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2023 FCS Championship: South Dakota State Jackrabbits vs Montana Grizzlies - Preview, Prediction, How to Watch

A champion will be crowned on Sunday.

2023 Division I FCS Football Championship Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Date: Sunday, January 7th

Time: 2:00 PM (ET)


The Quick Hits

For the second year in a row South Dakota State (14-0) will play for a national title. The Jackrabbits have been the #1 team in the country wire to wire this year and have not lost a game since Week 1 of the 2022 season (that's 28 straight for those counting). SDSU has it all. Their offense is lethal, their defense is stonewalling and even their special teams is electric. Many picked the Jacks to run the table this year and win it all again. Those picks look to be well-founded as the boys in blue are now one victory away from doing just that.

The modern will meet the storied as one of the FCS' great historical powers lines up across the Jackrabbits. Montana (13-1) has strung together an incredible season and turned a ton of heads on their run to this stage. The 2-seed Grizzlies turned their season around after an ugly loss back in September to Northern Arizona and haven't looked back. Making their first appearance in Frisco (the last time UM was in a national championship the game was still in Chattanooga), the Griz will take the underdog role but they look far from one.

The Coaches

Montana v UC Davis Photo by Tommy Martino/University of Montana/Getty Images

Grizzlies head coach Bobby Hauck has had a love-hate relationship with the FCS title game. This Saturday Hauck will coach in his fourth one but he has yet to walk out a champion. UM played in the 2004, 2008 and 2009 championships under his guidance but came up short in all three. This is now Hauck’s 13th year coaching the Griz but it’s his second stint. From 2010 to 2014 he served as the head man at UNLV. Hauck is the winningest head coach in Big Sky history with 129 victories and led Montana through some very dominant years in the 2000s. With an overall postseason record of 21-13, he’s as experienced in the big moments as any at the DI level.

Roaming the Jackrabbits sideline will be first-year phenom Jimmy Rogers. Rogers played a major role on the team as an assistant under John Stigelmeier and was part of the championship squad from a season ago. Now, though, he’s calling the shots and SDSU is as good as ever. Rogers has yet to lose a game since being named the head coach and the Jacks are winning by an average of 28 points per contest this season. Rogers won this year’s Eddie Robinson Award for his unblemished work in Brookings and will be looking to become the first FCS head coach to win a national championship in their first season since NDSU’s Matt Entz did it in 2019.

Montana Offense vs South Dakota State Defense

Much of Montana’s success in this game will hinge on how well quarterback Clifton McDowell can handle SDSU’s smashmouth defense. The Jackrabbits were the second best team in the country at stopping the run this year, allowing just 92.6 yards per game on the ground. McDowell likes to scramble to keep plays alive with his feet but the Jacks sacked opposing QBs 24 times. The between UM’s front and the South Dakota State big boys will be pivotal.

McDowell is effective, though, from under center and did throw for 1,861 yards and 13 touchdowns this year along with just three picks. Take into account the fact that he didn’t start until the fifth game of the year and those numbers aren’t too shabby. McDowell will not shy away from using his legs also, rushing for 751 yards and nine more scores.

Helping McDowell out of the backfield will be standout freshman running back Eli Gillman. The recipient of this year’s Jerry Rice Award, Gillman has been a lynchpin for Montana’s offense. He’s run for 950 yards and 12 scores this year while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Gillman has tremendous vision and patience when looking for holes in the line. He will try and navigate the SDSU defense which hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.

Linebackers Jason Freeman and Isaiah Stalbird are big contributors to the Jackrabbits’ success on defense. Freeman leads the team with 96 total tackles while Stalbird is right behind him with 75. Each are also ball magnets when it comes to turnovers with Freeman being responsible for three fumble recoveries along with two picks and Stalbird nabbing one interception and forcing three fumbles. The pair is arguably the best one-two punch over the middle in the entire FCS.

It is very likely that the Griz will have to pass the ball to win this game and when they do, receivers Keelan White and Junior Bergen will be the go to guys. White, who has a team-high 779 receiving yards this fall, averages over 15 yards per catch. Bergen is speedy and has 55 receptions this year. McDowell may also look to junior wideout Aaron Fontes who has shown flashes this season although he’s been held relatively in check during the playoffs.

