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The Griz will win if ... : Keys to victory for Montana in title clash vs. South Dakota State

Junior Bergen
Posted at 2:31 PM, Jan 06, 2024

FRISCO, Texas — The prevailing assumption around Toyota Stadium and these parts of suburban Dallas says Montana doesn't have the horses to beat undefeated reigning champ South Dakota State in their FCS title matchup on Sunday.

The oddsmakers agree, and have the Grizzlies as roughly two-touchdown underdogs in their quest to claim the program's first national title since 2001.

But what's the old saying? Ah yes: "That's why they play the game."

Following a 28-14 loss at Northern Arizona in their Big Sky Conference opener on Sept. 23, the Griz have been on a heater. They've reeled off 10 straight wins including overtime playoff victories over Furman in the quarterfinals and perennial championship contender North Dakota State in the semis.

Griz coach Bobby Hauck has described South Dakota State's defense as "elite," but Hauck's Montana squad is no slouch on that side of the ball either. The Jackrabbits probably have more offensive firepower.

Both squads are stellar on special teams, so whoever can gain that edge will have an advantage. And as always, whoever wins the turnover battle will likely have the better chance of winning the game.

During his press conference on Friday at Toyota Stadium, Hauck said the three weeks of preparation have been beneficial to his group. Now it's just a matter of going out and executing the game plan ... and to do it mistake-free.

"I like our team," Hauck said. "We've done a nice job. We've worked hard. I think our guys are looking forward to the game on Sunday. Hopefully we have a good performance because we're going to need that to compete with South Dakota State."

Here, then, are a few keys to victory for Montana on Sunday:

The Griz will win if ...

... They take a 10-point lead or greater. In the past two months, South Dakota State's largest deficit was just three points, and that was during a quarterfinal playoff victory against Villanova. The following week the Jackrabbits annihilated Albany 59-0. The Jacks are not used to playing from behind.

If the Grizzlies can grab a lead, perhaps even a two-possession cushion, it could go a long way.

Let's say Montana gets the ball first, goes down the field and scores a touchdown, maybe tacks on a field goal later in the first quarter or early in the second and allows its defense to utilize the array of looks it will inevitably throw at SDSU, it could be beneficial.

... Their secondary holds up one more time in man coverage. Defensive analyst and game-plan guru Tim Hauck said as much earlier this week — Montana's attacking scheme doesn't put their cornerbacks and safeties in great positions to succeed.

The Grizzlies' blitzing style often leaves their secondary one-on-one down the field and, according to Tim Hauck, those players — Trevin Gradney, Corbin Walker, Ronald Jackson, TraJon Cotton, Nash Fouch, Garrett Graves, Ryder Meyer et al — "haven't blinked." They can't start blinking now.

They'll have to stand strong for one more game, as SDSU quarterback Mark Gronowski can beat you down the field with receivers like Jadon and Jaxon Janke and tight end Zach Heins.

... They make a significant play (or two) on special teams. This one seems fairly obvious. The fact is, without the performance of electrifying return man Junior Bergen the Griz probably wouldn't even be here. Bergen has taken three returns back for touchdowns in the playoffs alone (one kickoff, two punts) and leaves opposing fans screaming, "Why did you kick it to him!"

Clearly, South Dakota State will do everything it can to limit or neutralize Bergen in the return game, but if he gets a chance ... look out. And while Bergen is a threat every time he touches it, the Jackrabbits have their own game-breaker in returner Tucker Large, who the Griz must contain.

Montana would also be well served to convert a fake punt or something of that nature at some point during the game to keep a possession alive and put up points.

... They win the physical battle in the trenches. This of course is more subjective, but it goes without saying. What constitutes winning at the line of scrimmage? For the Grizzlies it will mean standing up to South Dakota State's ground attack, which flourishes with two-time 1,400-yard rusher Isaiah Davis and a plus-one run option in Gronowski behind a whole lot of beef up front.

In Montana's odd-man stack, lineman Alex Gubner has been a one-man wrecking crew all season. His ability to take on blocks, plug up the middle and allow Griz linebackers Braxton Hill, Levi Janacaro, Riley Wilson and the rest to track the ball will be critical. His stats aren't eye-popping, but Gubner was the Big Sky Conference defensive player of the year for a reason.

On the other side, the Grizzlies' offensive line needs to keep QB Clifton McDowell upright. McDowell has shown he can execute just about any pass down the field, but he has a propensity to hold the ball a little too long while scrambling away from pressure and occasionally takes big losses. But he is also a dangerous runner, and his ability to improvise and pick up yards on the ground will obviously be a factor.

How many rushing yards will McDowell, Eli Gillman, Nick Ostmo and the Grizzlies need to stay ahead of the sticks and give themselves manageable third-down plays? Since the end of October they've averaged 214.0 yards per game, so that would seem like a great target number to hit.

Can it be done against an SDSU defense that gives up only 92.6 on the ground per game? We'll know soon enough.