BROOKINGS, S.D. — In a matchup of strength versus strength, Montana State was bested in its bid to return to the national championship game.
The Bobcats’ seemingly indomitable rushing attack finally met its match Saturday in an FCS semifinal playoff game at South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits’ defense limited MSU to its lowest ground total all year and defeated the Bobcats 39-18 in sub-zero temperatures at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium.
The victory vaulted No. 1 seed SDSU (13-1) into the title game, where it will play Missouri Valley Football Conference rival and No. 3 seed North Dakota State (12-2), the defending champion and winners of nine of the past 11 FCS crowns.
Fourth-seeded Montana State, trying to get back to Frisco, Texas, to play for the title for the second straight year, finished its season with a 12-2 record, and with it won a share of the Big Sky Conference championship, its first since 2012.
With 5 minutes before kick off, #MSUBobcatsFB offensive coordinator Taylor Housewright is currently stuck in an elevator, per stadium officials.— Ashley Washburn (@ashleyjwashburn) December 17, 2022
South Dakota State is working to get him out.
But the Jackrabbits got the upper hand in what was a rematch of a semifinal game from last season won by Montana State at Bobcat Stadium.
“First off, congratulations to South Dakota State. They came out and earned it today,” MSU coach Brent Vigen said. “They certainly beat us on the field in every which way.”
In a reversal of fortune that would have been unlikely earlier in the week, the Bobcats’ ground game was held to 52 yards on 34 carries, an average of 1.5 yards per rush. MSU came in averaging 331.8 rushing yards per game, the No. 1 average in the FCS. But South Dakota State’s defensive line, the point of attack for the top-ranked rushing defense in the country, wreaked havoc all day.
Quarterback Tommy Mellott, a 1,000-yard rusher, was held to just 3 yards on 17 carries. His 10-yard TD run in the fourth quarter was MSU’s longest rush of the day.
Running back Isaiah Ifanse, who came in with more than 1,000 playoff rushing yards in his career, was limited to 28 yards on seven carries.
The Bobcats lost quarterback Sean Chambers to a lower leg injury after he scored on a 1-yard plunge in the first quarter, and that left MSU without one of its top offensive threats. Chambers didn’t return, and was in a walking boot on the sideline in the second half.
A great response from @seanmat10 gets us on the board 💪— Montana State Football (@MSUBobcats_FB) December 17, 2022
6:55, 1Q pic.twitter.com/ur8jZy26fe
In what was the coldest game in South Dakota State history — 9 degrees at kickoff with a “feels-like” temperature of minus-12 — the Bobcats were held to their lowest single-game rushing total since 2018.
“I just think it comes down to execution,” MSU tight end Derryk Snell said. “We had a good game plan.”
Meanwhile, South Dakota State scored touchdowns on its first five possessions to grab a 34-7 lead in the third quarter. With MSU forced to play catchup, Mellott threw the ball 18 times, completing 11 for 174 yards, but took a beating in the process.
While scoring on his 10-yard run in the fourth, Mellott was slung to the frozen turf and didn’t return. Backup Sean Austin finished the game at QB for MSU.
Vigen said Chambers’ injury “forced us to shift a little bit. But ultimately we were able to still run our offense, we just didn’t make enough plays through really a critical stretch. I know there were unforced errors and that’s uncharacteristic of who we’ve been. I think a lot of credit goes to South Dakota State. They defended us well and tackled us well.”
Jackrabbits quarterback Mark Gronowski was stellar. Gronowski threw for 189 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for 52 yards and another score. Isaiah Davis finished with 158 rushing yards and a touchdown for SDSU.
A pivotal moment occurred in the first half as Davis broke free for a 41-yard touchdown run to give the Jackrabbits a 21-6 lead. It appeared, though, that Davis dropped the football just before he crossed the plane of the goal line, and the ball rolled out of the back of the end zone.
The officials reviewed the play and it was determined that Davis had crossed the plane before letting go of the ball and the touchdown was upheld. Otherwise, it could have been a touchback and MSU would have taken over possession trailing 14-6 with 8:47 left before halftime.
The Jackrabbits scored on their opening drive on a 36-yard play-action pass from Gronowski to standout tight end Tucker Kraft. MSU answered on its first possession, a drive capped by Chambers’ 1-yard TD run.
But Chambers was lost for the remainder of the game following that play, and SDSU subsequently took command.
Gronowski then scored on a 1-yard run, Davis broke free for his touchdown, and Amar Johnson scored consecutive TDs, first on a 38-yard scamper and then on a 5-yard pass from Gronowski. The latter made it 34-7.
Blake Glessner made a pair of field goals for the Bobcats. MSU was unable to find the end zone until Mellott’s run with 8:08 remaining. By then it was too late, and Mellott was forced from the game.
Mellott endured several big hits throughout.
“Just being that dude he is, he’s a complete beast and he’d try and do anything for the team,” Snell said of Mellott. “You saw that today. He got hit multiple times and just kept getting up, kept fighting.”
Tommy Mellott is leaving it all on the field tonight. 😤— NCAA FCS Football (@NCAA_FCS) December 17, 2022
📺 ESPN2#FCSPlayoffs x @MSUBobcats_FB pic.twitter.com/X9y2XjTdDd
Montana State’s offense was held to 281 total yards on 60 plays. Mellott made several quality throws but the Cats were otherwise held to a 3-of-12 conversion rate on third down.
South Dakota State finished with 473 total yards, including 281 on the ground.
“As a D-line we need to do better,” MSU defensive end Brody Grebe said. “They’re a physical, tough team and we got run over a little bit today. Good luck to them; we’re going to get better.”
The Jackrabbits now face a rematch against league rival North Dakota State for the FCS title on Jan. 8. SDSU beat NDSU 23-21 in the annual Dakota Marker game on Oct. 15 in Fargo, N.D.
South Dakota State is seeking its first FCS championship while the Bison are chasing their 10th.
For the Bobcats, their championship goal was dashed for the second straight season, but the program remains on solid footing, having won 25 games (including five playoff games) in the past two seasons under Vigen.
“I think we have a bright future,” Snell said. “We’ll learn from this and just start working when we get back” to Bozeman.