In eight days the 2023 FCS season is set to come to what many are anticipating to be a thrilling conclusion when 2-seed Montana clashes with 1-seed South Dakota State in Texas. The Grizzlies and the Jackrabbits have proven themselves to be the two best programs in the subdivision this fall and will settle it between the white lines on January 7.
For being two national powers, though, UM and SDSU haven’t come together all that often. In fact, the schools have met just four times since the Jacks moved up to the FCS in 2004. The Griz have won every game they’ve played against the Jackrabbits (8-0 all time) and the last time they saw each other, things looked a whole lot different than they do today.
Let’s take a trip back to 2015.
That year was a notable one for Montana, not necessarily for how the season ended but for how it began. The Griz were selected to host the annual FCS Kickoff game to get that particular season underway and it was a matchup for the ages. Montana welcomed in North Dakota State who, at the time, were at the very peak of their dominance. Carson Wentz led NDSU into a Washington-Grizzly Stadium that was almost Roman in its atmosphere. You might best remember that game for what happened at the end.
It was a heck of a way to kick off Bob Stitt’s three-year stint coaching in Missoula. Of course the Grizzlies ultimately ended up falling flat with him at the helm but that 2015 season was the lone bright spot. The win over NDSU sparked the Grizzlies to an eight-win campaign and propelled Montana back into the playoffs for a third consecutive year. As we all know now, that very same Bison squad would be the ones to end Montana’s run in the postseason but nonetheless it was an exciting time to be a player or fan for UM.
While all that was going in the Treasure State, something similar was brewing in Brookings, SD. Longtime head coach John Stiegelmeier was coming into his 19th season with an SDSU program that was still relatively new to the postseason scene. In 2015, under the leadership of quarterbacks Zach Lujan and Taryn Christion the Jacks also strung together eight wins. SDSU started their season with a bang too, upsetting FBS Kansas in the opener.
All that success for both teams culminated in a first-round playoff meeting in Missoula.
Christion got the nod for SDSU on that chilly November afternoon but he quickly learned why Washington-Grizzly Stadium is anything but friendly to opposing teams. On just the second offensive snap of the day for the Jacks, Christion completed a pass to running back Brady Mengarelli who coughed it up. The Griz recovered and the place got loud
It would be Montana quarterback Brady Gustafson and receiver Jamal Jones who would connect for the game’s first score. Gustafson would end up throwing for 295 yards and two touchdowns on the day. He was a big reason the Grizzlies surged out to a 24-0 halftime lead.
Just when it appeared that South Dakota State was on the brink of being run out of the building, however, Christion and company began to claw back in. After a 34-yard field goal from kicker Jay Carlson, Christion ran in from a yard out to make it 24-10 late in the third. SDSU would cut into their deficit even further in the fourth when now-NFL tight end Dallas Goedert hauled in a 30-yard touchdown.
The comeback bid would all be for naught, though. The Griz gave a heavy dose of running back John Nguyen on the final drive and were able to chew up the remaining minutes and escape with the 24-17 victory.
(You can watch the game in its entirety below).
When Montana and South Dakota State come together this time, of course things are going to look a lot different. The Jacks are trying to put a nice and tidy bow on what could be a perfect 15-0 season and cement themselves as one of the greatest single-season teams to ever play in the FCS. The Grizzlies are playing the role of underdogs, getting their feet wet again on the championship scene for the first time in 14 years but could write a Cinderella ending for a season that at one point looked lost back in September.
It’s Bobby Hauck running the ship for UM now and its his second stint with the program. Hauck was at UNLV while Stitt coached the Griz back in 2015. The aforementioned Stiegelmeier rode off into the sunset after SDSU won it all a year ago. Former assistant Jimmy Rogers is calling the shots for the Jackrabbits now.
So yes, things are much different now for both these schools eight years later. The name of the game, though, is the same as it was back then. This will either be a program-defining ninth win for Montana over South Dakota State or it will be the official foundation for a dynasty and first ever victory for the Jacks in this lopsided series.