BILLINGS — In a season that harkens back to brighter days and consistent dominance, it's been a throwback type of year for the Montana football program under Bobby Hauck.
Not that the past few seasons weren't successful. As Hauck likes to point out, this is the third 10-plus-win season the Griz have achieved since 2019. The difference is championship swagger.
Griz magic, it seems, is finally back. Montana's current playoff run — which will culminate Jan. 7 in the FCS championship game versus undefeated and top-seeded South Dakota State in Frisco, Texas — is a prime example.
Against Furman in the quarterfinals, the No. 2-seeded Griz got special teams touchdowns on both kickoff and punt returns from the incomparable Junior Bergen to prevail 35-28 in overtime. In the semis against North Dakota State, Bergen again returned a punt for a score, caught a TD pass in OT and threw a two-point conversion pass that had no business finding the hands of Keelan White after a deflection to win a 31-29 thriller.
Face it. Without Bergen's heroics the Grizzlies probably don't beat Furman in the quarterfinals. Without Bergen they probably don't outlast North Dakota State in the semis. And that's to say nothing of the other times the ball has bounced UM's way, including a bewildering play call by NDSU on its tying two-point conversion attempt that was picked off by Corbin Walker in the end zone.
You make your own luck, certainly, but this goes well beyond that. Without season-long commitment, resilience and attention to detail, these Grizzlies probably don't even make it that far. Those team traits are a calling card of Hauck-coached teams.
Montana has definitely earned its trip to Frisco.
For a team that was picked to finish third by the media and sixth by the coaches in the Big Sky Conference's preseason polls, the job Hauck and his staff have done this year can't really be overstated. Especially with the preseason coordinator shuffling, the unknown at quarterback, and after that road debacle at Northern Arizona, which had some fans and boosters crying out for change and bemoaning what had become of their once-proud Griz.
Those folks sure feel different now.
Montana is making its eighth all-time trip to the national championship game and is looking to add to titles it won in 1995 and 2001. Hauck, in his second stint at the helm, is taking the Grizzlies to the championship game for the fourth time on his watch.
This one, however, comes 14 years after UM's most recent appearance, and gives the Griz a distinct opportunity to exorcise past demons and get the job done this time.
During Montana's run of three championship game appearances in a six-year stretch between 2004-09, Hauck jokingly worried that he would end up being known as the Marv Levy of FCS football. Levy, of course, guided the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s only to fall short each time.
Levy is a hall of famer and one of the best coaches in pro football history. A major part of his legacy, though, is that he couldn't win the big one.
Hauck's legacy at Montana is pretty well set in stone. He's the all-time winningest coach in Griz history and has accumulated the most overall victories (129) of anyone in Big Sky annals. The only thing eluding him is a national title.
Is the fourth time the charm?
This particular title-game jaunt pits Montana against maybe its toughest opponent in any of their seven previous championship appearances — other than perhaps in 1996 against Marshall, which had a one-man wrecking crew in receiver Randy Moss, who even the '85 Bears might not have been able to contain that day.
South Dakota State is the real deal. The Jackrabbits are the defending FCS champions and have won 28 consecutive games.
Aside from being great in the trenches on both sides, quarterback Mark Gronowski is as efficient as they come. Running back Isaiah Davis is a vision of speed and strength. Twin-brother receivers Jadon and Jaxon Janke are big, reliable targets.
Defensively, SDSU allows 9.7 points per game and has 26 takeaways for a turnover margin of plus-15. The Jacks opened as 13½-point favorites, and most prognosticators probably won't give Montana a realistic shot.
It's a bit of a role reversal for the Hauck-coached Griz on the national stage. In the 2004 title game against James Madison, the favored Griz lost 31-21 as the poorly conditioned natural grass at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn., (where the championship was played for 13 years, kids) became trampled and uprooted under the weight of 314 JMU rushing yards.
Montana returned to Chattanooga in consecutive years in 2008 and 2009. Picked to win each time, the Grizzlies fell to Richmond 24-7 (remember the trick-play throw-back to the quarterback?) and then 23-21 to Villanova as all-purpose star Matt Szczur took over and Montana couldn't find a way to get the ball to Marc Mariani after an unstoppable first half.
If those games seem like forever ago to you, you're not alone. For as perennially strong and "blue-bloody" the Griz program is in the FCS, its national titles in 1995 and 2001 also feel like ancient history.
All these years later, the Grizzlies are making their fourth trip to the championship game under Hauck. It will be a tall order, but this game gives the Griz a long-awaited chance to exorcise past demons.
And to this time finish the job.