For the 14th year in a row, the FCS national championship will be held in Frisco, Texas. This year the title game pits #1 and #2 against each other as South Dakota State (14-0) and Montana (13-1) square off for all the marbles on January 7. There’s already a fair amount of history that’s been made just off this matchup alone. The Griz are back in the game for the first time since 2009. The Jacks are the first team not named North Dakota State to hit back-to-back ones since Sam Houston did it in 2011 and 2012. The two schools are meeting for the first time since 2015.
There is, however, another noteworthy piece of history that both the Grizzlies and the Jackrabbits have a good chance of achieving in a few weeks that, albeit not quite as significant, is odd.
In the game’s nearly decade and a half history at Toyota Stadium there has never been a special teams or defensive touchdown scored during its playing. Through all the NDSU domination, through some wild finishes and even through some really high scoring contests, no team has found the end zone when they weren’t on offense.
The more you think about it, the weirder it seems.
In fact, the last time the FCS championship saw any such scoring was in 2007 when Appalachian State toppled Delaware, back when the game was played in Chattanooga. UD’s Mark Duncan posted a 75-yard kick return touchdown in the late stages. It was, ultimately, an insignificant play to the final outcome. Two years earlier, App State defensive lineman Jason Hunter scooped up a fumble against Northern Iowa and took it back 15 yards for a touchdown.
Since then it’s been nada in either department in the title game. Many great defensive and special teams players have marched through since but none have broke the goal line. However, this year may finally be the one where that changes because the teams playing in the contest are really good at both of those things.
Let’s start with SDSU. You don’t get to this point without having a really good defense and for the Jacks, they have a really, really good one. South Dakota State has three defensive touchdowns this year. NFL talent is ever-present on that side of the ball for the boys in blue and yellow and they’ve made their presence known in big ways all year.
Safeties Colby Hunter and Tucker Large are as dangerous as any secondary duo in the country right now and each has a house call on an interception return in 2023. Large, of course, was one of the main playmakers in South Dakota State’s dominant semifinal victory over UAlbany last weekend. He returned a punt for a score and picked off Great Danes QB Reese Poffenbarger.
Linebacker Jason Freeman took a fumble 34 yards back for a TD on the first play of tat game also to help in the rout. The Jackrabbits got a defensive score a week prior against Villanova in the quarterfinals when sophomore Matthew Durrance blocked a punt attempt and ran it 45 yards for a touchdown. SDSU is chock-full of guys who can make plays just like that and UM’s offense can ill afford any mistakes.
FCS Playoff Quarterfinal— FCS Football (@FCS_STATS) December 9, 2023
4:23, 2nd Qt.
No. 1 seed South Dakota State 10, No. 8 seed Villanova 6
Matthew Durrance blocked punt and 45-yard TD return pic.twitter.com/CVLNMvyIpb
Then there’s Montana, a team that prides itself on its special teams play. The Griz are where they are because of their specialists and, more specifically, star return man Junior Bergen. Bergen has been absolutely lights out in these playoffs and an argument can certainly be made that he is the reason UM is here. He has three return touchdowns over the last two games (two punt, one kickoff).
Bergen, though, hasn’t just been lethal during the postseason. He has a staggering five house calls on his collegiate career so far and he’s only a junior. Earlier this year he took a punt back 47 yards to help Montana blow the doors off Utah Tech. Last year he did it to Portland State as well. If South Dakota State can take anything from its film sessions over the next couple weeks it’s that you don’t kick to #5 when at all possible.
It certainly feels like this year’s championship may hinge greatly on one of these plays. Whether it be a classic Bobby Hauck special teams game-changer or a brute force defensive rumble to the end zone by SDSU, don’t be at all surprised if this game is the one that finally snaps the weird scoring drought.