BILLINGS — Looking back, the night of Oct. 14 in Moscow, Idaho, might have been the watershed moment of the Montana Grizzlies' 2023 football season.
After playing uninspired football and losing their Big Sky Conference opener at Northern Arizona on Sept. 23, the Griz started to put the pieces together with victories over Idaho State at home and against No. 18 UC Davis on the road in consecutive outings. But their biggest test came the following week against No. 3 Idaho.
Inside the Kibbie Dome, Montana jumped to a 20-point lead and held on for a 23-21 win over the Vandals to give rise to the notion that coach Bobby Hauck's team was a bona fide Big Sky title contender.
Now, all these weeks later, the No. 2-seeded Grizzlies (13-1) are on the doorstep of glory as they prepare to face top-seeded defending champ South Dakota State (14-0) in the FCS title game Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.
Summarizing Idaho's loss to Montana, Vandals coach Jason Eck said "it hurt a lot. We felt like we kind of missed an opportunity." The Griz didn't, and they have since vaulted themselves to the promised land.
Save for Montana State's Brent Vigen — whose Bobcats played and lost to both Montana and SDSU this season and who declined to comment on the championship matchup — no coach has a better perspective than Eck.
Prior to becoming the head coach at Idaho following the 2021 season, Eck spent six years at South Dakota State, first as the offensive line coach and then as offensive coordinator, helping the Jackrabbits reach the title game at the end of the makeshift 2021 spring COVID season. Eck also spent one year as Montana State's offensive line coach and run-game coordinator under Rob Ash in 2015.
Eck's Idaho team was eliminated from this year's playoffs by Albany. The following week in the semis, Albany went to South Dakota State and got demolished 59-0.
"I think it's going to be a good matchup," Eck told MTN Sports of the impending Montana/SDSU game. "The Jackrabbits, as the defending champions, were pretty strong all season. I think Montana has been on more of an improvement curve. They kept getting better, and by the end of the year they're playing with a lot of confidence."
At SDSU, Eck coordinated an offense helmed by quarterback Mark Gronowski, who has since become one of the most efficient signal callers in the FCS and is leading the Jacks into the title contest on a 28-game winning streak and as 12½-point favorites (as of Dec. 27).
But Eck, noting the fact that the Grizzlies are also playing their best football at the end of the season and are riding a 10-game winning streak of their own, said Montana might have its best chance to win by creating matchups to manufacture big plays and by prevailing in the special teams battle.
When asked to provide his analysis for the matchup, Eck spoke in depth for nearly six uninterrupted minutes. Following is his breakdown:
"I think looking at individual elements, the Jackrabbits' offense is really good. They have a lot of guys that I think are future pros on that offense — the left side of the o-line and the center are really good. That tight end's a really good player (Zach Heins), and the two receivers are really good players, the brothers (Jaxon and Jadon Janke). Gronowski is a great player and probably the running back (Isaiah Davis) is the best of all of them.
"I do think Montana's defense presents some unique challenges by their scheme. It's just different. It's tricky. You don't play against that scheme a lot. And I think it's probably a scheme that's best suited to stop the Jackrabbits, unlike a traditional four-down team that doesn't blitz that much. I don't think your chances of beating blocks are great against (SDSU) because they're so good up front. But can you confuse them? Can you get them targeted the wrong way and get some freebies? The Griz give you so many multiple looks.
"I do think Montana is going to be in a little bit of a catch-22 if they're really heavy in the box and leaving some of those one-on-one matchups on the outside, but I still think that's the best way to go against the Jackrabbits. I think with Gronowski and the Jankes they can still hurt you one-on-one. And if they get matchups in the slot against Montana's safeties, I think that can be a good advantage for the Jackrabbits. But stopping the run is going to be critical. That's what makes it go. Montana has done a good job of that this year.
"Both of these defenses play really, really hard. I thought Montana's defense played the hardest of anyone in our league, and I think the Jackrabbits play as hard as anybody in the country defensively. I think (Montana) has to alternate between consistently moving the ball with 4- and 5-yard plays and then find a way to create some big plays. That was a huge factor in our game — the running back (Eli Gillman) had a long run and they hit a long pass to Junior Bergen.
"I think they'll try to get Bergen in the slot, get him lined up against the nickel or the safeties and try to find a matchup. I don't think you can just drive (the ball) all day against this Jackrabbit team, so you've got to find a way to get two, three, four, five big plays that really can spark some scoring drives and do it that way.
"I do think the matchup of Montana's o-line and the Jackrabbit d-line will be interesting. I don't think the individual talent on (SDSU's) d-line is exceptional, but they play really, really hard and they play a lot of guys. So Montana's (line) will have to rise up.
"Special teams I think will be a huge factor. Both teams have really good punt returners. Both punt returners (UM's Bergen and SDSU's Tucker Large) have touchdowns in the playoffs. Bergen's got a few of them. The Jackrabbits did have a punt blocked in the Montana State game earlier this year. The Griz are pretty sound overall on (special) teams. I think for the Griz to pull the upset they'll probably have to win the special teams battle — get a big play out of Bergen and not let Tucker Large get any that way.
"So yeah, a pretty good matchup. I probably would pick the Jackrabbits but I wouldn't be surprised if its a seven-point game or something."
It's difficult to argue Eck's contention that SDSU should be the favorite. Especially on paper. But they don't play the game on paper, and Montana has overcome all challenges on the field for the past three months. We'll know for sure how this all plays out in 10 days.