Griz Look to Cap Magical Season with a National Championship


Montana’s magical – and that’s really the only way to describe it – postseason run reaches its zenith this week as the new year brings a new opportunity for the Grizzlies.

Not just any opportunity, this week the 2023 Griz have the chance to etch themselves in the history books as national champions as they head to Frisco, Texas in search of the program’s third FCS/1-AA title.

Ranked No. 2 in the nation after rattling off 10-straight wins, six of which were over ranked opponents, Montana (13-1, 7-1 BSC) enters the title match with a full head of steam, buoyed by a pair of epic overtime wins in in the quarterfinal and semifinal.

They’ll need to all that momentum in Frisco, however, as they collide with the No. 1 seed and undefeated South Dakota State Jackrabbits (14-0, 8-0 MVFC), the defending national champions and winners of a jaw-dropping 28-straight games. That’s right, they haven’t lost since the 2022 season opener – a 7-3 battle royale against the Big 10’s Iowa Hawkeyes.

At times, the Jackrabbits have made it look easy this season as well, pitching three shutouts and averaging nearly 40 points per game. They also eked out a win over Montana State 20-16 at home in September, the same Bobcat team the Griz trounced 37-7 in Missoula.

Common opponents aside, Montana has found a way to get it done this season, and the Griz have reached this point with a healthy dose of two of the program’s calling cards: grit and toughness.

It sets up a national championship game between two of the bluest of FCS blueblood programs and a heavyweight bout that pits strength on strength in all three phases of the game.

SDSU is led by star QB Mark Gronowski who leads the nation in pass efficiency at 182.7 and is averaging an FCS-best 10.08 yards per completion. He’ll have to contend, however, with Montana’s pass efficiency defense which is third in the FCS at 110.25. And consider this: the last four starting QB’s Montana has faced, arguably some of the best in the FCS, have completed an average of just 28 percent of their passes and none have passed for more than 200 yards.

Montana’s defense has also been stellar on third down, forcing NDSU to go 3-for-13, helping lead to UM’s third-ranked 3rd down D percentage which allows opponents to convert just 29 percent of their opportunities. SDSU, however, leads the nation in third down conversion percentage, moving the chains 55 percent of the time.

How ’bout the run game? The Jackrabbits are led by Isaiah Davis, the nation’s top rusher with 1,491 yards on the ground this season. Well, Montana has been strong against the rush all season, allowing opponents to total just over 100 yards per game – the best rush D in the Big Sky and a top-12 total nationally.

Offensively the Griz are ultra-balanced, are veteran up front, have weapons at receiver and in the run game, and are guided by a dual-threat QB that keeps defenses honest with his arm and his legs. It’s a dangerous unit that will have to contend with the best overall defense in the FCS that allows just over 250 total yards out of SDSU’s opponents.

Special teams? Well, more on that later but every Griz fan knows the name Junior Bergen by now and there’s a reason he leads the nation in return TDs. Counterpoint: the Jackrabbits enter the game with the third-best punt return defense in the FCS, allowing just under three yards per return.

Winning traditions, rabid fan bases, elite talent on both sidelines, the 2023 national championship features the best of FCS football, and two freight trains are set to collide at Toyota Stadium in a game that is sure to provide plenty of fireworks.

Kickoff from Frisco is set for 1 p.m. central time, noon mountain.

WATCH: The 2023 FCS Championship will be broadcast live and free of charge to millions of TV sets nationwide on ABC, with a stream available on ESPN+. The game marks Montana’s first-ever appearance on national network TV.

Roy Philpott will have the play-by-play call, Roddy Jones will serve as the analyst, and Taylor McGregor will report from the sidelines at Toyota Stadium.

• A NATION CAPTIVATED BY THE GRIZ: 1,469,000 combined viewers were treated to a pair of thrilling playoff games in Washington-Grizzly Stadium on ESPN2 in December. The Grizzlies’ Friday night OT win over Furman on 12/8 garnered 679,000 viewers, while the double overtime win over North Dakota State on 12/16 drew 790,000. They were, by far, the most viewed FCS games on ESPN2 during this year’s playoffs. For reference, Montana’s regular season game at Idaho on ESPN2 drew just 241,000 viewers.

