Big Sky ConferenceMontana Grizzlies


Tone of FCS championship game was set for Montana, SDSU on one early play

Eli Gillman
Posted at 8:13 AM, Jan 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-08 10:13:30-05

FRISCO, Texas — The first big decision of Sunday's FCS championship game was Bobby Hauck's, and it was a no-brainer.

With Montana trailing 7-0 and its offense facing fourth and goal from inside the 1-yard line at the outset of the second quarter, Hauck made the easy call to go for it and try to tie the game. The play, though, went for naught.


The Griz ran some slight misdirection, giving the ball to running back Eli Gillman, who broke left. He was met by South Dakota State linebacker Adam Bock and was hauled down for no gain. Montana came up empty in that situation, subsequently stumbled and went on to lose 23-3.

Not to suggest the Grizzlies would have won the game with a touchdown there — UM was still in good shape at halftime trailing 7-3 — but it certainly wouldn't have hurt.

It was a tone-setting play that proved the Jackrabbits had no intention of relinquishing their grip on the national title they had won the year prior.

"They're a senior-dominated team, and they played like it today," Hauck said. "They went out and took that game and did a great job."

South Dakota State coach Jimmy Rogers went much further, saying this year's Jackrabbits had "the best defense in FCS history, and I'm proud of that." It's hard to argue when you hold opponents to 15 total points in the entire playoffs.

By game's end Sunday the Jackrabbits had limited Montana to 47 rushing yards on 30 carries, a mere 2 yards per attempt. Griz quarterback Clifton McDowell was forced to sling the ball 39 times. He completed 22 of them for 165 yards and Montana was shut out of the end zone and turned the ball over three times.

Junior Bergen, outside of a 39-yard kickoff return in the opening quarter, was neutralized on special teams.

Sometimes in football a yard can make all the difference. SDSU's championship wasn't clinched yet, but it all started with that early fourth-down stand, which came at the end of a promising Griz drive lasted 15 plays and ate up more than eight minutes.

"It was just huge to come up with that in a big-time game," Bock said. "It felt awesome to get a little bit of momentum on our side when maybe things weren't going the way we wanted to and they were driving down the field. That was a big momentum shift for us, I feel like."

The loss added to Montana's struggles in championship games over a two-decade stretch. During Hauck's first stint as the Grizzlies' head coach the team fell short of the title in 2004 versus James Madison, in 2008 against Richmond and again in 2009 to Villanova.

Hauck then departed for an FBS opportunity at UNLV but the road eventually led him back to UM. It took the Griz six years to get back to this stage under Hauck again, and the result was the same.

The Grizzlies are still chasing their first title since 2001. On this day they couldn't get over the goal line, much less over the championship hump.

Nevertheless, the pursuit continues.

"In terms of our team, everybody in our operation loves winning, hates losing," Hauck said. "We have a very competitive group. They compete every time we take the field. I'm proud of them. It's an honor to coach them.

"What a great season for our team. We hope to continue on and have a chance to be back here at some point."

And to finally reclaim an elusive championship.