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Semifinal round (usually) a step on path to title game for Montana Grizzlies

Montana vs. Appalachian State 2009
Posted at 1:58 PM, Dec 14, 2023

BILLINGS — This week has been a long time coming for the Montana football program.

It used to be that the Grizzlies were regular visitors to the semifinal round of the FCS playoffs. At one point the Griz reached the semis five times in a seven-year stretch — 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011 — advancing to the championship game in three of those seasons.

Of Montana's 11 total previous trips to the semifinals, seven resulted in victories. That's a winning percentage of .636. Prevailing in semifinal games is never the ultimate goal, but more often than not when the Griz get this far they punch their ticket to the promised land.

Montana vs. Appalachian State 2009
Montana football fans cheer during a 2009 FCS semifinal playoff game against Appalachian State at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.

But it's been 12 long years since the Griz have been on this stage. On Saturday, No. 2-seeded Montana (12-1) will host perennial FCS power North Dakota State (11-3) at 2 p.m. with a trip to Frisco, Texas, on the line.

These past dozen years are the longest UM has gone between semifinal trips since the FCS (formerly Division I-AA) was instituted in 1978. During that time the program has endured its share of ups and downs through coaching changes and controversy, including the self-vacating of six wins from 2011 and the entirety of that year's postseason due to NCAA infractions.

That season, by the way, also included a visit to the semifinal round, a 31-28 road loss to Sam Houston State prior to it being internally wiped from the record book.

This year, though, has hearkened back to a bygone era. In what is the sixth season of Bobby Hauck's second stint as head coach, the Grizzlies are following a formula that was used to perfection in Hauck's first go round in Missoula:

They're winning with hair-on-fire defense and near flawless special teams, and putting pressure on opponents by winning the field-position battle while protecting the football to a high degree on offense.

Griz semifinal playoff history

DateOpponentResult
12.16.23.....North Dakota St......TBD
12.16.11.....at Sam Houston St......L, 28-31
12.12.09.....Appalachian St......W, 24-18
12.12.08.....at James Madison.....W, 35-27
12.9.06.....Massachusetts.....L, 17-19
12.11.04.....Sam Houston St......W, 34-13
12.15.01.....Northern Iowa.....W, 38-0
12.9.00.....Appalachian St......W, 19-16 OT
12.14.96.....Troy.....W, 70-7
12.9.95.....Stephen F. Austin.....W, 70-14
12.10.94.....at Youngstown St......L, 28-9
12.9.89.....at Georgia Southern.....L, 15-45

The scene should be wild Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The home fans have waited for a playoff game of this magnitude since 2009, a year that featured an unforgettable semifinal victory against Appalachian State that was sealed late under a picturesque December blizzard. UM won that game, 24-17.

The Griz made their first semifinal trip in 1989, losing to eventual champion Georgia Southern 45-14. Five years later in 1994 Montana returned, falling 28-9 to Youngstown State on its way to the title. But that began a stretch of three straight semifinal visits, including 1995, which under coach Don Read eventually produced the first of Montana's two national championships.

Montana won five of its semifinal trips in a row during the 1990s and 2000s — 70-14 over Stephen F. Austin in 1995, 70-7 over Troy in 1996, 19-16 over Appalachian State in overtime in 2000 (Jimmy Farris, anyone?), and then 38-0 over Northern Iowa in 2001 and 34-13 against Sam Houston State in 2004.

The 2001 season saw UM, coached by Joe Glenn, win its second national title. Hauck took the Griz to four semifinal games in seven years, winning in 2004, '08 and '09. The latter two were part of a crazy four-year run of success.

Washington-Grizzly Stadium 2006
Washington-Grizzly Stadium, prior to its most recent expansion, was sold out for a 2006 FCS semifinal playoff game between Montana and Massachusetts.

Hauck might tell you that the 2007 team was his best — that squad was stunned by Wofford in the first round of the playoffs — but the semifinal that got away might have been in 2006 when the Griz dropped a 19-17 decision to visiting UMass and missed out on what would have been their second trip to the title game (then played in Chattanooga, Tenn.) for the second time in three seasons.

That remains the only time to date that the Grizzlies have lost a semifinal game at home. But the next two seasons — which included a 35-27 road win in the semis over James Madison in 2008 — helped make up for it.

For the past success the Grizzlies have had in the semifinals and in the postseason overall, it has to be noted what North Dakota State has done just in the 12 years since the Grizzlies have advanced this far. In that time the Bison have became the biggest juggernaut in FCS history, winning nine national championships while going a staggering 10-1 in semifinal contests.

Montana and NDSU are now tied for the most FCS semifinal appearances all-time with 12 apiece, one behind Georgia Southern, which now competes in the FBS. The Bison are in the semis for the 12th time in the past 13 years.

This week has been a long time coming for Montana. To get where they want to go, the Grizzlies must overcome the most successful program in FCS history — and on a stage on which both schools are accustomed to winning.