The 2023 FCS season is now officially wrapped up and it was another exciting year top to bottom. Although it may have ended how many predicted as far back as even last spring, there was still plenty of thrilling stepping stones to reach that conclusion. From thrilling back-and-forth battles to upsets and lopsided beatdowns, this last fall had it all. These are the moments that made the 2023 campaign what it was.
September 9 - Montana State Comes a Toe-Tap Away from Knocking Off Jacks
All summer long the speculation was that South Dakota State’s toughest opponent would be in the non-conference when it welcomed in last year’s semifinal dance partner Montana State. The Week 2 contest lived up to the billing and then some. The then-#3 Bobcats rolled into Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium and gave the Jackrabbits their absolute best shot. Leading 10-0 at halftime, it seemed as thought the ‘Cats were on the fast track to the early upset of the season.
The final 30 minutes, however, saw the Jacks rally. Mark Gronowski gave them a late lead with a big touchdown pass to Griffin Wilde. MSU quarterback Tommy Mellott left the game with an injury but Sean Chambers stepped up to give his team a fighting chance in the waning moments. With less than a minute left, Chambers led his offense down the field and put them into scoring position.
On the final play, he heaved a pass to the end zone that was hauled in by receiver Clevan Thomas Jr. on the back line, apparently giving Montana State the miraculous win. Review, however, determined that Thomas’ foot was touching the white paint and it was ruled a no catch much to the elation of the SDSU crowd. South Dakota State held on to win 20-16 cementing their spot as the undisputed best team in the land. The Jacks, of course, would run the table.
September 30 - UAlbany Blasts Villanova in NY
The Great Danes put together an all time season in 2023, reaching the national semifinals for the first time in school history and winning a share of the CAA championship. Much of that success can be traced back to a big win UAlbany got back in late September when they opened league play against Villanova after a tough non-conference slate.
Quarterback Reese Poffenbarger and running back Griffin Woodell flexed their muscles on the Wildcats, combining for well over 300 yards of offense. Poffenbarger’s three touchdowns and Woodell’s 107 rushing yards helped the Great Danes cruise past ‘Nova in what turned out to be a key victory in the playoff race out east.
Both teams ended up with national seeds but it was UAlbany that got the 5-spot while the Wildcats got the 8.
October 7 - Western Carolina Outshoots Chattanooga in SoCon Classic
Defenses were nowhere to be found in when Chattanooga welcomed in Western Carolina for homecoming in early October and that made for arguably the game of the season down in Tennessee. In a game that featured 102 total points and nearly 1,100 yards of total offense, the Catamounts delivered the winning blow in the final seconds.
Chattanooga quarterback Chase Artopoeus threw five touchdowns in the contest, the last of which came with a mere 53 seconds left. Instead of opting for the tie, the Mocs went for the throat. Running back Ailym Ford fooled the WCU defense on the ensuing two-point play and tossed a jump pass to Camden Overton in the end zone to go up one. The crowd erupted and it seemed as though Chattanooga was in for an exciting win.
Western Carolina, however, responded and did so in a hurry. Catamounts QB Cole Gonzalez completed three straight passes to receiver A.J. Colombo to get into field goal range. With just four ticks left on the clock, WCU’s Richard McCollum drilled a 32-yard kick to win it. It was a defeat that ultimately wouldn’t end up being too detrimental to the Mocs as they still made the playoffs and Western Carolina didn’t despite having the same record and the head to head win. It sparked much debate among FCS circles when the bracket was released.
October 21 - Lafayette Steals Patriot League from Heavily-Favored Holy Cross
If there was any real “lock” in the preseason it was that Holy Cross was going to blow their way through the Patriot League with ease and take home their fourth straight conference crown. With All-American studs like quarterback Matthew Sluka and linebacker Jacob Dobbs on both sides of the ball why wouldn’t they be the big favorites, especially in a league lacking depth?
The Lafayette Leopards, though, had other plans and they let that be known when they took a trip to Worcester. Sluka ran for a record-setting 330 yards in the game but it was Lafayette that came out on top 38-35 when all was said and done. Running back Jamar Curtis had a career day, rushing for 229 yards and paved the way for the big upset.
The win leapfrogged Lafayette into the Patriot League driver’s seat and spurred the Leopards to clinch their first conference title since 2013 and in head coach John Troxell’s first season at the helm no less. Holy Cross ended up being left out of the postseason mix altogether.
November 18 - Montana Dominates Montana State in “Brawl of the Wild”
Homefield advantage is absolutely critical in the playoffs and, for one side of the bracket, it was decided in the annual “Brawl of the Wild” rivalry between Montana and Montana State. The Grizzlies and Bobcats entered the regular season finale ranked #3 and #4 respectively, marking the first time in the rivalry’s 122-year history it has been a Top 5 matchup and for an outright Big Sky championship.
Once the game kicked off, however, it didn’t much resemble a showdown between two of the country’s best teams. The Griz blew the doors of the Bobcats and did so from the jump. Clifton McDowell and company were masterful in the 37-7 shellacking, holding a very good MSU rushing attack in check and keeping Montana State off the scoreboard through the entire first half.
The dominant win not only brought the Great Divide Trophy back to Missoula but it also gave Montana the #2 seed in the playoffs. The Griz rode homefield advantage all the way to the national title game.
