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Griz dreams dashed: Montana bottled up in 23-3 FCS title game loss to powerful South Dakota State

Garrett Graves, Trevin Gradney
Posted at 3:06 PM, Jan 07, 2024

FRISCO, Texas — If you're gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a touchdown in the arsenal. Unfortunately for Montana, TDs were hard to come by Sunday.

The Grizzlies' national championship dreams were dashed on a perfect January day at a sold-out Toyota Stadium, as quarterback Mark Gronowski and South Dakota State left no doubt of their FCS supremacy with a 23-3 title-game victory.

Eli Gillman
University of Montana freshman Eli Gillman (10) runs the ball during the FCS national championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024.

Montana's undoing was precipitated by turnovers, its inability to score from the 1-yard line on its opening drive, and the failure to capitalize on an early interception and a recovery on a muffed punt by its special teams unit. Senior-laden South Dakota State took over in the third quarter and never looked back.

The top-seeded Jackrabbits capped their season with a 15-0 record and their second straight FCS crown. No. 2-seeded Montana came up short in the title game for the fourth straight appearance. The Grizzlies, who finished a magical season with a 13-2 record, are still seeking their first championship since 2001.

RELATED: MONTANA'S BOBBY HAUCK, PLAYERS LAMENT LOSS IN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

"In terms of evaluating how they won the game and we didn't, it's the critical things that are critical in every football game," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said afterward. "When you have good teams on each sideline, you can't turn the ball over, you can't get behind the chains and take negative plays. You've got to run the ball better than we did, and you can't turn it over.

"Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers will cost you games, and that was a big factor today."

Efficiency at the quarterback position is also a big factor, and SDSU had it through and through. Gronowski passed for 175 yards and a touchdown and added 53 rushing yards and another score.

Gronowski was named the game's Most Outstanding Player for the second straight season, putting him in the company of North Dakota State greats Brock Jensen and Carson Wentz as the only players to win the award consecutively.

Mark Gronowski
South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski throws a pass during the FCS national championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024.

The Jackrabbits put together a workmanlike opening drive, capping it with a 6-yard touchdown run by Isaiah Davis for a 7-0 lead. Gronowski, the newly minted Walter Payton Award winner as the top offensive player in the FCS, efficiently moved the team down the field, which included receiver Jaxon Janke hurdling tacklers down the sideline for a 27-yard gain.

Meanwhile, Montana struggled to gain yards on the ground and ultimately find the end zone all day against South Dakota State's defense.

PHOTOS: MONTANA FALLS TO SOUTH DAKOTA STATE IN FCS TITLE GAME

A 39-yard kickoff return by Junior Bergen set Montana up at its 42. The Griz converted a fourth-down play on a run by Clifton McDowell, then faced a fourth-and-goal from inside the 1 at the start of the second quarter. That set up the first key play of the game, and the Jackrabbits stuffed Eli Gillman, the newly minted Jerry Rice Award winner as FCS freshman of the year, to keep the Griz out of the end zone.

"I thought the fourth-down stop was a big play in the game and in the goal-line area in the first half," Hauck said. "They're a big, physical, senior-oriented team, and they do a nice job."

Braxton Hill
University of Montana senior Braxton Hill (35) celebrates a tackle for a loss of yards during the FCS national championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024.

The Griz quickly got the ball back as Corbin Walker picked off a Gronowski pass down the field, which was about the only mistake the QB made. But Montana again got into the red zone and this time settled for a 30-yard field goal by Nico Ramos to pare the deficit to 7-3 at the 10:51 mark of the second quarter.

Montana later made the first big special teams play when Travis Benham's punt brushed an SDSU player down the field and the Griz recovered near midfield. Still, nothing came of it. The Griz were in position to float a Hail Mary on the last play of the first half but it was intercepted by the Jackrabbits' Dalys Beanum.

UM was methodically marching down the field on the opening drive of the second half but Aaron Fontes was stripped from behind while fighting for extra yards and SDSU's DyShawn Gales. That was a drive killer. Montana ended up punting on their next possession, and that's when the Jacks were able to extend their lead.

Gronowski held in against pressure and found big tight end Zach Heins for 34 yards on a third-and-8 play, then was in the end zone on a 10-yard run on the next play. Diving across the goal line, Gronowski's TD gave SDSU a 14-3 lead with 7:11 left in the third quarter.

Gronowski then hooked up with Jadon Janke on a pretty 23-yard TD pass, giving the Jackrabbits as 20-3 lead later in the third (the point-after attempt was flubbed). On the Grizzlies' ensuing offensive play, quarterback Clifton McDowell was stripped and lost a fumble that was recovered by SDSU's Ryan Van Marel. That led to a 32-yard field goal by Hunter Dustman and a 23-3 advantage.

Dustman also played a key role in keeping the ball away from Bergen on both kickoffs and punts. Twice Dustman pinned the Grizzlies' offense inside the 10, and Bergen didn't get anything other than his 39-yard kickoff return in the first quarter.

"Those were obviously good punts," Hauck said. "When you've got to go 95 (yards) against the top defense in the country, it's harder, certainly. We didn't really get much for return balls. I thought we'd kind of have some action, but in order for that to happen, you've got to get return balls, and (Dustman) did a nice job of not allowing us to get out."

Clifton McDowell
Montana quarterback Clifton McDowell looks to pass during the FCS national championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024.

In the aftermath of defeat, Montana senior center A.J. Forbes and senior linebacker Braxton Hill gave emotional answers to questions about finishing their careers, especially being on the losing end of a championship game.

"Yeah, this place is really special to me," said Forbes, who previously transferred from the University of Nebraska. "I get emotional talking about it because this place gave me the opportunity that I knew that I wanted, and I'm so grateful for coach Hauck and the rest of the coaches and my teammates for letting me live out my dream. I'm forever grateful for that."

Said Hill: "It's meant the world to me. Montana was my dream school. I love representing this state. I've made my best friends along the way. So many great relationships with these coaches, and Montana is just a special place. I really wish I could be a Grizzly forever."