The FCS National Championship has averaged 1.38 million viewers since 2012 on various networks, while the three previous title games shown on ABC (2022, spring 2021, and 2019) have averaged 1.55 million viewers. The largest audience ever for an FCS national championship game was in 2019 when 2.68 million viewers tuned in to watch NDSU defeat James Madison on ABC.

LISTEN: The Grizzly radio crew will be live in Frisco with the call of the national championship game, available statewide on the Grizzly Sports Radio Network and its fifteen affiliate stations around Montana. “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran will cap his eighth season behind the football mic in Frisco with the play-by-play call. Longtime analyst Greg Sundberg will be in the booth, while Dan Ingram will report from the sidelines.

“Grizzly Gameday” – Montana’s official pregame radio show – starts two hours before kickoff with Ace Sauerwein and Denny Bedard setting up the day’s action before Corcoran and Sundberg take over 30 minutes to kickoff.

Griz fans can stream all of Montana’s radio broadcasts on their mobile device live and free of charge with the Varsity Network App, powered by Learfield and Sidearm Sports.

• A radio broadcast of the title game will also be available nationwide via Westwood One. Ted Emrich will have the play-by-play while Great Falls native Ryal Leaf will serve as analyst. Taylor Davis will report from the sidelines.

The national broadcast will stream at as well as on the Varsity Network app or the TuneIn app for your mobile device. You can also ask your Amazon Echo device to “Open Westwood One Sports”.

HAPPENINGS: Fans are invited to send the Grizzlies off to Frisco in style on Wed., Jan. 3, and line the streets as the team busses depart the UM campus at 12:45 and travel west on Broadway to the Missoula airport.

The Montana Alumni Association will host “the ultimate Griz fan gathering” for fans making the trip on Jan. 6 with Griz Fest at the RoughRiders Ballpark from 5-10 p.m. the night before the game. UM Alumni will also host the official pregame tailgate party and watch parties for the game around the country.

For Griz Fest tickets and complete information on all activities surrounding the game, visit

A HISTORY OF EPIC SHOWDOWNS: Montana has never lost to South Dakota State with an 8-0 all-time record against the Jackrabbits, but there have been plenty of thrilling moments in the series.

The two teams played one of the greatest playoff games ever back in 2009. SDSU came to Missoula in the first round and jumped out to a 34-14 lead at halftime and 48-21 with 5:40 left in the third quarter. Grizzly Hall of Famer and NFL All-Pro Marc Mariani then sparked a comeback for the ages, running back the ensuing kickoff 98 yards en route to help the Griz score 40 unanswered points and six TDs to pull off a 61-48 win.

In 1993 Montana opened the season with a bang against South Dakota State in Missoula, with the Dave Dickenson-led Griz scoring an NCAA-record 39 points in the fourth quarter to rally for a 52-48 win.

LAST MEETING: The Griz and Jackrabbits last squared-off in 2015 in the first round of the FCS Playoffs in Missoula. The Griz built a 24-0 halftime lead and held on to win 24-17. Brady Gustafson threw a pair of TDs, one to Jamaal Jones in the first quarter and one to Ellis Henderson in the second for the bulk of Montana’s points while John Nguyen led UM in rushing with 107 yards.

Dallas Goedert, now the starting tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles, caught a fourth-quarter touchdown for SDSU to make it a one-score game. The Griz were able to close out the win, however, advancing on to the second round where they faced a rematch against North Dakota State after beating them on week one.


POSTSEASON PARTICULARS: Here’s some Griz postseason quick hits as Montana gets set to play in the program’s 8th national championship game.

