On Saturday night South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski was honored with this year’s Walter Payton Award and on Sunday afternoon he showed exactly why it was rightfully his. Gronowski and his Jackrabbits steamrolled their way to a second consecutive national title before an electric crowd at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX. The Big Sky champion Montana Grizzlies, as good as they’ve been all year, were simply in a fight above their weight class.
Both South Dakota State and Montana put together drives that mirrored each other in the first quarter. Gronowski and company marched 75 yards in 11 plays to kick things off. Running back Isaiah Davis capped the possession with a six-yard jut into the end zone to give SDSU an early 7-0 lead.
The Griz attempted to answer with a long drive of their own that ate up the rest of the first quarter clock. On the final play of the frame, quarterback Clifton McDowell made a run for the end zone but got upended at the goal line on third down. Bobby Hauck rolled the dice on fourth but freshman running back Eli Gillman got stuffed and the Jacks took over.
It would be the UM defense that swung the momentum just three plays later. Gronowski aired out a deep pass that cornerback Corbin Walker stepped in front of and picked off to give his offense another chance. Walker’s interception was just the fifth that Gronowski has thrown all year.
Montana got points off the takeaway but not as many as they hoped, settling for a 30-yard Nico Ramos field goal. With 10:51 remaining in the first half, the Jackrabbits held onto a 7-3 advantage.
After forcing a the first punt of the day on the following South Dakota State possession, UM found itself with the opportunity to take the lead with under eight minutes to play before the break. McDowell took a big third down sack and it appeared as though SDSU would get the ball back. Jacks return man Kevin Brenner fumbled, however, and Montana jumped on it near midfield for their second turnover of the day.
The uncharacteristic mistakes were costing the Jackrabbits but the Grizzlies offense was also struggling to put points on the board. A holding penalty slowed down Montana on their final drive of the half and came up empty. When the teams headed into the locker room it was still a four-point game. Through the first 30 minutes, neither team had eclipsed 100 yards passing or rushing.
The choppiness of the first half spilled over. On the first drive Montana started by moving it very well but, following a big catch by wideout Aaron Fontes, the ball got jarred loose and the Jackrabbits recovered it. Scoreless trips were killing the Grizzlies.
In fact, the only thing saving UM was their stout defense. Once more the unit rose to the occasion after the turnover and bailed out the offense. On third and short near midfield, they smothered Davis at the line and buried him for no gain, forcing another punt.
Trading punts can only go so far, though, and when Montana’s offense sputtered out yet again, it would prove costly. Gronowski found tight end Zach Heins on third down for a big 34-yard gain to get into the red zone. On the very next play he kept it himself and bulldozed his way through the UM defense for a much-needed touchdown to extend the lead to 14-3 with 7:11 remaining in the third quarter.
Now trailing by multiple scores, a new sense of urgency was with the Griz. McDowell, however, got hit with a big intentional grounding penalty on second down, making life very difficult. The Jacks defense pinned their ears and swarmed Gillman on the very next play, making UM boot it away once more.
Fatigue was starting to get to Montana and it was showing. Again Gronowski and Davis sliced their way through the faltering Grizzlies defense and found the end zone. This time it was Jadon Janke that hauled in a 23-yard pass over the top to make 20-3. One play later McDowell got hit and fumbled it away right into the arms of Ryan Van Marel. SDSU was rolling.
The fourth quarter began with similar misfortunes for UM. Now down 20, things were dire. Ball security continued to haunt Montana. A poorly executed pitch from McDowell to running back Nick Ostmo hit the ground and pushed the offense into a fourth and long situation. On 4th and 18, Ostmo redeemed himself and picked up 21 on a short throw.
It was all for naught, however, as the Griz turned it over on downs just a few plays later. From there it was a matter of putting it on cruise control for Gronowski, Davis and the Jackrabbits. When all was said and done, it was a comfortable 23-3 win.
Despite the inauspicious start, it turned out to be another dominant victory in a long line of them for South Dakota State. The Jacks, who hold Division I football’s longest active winning streak of 29 games, complete the perfect season. They become the first squad since NDSU in 2019 to accomplish that feat. Jimmy Rogers has his first title as a head coach.
Gronowski finished his day with two touchdowns, one running and one throwing. He threw for 175 yards while Davis paved the way on the ground with 87 yards and score. This one, though, was truly the doing of the dominant defensive effort. The Jacks not only forced three turnovers but they kept UM out of the end zone all day; something that hasn’t been done by any defense all year.
For Montana it was a much different story. There was plenty of hope early but the Grizzlies couldn’t capitalize on their chances of which their defense gave them several. They forced a pair turnovers but the offense only had three points to show for it. Gillman rushed for just 18 yards while McDowell threw for 165. Bobby Hauck is now 0-4 all time in the national championship as Montana ends its season 13-2.
The foundation for the next FCS dynasty is firmly in place in Brookings. South Dakota State is, and has been, a cut above the rest. With a young, proven Rogers leading the charge and guys like Gronowski returning yet again, it certainly appears as though SDSU is that team for the foreseeable future. Sunday was just another reminder that the rest of the subdivision is looking up at the Jackrabbits.