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Bring on the Jacks

Jan. 7—FRISCO, Texas — For No. 2 Montana to pull off the upset of No.1 South Dakota State Sunday, some things are going to have to hold up for the 13-1 Grizzlies.

Their defense. Their quarterback. The field.

Frisco has hosted the Division I Football Championship — kickoff is at noon Mountain time Sunday, on ABC — since 2010, and has been excellent at it.

Toyota Stadium's natural grass field, kept short for the FC Dallas MLS team, hasn't been as hospitable at times. It was a slick track when Montana State lost here in 2021; on Wednesday the field took a ton of rain.

That could be one more hurdle for the Griz to overcome. South Dakota State (14-0) is extremely good, from quarterback Mark Gronowski to tailback Isaiah Davis to linebacker Adam Bock. The defending champs are above-average everywhere, including special teams.

Since Montana won two playoff games thanks in large part to its return game — hello, Junior Bergen — this is another concern. Tucker Large averages 18.9 yards a punt return for SDSU, with one score. Matthew Durrance also took a punt back for a TD.

"They're good in all three phases, meaning they're really good in the kicking game," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said Friday. "They play well week in, week out. Again, everything they do is hard to pick apart in terms of trying to find a hole, or something to take advantage of.

"We've got problems everywhere we look when we look at these guys, trying to game-plan. The kicking game is one of those."

There's reason to believe Montana has a puncher's chance. For one, the Griz started the 2021 season with a 13-7 upset of the Washington Huskies; the Huskies will play Michigan in the CFP title game on Monday night.

That 2021 season ended with the Grizzlies limping out of a 28-6 quarterfinal loss at James Madison. It was a talented team that got banged up, including at quarterback.

"I think we've been good enough in certain aspects of this to be here in the past couple of years but haven't been able to do it," Hauck said. "So I'd say the number one thing we've done is stay healthy. Not that we haven't had any injuries. We've lost guys, but we haven't lost multiple people at the same position and wound up decimated.

"That's probably the best thing we've done."

The season turned, of course, when transfer Clifton McDowell took over for Sam Vidlak at quarterback, after a 28-14 loss at Northern Arizona.

"Cliff and I talked quite a bit when he wasn't the starter," Bergen said Friday. "And I'd just tell him, 'Keep your head up, man. Your opportunity's going to come. You're going to play. Don't get in your head about it, you're going to be alright.'

"Then when he got in there he took full advantage of it. He's played really well. And he's going to have to play well again for us to win this thing."

First-year SDSU coach Jimmy Rogers called Montana's receiving trio of Bergen, Keelan White and Aaron Fontes elite.

"I think they do a really good job skill set-wise," he said. "They've got great skill on the perimeter and a couple of really talented running backs. They play with a little bit wider splits than we're used to seeing.

"But I think everything starts with the quarterback. The guy that touches the ball is dynamic. He can extend plays and kill you with his arm. So we've got to do a good job of trying to manage that as much as possible."

Montana would be well-served to continue a trend of forcing the opposing QB into an off-day. Trouble is, bad days don't happen often for Gronowski, who came in as a freshman and guided the team to the championship game in the Covid-delayed 2021 spring season.

"To win over an entire football team as an incoming true freshman, it's really hard to do," said Rogers, who was then SDSU's defensive coordinator. "He's been able to do it."

And as Hauck noted, it's not just one guy. Davis is a bruising, breakaway runner. There is speed on the outside, and possibly most importantly plenty of experience.

" Well, they're veteran," Hauck said. "Obviously I mentioned that South Dakota State has won 28 in a row — unless my numbers are wrong, but I think I'm right on. You don't get to that point without being really good at everything. So the team doesn't have flaws."