Dalys Beanum will look to counter the Montana areal attack. The senior cornerback has been an asset for South Dakota State’s secondary during the postseason, picking off a pass in each of their three playoff games thus far. He and safety Tucker Large, who has four interceptions this year, each have seven defended passes. The pair will get the job of guarding White and Bergen.

South Dakota State Offense vs Montana Defense

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Drake vs South Dakota State Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Simply put, if the Grizzlies do not have some sort of remedy for Isaiah Davis they are in for a long, long afternoon. The bruising senior running back has always seemed to elevate his game to another level when the postseason comes around and it’s been no different this year. Over South Dakota State’s three playoff games, Davis has found the end zone six times and has put up over 100 yards in each of those contests. On the year as a whole, he has run for 1,491 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Stopping Davis is a job that will fall on Montana’s athletic linebackers. Braxton Hill and Tyler Flink have been monsters in the middle for UM all year. The pair have racked up 193 total stops between them and are responsible for 12 tackles for loss. They have slowed down several high-octane rushing attacks this year including the likes of NDSU and Montana State. Davis and company, though, may be the toughest unit they’ve seen yet.

Signal-caller Mark Gronowski will also be a major thorn in the side of UM’s defense. Gronowski is coming in on the tail end of a stellar year in which he’s thrown for 2,883 yards and 28 scores, efforts that have made him a finalist for the Walter Payton Award. Gronowski is very good at taking care of the football, having only thrown four interceptions this year. He has also rushed for 349 yards and seven TDs. He’s consistently been one of the FCS’ best QBs over the last few years and Montana is going to have its hands full.

One thing that makes Gronowski so deadly is the plethora of pass catchers he has on any given play. Receivers Jadon and Jaxon Janke are reliable as ever on the outside as is tight end Zach Heins. The Janke brothers have combined for 1,634 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns this year. Heins averages 14.8 yards per catch and has seven scores as well. The aforementioned Davis also has no problem catching passes when need be.

So again, the Grizzlies will have a lot to deal with. Fortunately for them, Ryder Meyer and Corbin Walker will be patrolling the secondary. Walker has been great at corner for Montana all year, knocking away eight passes and intercepting two more. The junior safety Meyer has also has a pick and four PBUs.

The Special Teams

Do not kick the ball to Junior Bergen under any circumstances. That’s the code South Dakota State needs to live by when it’s time to change possessions on Saturday. If the Jacks can learn anything from Montana’s playoff film it’s that putting the ball in Bergen’s hands in the return game is playing with fire. The dynamic junior has taken three kicks (two punts, one kickoff) back for touchdowns during this postseason alone. He has five total on his career. The Griz won their last two games narrowly in overtime and Bergen’s house calls were the difference maker.

That burden will fall on kicker Hunter Dustman. The senior will handle both the punting and the kicking for SDSU. He has a strong leg, averaging nearly 44 yards per punt. He has only had two touchbacks all season when booting it away although as a team South Dakota State doesn’t find itself punting all that much. Dustman has also connected on 17 of his 23 field goal tries and has a career long make of 49 yards.

For Montana, the kicking duties will go to senior Nico Ramos. Ramos, despite making the first seven field goals he attempted this fall, has struggled in that department during the playoffs. He’s missed three field goals dating back to the Grizzlies’ quarterfinal game. He does, however, have several makes from over 40 yards. Travis Benham will punt for the Griz. Benham has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 25 times this year and has forced a fair catch 27 times.

Just as he is on defense, Large is a weapon in the return game for the Jacks. He has 21 punt runbacks this year and took one the distance in SDSU’s semifinal win over UAlbany. Large has racked up nearly 400 total return yards this year. Amar Johnson will take kickoffs. He does not have a touchdown this season but is averaging 23.5 yards a pop.


This game has the makings to be a great one but a few things will have to work in Montana’s favor if the Griz want to keep this thing within striking distance. Special teams has to show up for UM again and it very likely will. Expect Bergen to make a big play in the return game. Will that big play be enough though? Or will it come at the right time? The Grizzlies will also need to contend with a very tough South Dakota State defense and that’s where the difference will be made. McDowell has done a solid job this postseason but he will need a darn-near perfect performance against Freeman, Stalbird and that unit. It’ll be close for a while but, eventually, the heavy doses of Gronowski and Davis will wear out Montana’s D and that will wrap it up for SDSU.

Score Prediction: South Dakota State: 31 - Montana: 23