By Colter Nuanez SKYLINE SPORTS
The Bobcats seem so close, yet also seem so far away.
Montana State’s football team continues to prove it belongs among the Football Championship Subdivision’s best. Yet on Saturday in Brookings, South Dakota, MSU’s dream season came to an abrupt end at the hands of the No. 1 team in the country once again.
This time, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits beat Montana State at its own game, rushing the ball with authority and erasing MSU’s previously potent run game in the process.
Montana State entered the game averaging 335 rushing yards per contest and more than seven yards per carry. South Dakota State entered Saturday’s FCS Semifinal allowing just 85 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry.
Right out of the gates, SDSU exerted its authority and knocked Montana State on its heels on both sides of the ball. And by the time the ice flakes settled at Dana J. Dykehouse Stadium, the Jackrabbits are heading to the FCS national title game for the second time in their history, including the second time in the last year and a half.
South Dakota State rushed for 281 yards, including 158 yards and a touchdown from stud Isaiah Davis, and the SDSU defense held the Bobcats to just 52 yards rushing and just 1.5 yards per carry on the way to a 38-19 victory.
“It starts with their guys up front. Including their tight ends. You get Davis to that linebacker level, that safety level that’s going to mean problems. That just happened over and over again,” said Montana State head coach Brent Vigen.
The lopsided loss was reminiscent of the ending of the last handful of autumns into winters for the Bobcats. MSU has made the playoffs four straight fall seasons. In 2018, MSU lost 52-10 to top-seeded North Dakota State, the eventual national champion, in the second round of the playoffs. The following season, the Bobcats fell 42-14 in Fargo to NDSU, although the Final Four trip was MSU’s first in 35 years.
Last season, Montana State fell 38-10 to the top-seeded Bison in the FCS title game in Frisco, Texas. This year, in the third consecutive national semifinal game for MSU, the Bobcats again found themselves on the wrong side of a beat down from a Missouri Valley Football Conference foe.
The top-seeded Jackrabbits moved to 13-1 this season, including 13-0 against the FCS, with the win. SDSU will play for the national title for the second time since the beginning of 2021; the ‘Jacks lost to Sam Houston in the 2021 spring national title game. Saturday, SDSU also avenged last year’s 31-17 loss at Montana State in the FCS Semifinals and ended Montana State, the Big Sky Conference champions’, season with a 12-2 mark.
Quarterback Matt Gronowski and the potent South Dakota State offense marched 72 yards in six plays and less than three minutes of action on the opening possession of the game, setting the tone for the one-sided nature of the matchup right out the gate.
Gronowski, SDSU’s standout sophomore who tore his knee in the spring national title game, hit future NFL tight end Tucker Kraft for a 36-yard touchdown to cap the opening possession.
Montana Stat answered with a 10-play, 67-yard drive capped by Sean Chambers’ 19th rushing touchdown this season. MSU mishandled the ensuing extra point, a harbinger of bad luck on the horizon for the visitors. Chambers — a burly transfer from Wyoming who’s presence has allowed the Bobcats to run a true two-quarterback system when both Chambers and Tommy Mellott have been healthy — did not play another snap after that opening drive.
“It forced us to shift a bit, obviously, using both those guys has been a part of our recent success,” Montana State head coach Brent Vigen said after losing for just the third time in 27 FCS contests at MSU. “We were able to still run our offense. We just didn’t make enough plays.”
South Dakota State scored on its next two possessions, marching methodically on a 12-play drive capped by a short Gronowski touchdown to go up 14-6. SDSU then scored thanks to an explosive 41-yard touchdown run by Davis, who like Kraft is an NFL hopeful.
Following Davis’ long touchdown run, Montana State’s previously explosive offense (the ‘Cats entered the game averaging 45 points per game) sputtered to a 3-and-out, an unheard of result over the last month-plus for MSU.
South Dakota State’s final possession of the first half ended with a 38-yard Amar Johnson touchdown run, giving SDSU 216 of its 281 rushing yards in the first half.
The hosts scored on their first possession of the second half before putting the game on cruise control. MSU mustered field goals to end the first half and to answer SDSU’s lone third quarter touchdown but it wasn’t enough.
“They got off blocks better than we blocked them. They tackled us and we didn’t break tackles enough,” said Vigen. “You need to keep scoring because they score, and that’s not a good formula.”
Even when Mellott scored on a 10-yard scamper, the margin was too great for the Bobcats to rally . Mellott, a sophomore who was a second-team all-conference selection in his first season as the full-time starter, finished 11-of-18 for 174 yards passing. He managed just three official rush yards on his 17 carries as he was sacked four times.
“Today, didn’t go the way we wanted it to,” Vigen said. “But you have to look back and be proud of all we did accomplish. And that’s hard, in the moment to get a sense for that.”
Gronowski went 10-of-13 for 189 yards and two touchdowns. South Dakota State moves on to play North Dakota State. The third-seeded Bison beat Incarnate Word 35-32 on Friday night in Fargo, North Dakota to advance to the national title game for the 10th time in the last 11 years. NDSU is 9-0 in Frisco since 2011. South Dakota State beat North Dakota State 23-21 earlier this season.
Montana State graduates a collection of seniors, including captains inside linebacker Callahan O’Reilly, fullback R.J. Fitzgerald and safety Ty Okada. MSU also will need to replace receivers Willie Patterson, Ravi Alston, Clevan Thomas and Coy Steel, along with cornerbacks James Campbell and Tyrel Thomas, among others.
“This senior group was an extension of lasts years group, and they’ve done so much for this program,” Vigen said. “They’ve left and outstanding legacy on this program. It’s too fresh to understand that what it’s really all about. But those guys can be really proud of their time at Montana State. They will be Bobcats forever, and they can always look back at in their time, Bobcat football really took off.”