Magical Season Comes to a Close in Championship


Montana reached new heights in an incredible 2023 season, but couldn’t reach the ultimate summit on Sunday against the defending champion South Dakota State Jackrabbits. The Grizzlies battled and were within a possession at the half, but big plays sparked a Jackrabbit team that won its 29th straight game to claim the FCS crown after a 23-3 victory.

In Montana’s first trip to the title game since 2009, the Grizzlies just couldn’t get the offense going against the top-ranked Jackrabbit defense. Montana held SDSU under its season averages by 163 yards and 15 points, but turned the ball over three times and couldn’t find the end zone.

They end the season as national runner-up with a 13-2 record. It’s the most wins in a single season for Montana since going 14-1 in 2009.

“I’m proud of them. It’s an honor to coach them,” Hauck said of his team. “What a great season for our team, and we hope to continue on and have a chance to be back here at some point.”

The Grizzly defense held for most of the game, giving up just 17 first downs and forcing SDSU to go 4-of-11 on third down. They also forced two Jackrabbit turnovers, scoring on one of them, but two touchdowns within two minutes of each other in the third quarter proved the difference maker.

Braxton Hill had a game-high 12 tackles in his final game as a Grizzly, and the Anaconda native also had the team’s only sack on the day. Corbin Walker had his third interception of the season to go with four tackles.

Ryder Meyer had seven tackles, and Alex Gubner had six stops.

Hill and so many others that have made a lasting impact on the program.

“It’s meant everything to me. Just being a Montana kid, this is my dream school. Just you develop so many relationships along the way with these coaches and the guys you play out there with,” Hill said. “It was a special senior year for sure. Yeah, just going to miss being a Montana Grizzly, and I’m excited to see what these guys do next year”

The SDSU defense that has held opponents under 10 points per game this season in a historic season was as good as advertised. They held Montana to a season-low three points with just 273 total yards. Montana couldn’t get it going on the ground or in the air, averaging just 2.0 yards per rush and 7.6 yards per completion.

Quarterback Clifton McDowell completed 56 percent of his passes for 165 yards. Aaron Fontes hauled in seven catches for a team-high 76 yards. The running backs Nick Ostmo and Eli Gillman each had five catches as well.

The backs couldn’t get it going on the ground, as no Griz player finished with more than 20 yards rushing.

“In terms of the game, I think that’s when you look at each team with 17 first downs that’s two pretty good defenses,” Hauck said. “I think that 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. When you have good teams on each sideline, you can’t turn the ball over and you can’t get behind the chains and take negative plays.”

Montana reached SDSU territory on five of its 13 drives, but turned it over on downs twice to go with a fumble and a punt. The 30-yard field goal from Nico Ramos would cap the only Griz scoring drive of the day.

The Grizzlies ran 21 more plays than the Jackrabbits as both teams looked to eat up the clock with long drives. SDSU averaged nearly twice as many yards per play with an impressive 5.8 yards per rush.

The Jackrabbits used a 27-yard gain on a swing pass to get into Griz territory on the game’s opening drive, and Gronowski and Jaxon Janke connected again for a third down conversion to keep the drive going. On third and short inside the red zone, Gronowski scrambled for a first down to the six-yard line.

The best red zone offense in the FCS put points on the board with a rush around the edge to take a 7-0 lead with 8:08 remaining in the first quarter.

Bergen touched the ball first for Montana and continued his stellar postseason with a 39-yard kickoff return that set the Griz up near midfield on their first drive. McDowell hit white on the edge for a seven-yard gain to move into Jacks territory.

Gillman converted a third and short for Montana as part of a highly active opening drive for him. He had a pair of catches to go with three runs. The Griz faced another third and short on the 26, and Nick Ostmo was stopped to set up fourth down.

Hauck rolled the dice early, and McDowell hit Ostmo on a bootleg pass to give Montana another first down. McDowell picked up another first down with his legs to give Montana first down from the SDSU six.

A first quarter that featured just two total drives came to an end with Montana facing another fourth down from the SDSU one-year line. They gave to Gillman, who was stopped inches short of the end zone.

The Jackrabbits quickly worked their way out of the hole with two plays for 26 yards. But when they went for the big play, Montana’s defense responded with one of their own.

Gronowski threw a deep pass that Corbin Walker jumped, picking off the Walter Payton Award winner for just his fifth interception of the year. Walker returned it back near the red zone, but a penalty brought the Griz back to start their drive at the SDSU 33.

Ostmo started the drive with an eight-yard carry and Harris gave them a first down in the red zone with an 11-yard run. The drive end with a Nico Ramos field goal from 30 yards out to cut the lead 7-3 with 10 minutes left in the half.

A big play moved South Dakota State into Griz territory on the next drive, but Montana’s defense stood tall and forced a punt.

The Griz started deep in their own territory and were forced to punt from their own end zone. The kick got caught in the wind and deflected off a Jackrabbit, and Erik Barker dove on top of it to give the Griz the ball back with four minutes left in the half.

A penalty set back Montana and forced the Griz into a punt, but they got the ball back with 35 seconds after an SDSU three-and-out. The half ended with a Hail Mary to the end zone that was intercepted, putting a punctuation on a defensive opening period.

It’s the lowest combined points in the first half of any Montana game this season, and matches the Grizzlies lowest point total. South Dakota State outgained Montana 175-140 in a competitive half hour of football, and one that flew by in real time.

The teams combined for just four third down conversions in the opening period with each team moving the chains twice on the critical down.

The Grizzlies started the second half with the ball and moved into Jackrabbit territory on a big play to Fontes, but the receiver was taken down from behind and the ball slipped out to give it back to South Dakota State at their own 41.

The defense held, forcing a three-and-out. Another good SDSU punt forced Montana to start from its own five-yard line again and couldn’t escape the shadow of their own end zone, punting back to the Jackrabbits.

South Dakota State picked up a massive third down conversion on its second drive as Gronowski escaped a near-sack and delivered a 34-yard pass to set them up in the red zone again. Gronowski scrambled for the score to make it 14-3 with 7:11 left in the third.

The Jackrabbits would get the ball back and score again to take a 20-3 lead. They would force a fumble on Montana’s first offensive play of the next drive. It led to a South Dakota State field goal that increased the lead to 20-3 at the end of the third quarter.

The Grizzlies made it into Jackrabbit territory but had to go for it on fourth and long. They faced 13 yards, but got backed up further by a false start. McDowell hit Ostmo in space, and the running back used a burst of speed to convert and keep Montana in it.

They would face another fourth and long, and this time come up short to give the ball back to South Dakota State.

South Dakota State would add a late field goal for the 23-3 final score. The official attendance of the game was 19,512, the fifth-largest crowd in the Frisco era and largest since 2015.

AJ Forbes played his last game as the Montana center and will also leave Montana with a very long lasting impact.

“Yeah, this place is really special to me,” Forbes said. “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.

The Grizzlies hadn’t made an FCS National Championship game since 2009, the last season of Hauck’s first stint as head coach. This is his fourth overall appearance in the title game for Montana, and the coach has plans for many more.

“Yeah, I think we’re where we should be,” Hauck said. “I mentioned this in the locker room. In 2018, five seasons ago, we didn’t look like we do now physically or in the ability to perform. This senior class and the guys we’ve added on, I mean, they won a lot of games, culminating with this appearance in the National Championship Game.

“But we’ve won playoff games every year since that first year. We’ve been in the quarterfinals,” Hauck said. “Pushing our way into this game was terrific. They have an understanding that we expect to win, and I think they have passed that on to everybody in the locker room.”