November 25 - Mocs’ Last-Second Field Goal Eliminates Austin Peay
When Chattanooga and Austin Peay met in the opening round of the playoffs in late November, the two squads came in with varying degrees of happiness. The Mocs were just grateful to be in at 7-4 while the 9-2 Governors had to feel a little slighted at not receiving a seed and a first round bye. Still, UAC champion Austin Peay got the nod to host and it turned out to be the game of the first round.
Playing without both of their stars on offense, Chattanooga was still able to draw first blood. Backup quarterback Luke Schomburg connected with Javin Whatley for a touchdown late in the first quarter and the teams were off. Austin Peay answered right back with a score of their own. By halftime, though, the Mocs had opened up a 21-7 lead and were pushing the Govs to the brink.
Austin Peay stormed back in the final 30 minutes, however, and made a game of it. Two missed field goals by Chattanooga’s Clayton Crile helped the cause for the Governors and, with less than four minutes to go the game was all knotted up. The Mocs strung together one final drive that ate up those remaining four minutes and Crile redeemed himself at the very end, connecting on a 35-yard field goal as time expired.
December 2 - NDSU pulls off Heart-Stopping Playoff Win in Bozeman
Montana State’s season came to an unceremonious end in the second round of the playoffs. After getting blasted by rival Montana two weeks earlier, the Bobcats welcomed in longtime postseason foe North Dakota State for a duel on their turf. In a game that went back-and-forth and featured big play after big play, regulation would not be enough to decide a winner.
Tied at 28 apiece heading into OT, the Bison got the ball first and took the lead on a Cam Miller touchdown run from three yards out. Now leading by seven, NDSU needed a stop but it only took Montana State one play to answer the bell. Running back Scottre Humphrey scampered in for an electric 25-yard TD that invigorated the raucous MSU crowd. That excitement, though, was short lived.
On the ensuing extra point attempt, North Dakota State senior Hunter Poncius got his arm up and blocked the kick, effectively silencing Bobcat Stadium and sending the Bison into the quarterfinals.
December 16 - Isaiah Major Seals Celebration Bowl Victory for Rattlers
The Celebration Bowl got a face lift this year when it saw two new teams take the field down in Atlanta. SWAC champion Florida A&M squared off with MEAC champion Howard in a game that several thought FAMU would take with relative ease. The Rattlers, after all, had not lost to an FCS opponent all year and had blown their way through the schedule while the Bison came in with just six wins.
Howard, though, made it clear from the jump they had other plans and scored 14 quick points to go up early on a stunned Florida A&M squad. Even when Willie Simmons' team started for find its rhythm, the Bison quickly squashed it. Howard even scored the first safety the Celebration Bowl has seen in its eight-year history.
Slowly but surely, however, the Rattlers began to claw back in. Eventually they snagged the lead back and, thanks to a beautifully executed flea-flicker touchdown from QB Jeremy Moussa, they held a 30-26 edge late. In a game that featured six total turnovers, FAMU's star linebacker made the biggest one. Isaiah Major picked off Howard quarterback Quinton Williams with less than two minutes left to put it on ice. It was Florida A&M's first Celebration Bowl win and first HBCU national title since 2001.
December 16 - Bergen, Walker send UM to Championship in Double OT
The FCS saved its best game this year for last (or almost last) when North Dakota State payed a visit to 2-seed Montana in the semifinals. In a battle that couldn't be decided in regulation, the Griz and the Bison went blow for blow and took it to overtime, a common theme in the playoffs this season.
NDSU injected a dose of anxiety into a full Washington-Grizzly Stadium when Cole Payton scampered in for a touchdown on the first play of OT. Not to be outdone, though, the Griz popped one right back with a scoring pass from Clifton McDowell to receiver Junior Bergen. Bergen, who had a punt return touchdown earlier in the game, would spark Montana moments later with an impressive throw to fellow wideout Keelan White for a two-point conversion after UM's touchdown in double overtime.
With one last gasp, the Bison found the end zone to draw it close again but, on the game's final play, cornerback Corbin Walker picked off RaJa Nelson in the end zone to stamp it for Montana. In one of the louder and more insane moments of the entire year, the Grizzlies celebrated their first semifinal win since 2009 and sent North Dakota State packing.
January 7 - South Dakota State Takes it All Again
It all came to a head in Frisco and for the second straight year it was South Dakota State that left no doubt about their position at the top. For as good as Montana looked all season long, the Jackrabbits made them look helpless on the grand stage. SDSU outgained the Grizzlies 363 yards to 291 while forcing three turnovers and holding a really good UM rushing attack to its season low.
Things didn’t look so cut-and-dried early, though, as Montana was the beneficiary of two uncharacteristic Jacks mistakes. An interception from Mark Gronowski and fumble on a punt return set the Griz up with a couple of chances but their offense couldn’t produce any more than three points, the only three points they would score all day.
Down the stretch Gronowski and Isaiah Davis proved to be far too much. The 23-3 win propelled SDSU to their second consecutive national title and first under head coach Jimmy Rogers. The Jackrabbits joined the likes of North Dakota State, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Youngstown State as the only FCS teams to win back-to-back crowns and they became the first group since 2019’s NDSU squad to polish off a perfect season, finishing at 15-0.