Going into Saturday night’s showdown between #1 South Dakota State and #3 Montana State, fans and followers of the FCS preemptively dubbed the contest the game of the year, so much so that it seemed unlikely that it could ever live up to that claim. The Bobcats and the Jackrabbits, however, duked it out for 60 minutes in a bout that far exceeded what most could have hoped for.
The big question that’s loomed over the subdivision since the Jacks ran away with the title last year was if anyone could even challenge them for the throne this season. Was the gap too wide? Well, if Montana State showed us anything, it’s that SDSU isn’t untouchable, no matter how good they might be.
Things started fast for the ‘Cats, who came into the game as a touchdown underdog. A first quarter fumble by South Dakota State signal-caller Mark Gronowski was recovered by MSU’s Nolan Askelson and the Bobcats were in business. Tommy Mellott and company put together a nice 10-play drive that ended in a two-yard Sean Chambers touchdown push.
Unexpectedly trailing 7-0 early, SDSU’s offense found it to be tough sledding. The Montana State defense locked it down in the opening 15 minutes, allowing just 17 yards in the first frame. It was a sight that not many expected to see.
MSU extended its lead to 10 in the second quarter with a 27-yard field goal from kicker Brendan Hall. The kick came on the heels of another lengthy drive that chewed up over eight minutes. The makings of an upset were brewing as Montana State was finding great success keeping the ball away from Gronowski and the Jacks offense. The 10-0 score would hold true until the break.
A different Jackrabbits group came out of the locker room. Whatever head coach Jimmy Rogers said worked. South Dakota State soon cut their deficit to three when Gronowski himself ran it from 20 yards out. The Jacks D rallied around that newfound momentum and forced a quick punt.
With the tides turning in their favor, SDSU nabbed its first lead of the night on the first play of the fourth quarter. After a march that took them down the the MSU four-yard line, running back Amar Johnson capped it with a score. Hunter Dustman, however, missed the PAT and the score was 13-10.
That’s about when things started to get wild.
It appeared as though South Dakota State had the Bobcats dead to rights when Cale Reeder stepped in front of a Chambers pass and picked it off with 13:11 to go. The momentum, the crowd and the game itself was clearly on the home side at that point.
Montana State, however, refused to fold and the defense pushed the Jacks nowhere but backward on the ensuing drive and made them attempt a punt. MSU’s Julius Davis flew in off the edge on the punt play and blocked the kick, effectively silencing the Jacks fans and setting up the Bobcats inside the five yard line.
Now it was SDSU’s turn to make a stand and make a stand they did. Aided by a false start penalty, the Jackrabbits defense kept the ‘Cats out of the end zone on what seemed like an impossible ask. Hall connected on the 19-yard kick to knot things up at 13 apiece with 10:15 to go.
Another impressive stonewall by the MSU defense gave the ball back to the offense that was now without Mellott who had left the game due to an injury. Chambers shouldered the brunt and led Montana State down the field once more, making play after play. From the seven-yard line, though, they stalled and relied on Hall to again make a field goal. The 24-yard kick sailed through with 2:04 remaining.
From there it only took Gronowski two plays to ignite Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium. After hitting Grahm Goering for a huge 40-yard gain, he found Griffin Wilde for the go-ahead score, a 35-yard strike to give the Jacks the lead once more, this time with 1:23 left on the clock.
Montana State’s effort on Saturday was gallant all-around but it never got more gallant than it did on their final drive. Chambers orchestrated a nine-play march that had the SDSU faithful sweating more with each completed pass. Tight end Derryk Snell made two huge receptions to keep the chains moving.
On second down from the SDSU 39-yard line, Chambers hurled up a last gasp prayer. MSU receiver Clevlan Thomas Jr extended in the back of the end zone and came down with the ball, doing a circus-like balancing act on the back line in the process. The referee signaled touchdown with one second remaining and the 19,000 plus fell silent.
Much to the stomach-churning dismay of MSU, though, the pass was ruled incomplete after review. By a very hair, South Dakota State held on to win 20-16.
Montana State rushed for 211 yards while SDSU ran for 157. Both defenses forced key turnovers and both quarterbacks eagerly took on the role of Superman when they needed to. It was a true Top 3 matchup in every sense.
Chambers finished his night with 90 yards on the ground (led team) and 53 through the air. Gronowski came away with 184 passing yards and two very timely touchdown throws. Isaiah Davis posted a team-high 66 rush yards.
Montana State and South Dakota State have formed a bit of a rivalry as of late, just based on how the playoff brackets have worked. This game, though, sealed it as a bonafide slugfest among juggernauts. The Jackrabbits are the best team in the land. They are not, however, unbeatable as some may have thought. The Bobcats, try as they might, are still second fiddle on the national scene (right now). Something is brewing with the reigning Big Sky champs, however.
To say this contest gave viewers everything might be an understatement. The Jackrabbits and the Bobcats put on a masterpiece from all sides of the ball on Saturday night and, if this was just the opening act to a potential postseason matchup down the road, FCS fans ought to consider themselves lucky.
South Dakota State (2-0) will now turn its attention to a neutral-site matchup with Drake in Minneapolis next Saturday. The Bobcats (1-1) return home to face Stetson.