• Montana is in the midst of its FCS-record 27th playoff appearance in program history. The Griz are 38-24 (.612) all-time in FCS/1-AA playoffs, 35-7 at home, 2-13 on the road, and 1-4 in neutral site games. Bobby Hauck is 17-10 in the postseason during his 12 seasons as Montana’s head coach.

• Montana is the winningest FCS team of the 21st century with 231 wins since the year 2000. The Griz beat the second-winningest FCS team of the century in the semifinal, with NDSU finishing its season with 225 wins since the turn of the millennium.

• To reach the final, Montana has won 10-straight games with seven of those wins coming against ranked opponents and five against top-10 teams, including beating then-No. 3 Idaho on the road, No. 7 Sacramento State, and No. 4 Montana State to cap the regular season. Delaware was ranked No. 11, Furman No. 7, and NDSU No. 8.

• The Grizzlies dominated rival Montana State 37-7 in the “Brawl of the Wild” to win the program’s 19th Big Sky Championship – the most titles of any program in the league.

ICE IN THEIR VEINS: Montana earned two-straight overtime victories in the playoffs to advance to the championship game, beating Furman 35-28 in OT, and NDSU 31-29 in 2OT.

The win over NDSU was the first 2 OT game for Montana since 2003 when the Griz lost to Western Illinois 43-40 in the first round of the FCS Playoffs. It was also the first 2OT game overall in the FCS/1-AA playoffs since 2004 (William & Mary def. Delaware 44-38). Montana has played only one other OT playoff game, beating Appalachian State 19-16 in a semifinal contest in Missoula in 2000.

HAUCK’S HISTORY: Montana head coach Bobby Hauck became the winningest coach of all time in the Big Sky Conference in 2023, now sitting at 129-35 in 12 seasons with the Grizzlies. He broke former Northern Arizona coach (and Montana assistant) Jerome Souers’ record of 123 wins against Sac State, and his sideline gear and a game ball from that win are now in the College Football Hall of Fame.

He was named the Big Sky Coach of the Year for the 4th time in his career this season, the AFCA Region 5 Coach of the Year for the third time in his career, and a Finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award for the second time after winning his eighth Big Sky Championship in November.

• A SPECIAL TEAMS SPECIALIST: Hauck, who serves as head coach and special teams coordinator, has seen his units excel in the third phase this season with the Griz totaling 16 returns for touchdowns since returning to UM in 2018.

He’s coached two Big Sky record holders in Bergen (who is tied for the league record with 5 career punt return scores) and Malik Flowers (who tied the NCAA record for career kickoff return scores with 7). Who did Flowers tie that record with? San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, who Hauck coached before returning to UM. He also coached one of the former school record holders for returns, Marc Mariani, who famously sparked a Grizzly comeback against SDSU with a special teams score.

ALL-AMERICANS: The Grizzlies had a pair of standouts named to the Walter Camp Football Foundation All-America team on Dec. 28. Center AJ Forbes and cornerback Trevin Gradney were two of just 27 players to earn recognition. The team was voted on by sports information directors across the FCS.

Gradney earned the honor after leading the FCS in interceptions for much of the year with a Big Sky-best 5 picks to date.

Alex Gubner has been named to three All-America teams this season, the Associated Press and the AFCA named him a first teamer, while Stats Perform tabbed him a second teamer.

Bergen is an All-America twice over, landing on the AP and Stats second team lists. Braxton Hill also landed on a pair of teams, a third team pick by the AP and a second team pick by Stats Perform. Eli Gillman, the Jerry Rice Award winner, was named a freshman All-American by Stats Perform as well to give UM six players with All-America honors.

BERGEN BITES: Speaking of Bergen… the Billings native has been nothing short of electric on special teams during the playoffs.

After running back two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns – not to mention throwing the game-winning two-point conversion against NDSU – he now holds school record and is tied for the Big Sky record with 5 career punt returns for touchdowns with MSU’s Corey Smith. He’s now chasing the FCS record of 8 set by LeRoy Vann of Florida A&M.

