between Grant Glasgow (8 of 14; long 49) and Nico Ramos (9 of 12; long 43).

SDSU has been automatic inside the 20-yard line, ranking first in red zone offense (96.3%) and first in red zone defense (59.4%). Meanwhile, UM is 48th in red zone offense (82.7%) and 21st in red zone defense (74.3%).

Win turnover battle

SDSU ranks sixth in the FCS with a turnover margin of plus-15. UM is close behind at 11th in turnover margin at plus-10.

The Jackrabbits are fourth in the FCS with 26 turnovers gained, second with 18 interceptions gained and have recovered eight fumbles. Montana has lost 12 turnovers, having eight passes intercepted and losing four fumbles.

McDowell threw two interceptions in the first two playoff games after he had been picked off just once in the regular season. He picked intercepted three times in 235 attempts.

Taking care of the ball will be key against an opportunistic SDSU defense. Large and Dalys Beanum have both picked off four passes, while Stalbird leads the team with three forced fumbles.

Going the other way, the Griz rank 17th with 22 turnovers gained, seventh with 16 interceptions gained and have recovered six fumbles. SDSU has lost 11 turnovers, having only four passes intercepted but losing seven fumbles.

Gronowski has had just four passes picked off in 286 pass attempts. He ranks ninth in FCS with a 68.5 completion percentage.

“I would say he’s efficient,” Hill said. “He doesn’t turn the ball over a lot. He’s just comfortable in their scheme. He’s the man in charge and he does a good job of just leading their entire team.

“You don’t win that many games in a row without a great quarterback,” Hauck added.

The Griz will want to muddy things up and not allow him to play a clean game. First-team All-Big Sky cornerbacks Trevin Gradney and Corbin Walker have five and two interceptions this year, while Hill and safeties Jaxon Lee and TraJon Cotton all have two picks.

“They like to do different disguises,” Gronowski said of UM’s secondary. “They like to change it up back there. They don’t always run the same things every single play. … It almost makes it a little more fun for me just trying to find different tendencies that they do on certain down and distances.”