Bergen has done a bit of everything for the Griz in his career. He’s racked up 499 all-purpose yards in this year’s playoffs alone and is sitting at 1,604 all-purpose yards this season, just one yard shy of a top-10 season in program history.

He’s also now racked-up 3,140 career all-purpose yards and with another season of eligibility, he could enter UM’s career top-10 if he passes Reynard Coleman’s mark of 3,347, chasing Marc Mariani’s record of 5,441 yards.

Oh, and passing… He doesn’t do it very often, but when he does, he connects. Bergen is now 4-for-4 passing with 77 yards, a touchdown, and one very crucial two-point conversion in his career. That’s a perfect completion percentage, and he’s averaging 25.7 yards per pass.

His play has inspired Griz Nation so much that ZooMontana in Billings, the state’s only zoo, has temporarily re-named one of its Grizzly bears “Junior” in honor of Bergen for his achievements in the postseason.

COOL CLIFF: Quarterback Clifton McDowell, a Texas native, earned the Big Sky Newcomer of the Year Award after going undefeated as a starter in his first season at Montana (now at 11-0). He set a record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in modern program history this year, currently with 751 total yards.

He also set another school record earlier in the season, dropping a dime from deep in Montana territory to Keelan White in stride for a 97-yard touchdown pass that helped seal the win over Sac State. It was the longest play from scrimmage in school history, with McDowell now etched in the Grizzly record book after topping Brian Ah Yat’s 26-year-old record 93-yard pass to Jimmy Farris in 1997. It was also the longest play from scrimmage in the Big Sky and is the third-longest play in the FCS this season, with two other passes going for 98 yards.

MORE McNUGGETS: McDowell has been efficient with the pass this season, throwing only his third interception of the year against Furman, the fewest INTs of any starting QB in the Big Sky, and the only one with fewer than seven INTs on the year.

• He enters the title game with a 140.9 efficiency rating, completing 138 of 235 passes with just three picks. He’s also the Big Sky leader in yards per pass completion at 13.49, a top-17 mark in the FCS.

• To date he’s responsible for 22 Grizzly touchdowns (13 passing, 9 rushing), four away from entering Montana’s top-15 all-time best seasons for a QB.

IT ALL STARTS UP FRONT: Montana’s offensive line, led by senior captains AJ Forbes (C) and Chris Walker (LT) has helped pave the way for the Grizzlies to rack up 2,605 rushing yards and 32 rushing TDs the season, the third-most rushing yards per-game and the second-most rushing TDs this season in the Big Sky.

They’ve also put up the pass protection for an almost unbelievably balanced offensive attack, with Montana throwing for 2,755 yards to date. How balanced you ask? After 14 games, coordinator Brent Pease‘s rushing attack and passing attack are separated by just 150 yards in total production.

Four of Montana’s regular starting five on the O-Line earned All-Conference honors at the end of the regular season. Junior RT Brandon Casey landed on the first team, Forbes the second team, while Walker and sophomore guard Journey Grimsrud earned honorable mentions.

ENDZONE ELI: Montana freshman running back Eli Gillman was named the winner of the 2023 Jerry Rice Award for the FCS Freshman of the Year in November, an award he will receive in person at the Stats Perform FCS Awards Banquet on the eve of the national championship in Frisco.

He was also the first Grizzly to ever win the Big Sky Freshman of the Year award after a breakout season with 950 yards on the ground to date, a top-15 season among all rushers in Grizzly history and the third-most for a freshman in all D-I football.

His 12 rushing TD’s this season are a top-20 mark in program history, and he set a new school record at UC Davis with an 85-yard touchdown run, the longest from scrimmage in program history.

OUTSTANDING OSTMO: Senior Nick Ostmo helps give Montana a 1-2 punch in the running back room with an additional 637 rushing yards this season.

After battling injuries throughout his time as a Grizzly, he’s quietly had one of the best rushing careers in Montana history, with 1,838 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground – both top-10 marks in program history. With three touchdown catches in his career, is total of 24 total scored is a top-15 mark in school history.

DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS: Montana’s defense has been phenomenal in the back half of the season. Led by first-year coordinator Ronnie Bradford, the Griz outscored their opponents 145-24 in the last four games of the regular season and won the last seven games by a combined 260-100. It took a semifinal opponent in North Dakota State to put up more than 28 points on UM’s defense with the Bison scoring 29 – the most against the Grizzly D all year.

GUBNER’S GOT GAME: Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Alex Gubner has now earned two first-team and three total All-America honors this season. He’s also a two-time first-team all-conference pick and a two-time team defensive MVP.

Gubner is the first Grizzly D-tackle or interior lineman to ever be named the league’s Defensive MVP, but he’s the 14th Grizzly to win the award. In fact, only seven interior defensive linemen have ever been named Defensive MVP by the Big Sky Conference… His freshman season he was a nominee for the now-defunct Piesman Award after he picked off four passes that year.

HILL’S HITS: Led by Gubner and linebacker Braxton Hill the Grizzlies have the best rushing defense in the Big Sky, allowing teams an average of just 102.9 yards per game.

Hill is now second in the Big Sky in tackles with 116 this season and needs just three more to become the league leader while averaging 8.3 stops per game. His total of 116 tackles is a top-20 mark in the UM record book, and his career total of 219 tackles puts his at No. 39 among Montana’s top-40 all-time tacklers.

WELCOME RILEY WILSON: Dallas-area native Riley Wilson has been a revelation for the Grizzly defense at linebacker this season after transferring in from Hawaii where he was a tight end. The sophomore is second in the Big Sky in TFLs this year with 14 and is fifth in the league in sacks with 8.5.

EXPERIENCE MATTERS: Montana’s defense has excelled this year in part thanks to some vast experience and healthy bodies. Gubner has been UM’s ultimate iron man, set to start his 53 game in 58 appearances for the Griz this week. Safety Nash Fouch has been equally consistent at safety, set to make his 57th appearance and, appropriately, 37th start in a Grizzly uniform in Frisco. TraJon Cotton has also seen a ton of action since transferring in from Oregon State, making is 33rd start and 41st appearance in Texas.

Forbes is UM’s most experienced player on offense with 41 starts, but some others on the O-line are also hitting some milestones. First-team all-conference tackle Brandon Casey is likely to make his 30th start to cap his junior season, and former D-lineman Journey Grimsrud is set to make his 20th start at guard next week.

They’re both expected to be back next season, along with guard Liam Brown who has 15 starts to his name. Cannon Panfiloff and Declan McCabe will also compete for starting jobs next season on the O-line with a combined 4 starts to date.

HEADS OR TAILS: That question has befuddled the Griz this season, with Montana losing nine-straight coin tosses to start the last nine games. The good news: Montana is 9-0 when losing the toss and putting the offense on the field first, and 4-1 when winning the toss and deferring to the second half.

Captain AJ Forbes did come up big for the Griz in overtime against NDSU, winning the post-game coin toss to give UM the preference of sending the Bison offense on the field first, a choice that paid off in the 2OT win.

THE MECCA OF FCS FOOTBALL: Montana calls Washington-Grizzly Stadium home and the Grizzly faithful help make it one of the best home-field advantages in college football.

The Griz are now 230-35 (.867) at home since the stadium opened in 1986 and 33-7 (.891) in home playoff games in that time. As head coach for the Griz, Hauck is now 88-11 (.889) at home and has led UM to 5 perfect seasons in Missoula.

Griz fans helped cause 5 false start penalties against NDSU in the semifinal (the second-most in any game this year), bringing UM’s season total of opponent false starts to 26.

Montana sold-out all six of its regular season games in 2023 and sold out the semifinal game against NDSU – the first playoff sellout in program history. UM also sold a program record 18,761 season ticket packages in 2023. The Griz led the FCS in average and total attendance with 25,069 fans per game, more than 1/3rd of the FBS.