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JACKS REPEAT: South Dakota State tops Montana to win second straight FCS national championship

Jan. 7—FRISCO, Tex. — The Jacks ran it back.

South Dakota State defended the first national title in school history by winning a second, shaking off a slow start to coast to a 23-3 victory over Montana on Sunday in front of 19,512 Toyota Stadium fans to repeat as FCS champions. The Jackrabbits finish the season 15-0 and will take a 29-game winning streak into Oklahoma State when they open the 2024 campaign.

The Jacks are the first team to win consecutive FCS titles since North Dakota State won three in a row from 2017-2019, and the first team besides the Bison (who also won five straight between 2011-2015) to win consecutive championships since Appalachian State won three in a row from '05-'07.

That puts SDSU in rare air, and the championships will be forever linked by the passing of the torch from longtime coach John Stiegelmeier to rookie coach Jimmy Rogers. "Stig" won in his final season at the helm. Rogers won in his first. Their 15-0 record marks their first undefeated season at the Division I level. The last time SDSU completed a season without a loss came in 1950, when they went 9-0-1 under Ralph Ginn.

"It takes a full team to do this, especially with the hype that surrounded this team," Rogers said. "We stayed consistent week in and week out and this is the result."

Take nothing away from SDSU, but this is what was expected of them. They had the best roster in the FCS. An uncommon amount of experience and mental and physical maturity by way of a senior class that in some cases have played upwards of 70 career college football games. But that doesn't mean it was easy.

"Expectations were high, man," said running back Isaiah Davis. "People were talking about going to Frisco and buying tickets and we hadn't even played a game yet. But we exceeded the expectations. We made our mark."

Winning last year's title was therapeutic. A relief. A validation. It felt long overdue. The second one comes before fans had even finished celebrating the first. And remember, SDSU was one play away from winning the national championship in the 2020/21 spring season, when quarterback Mark Gronowski was lost to a knee injury in the first quarter.

"The first one was really sweet because it was the first one," said Gronowski, who was named title game MVP for the second straight year, joining former NDSU quarterbacks Brock Jensen and Carson Wentz as the only FCS players to do so. "We got to see the other team (celebrate) three years ago and be up on that stage that we weren't (on). That's part of what makes this whole run so much sweeter."

It was, as expected, a multiple-score win for the Jacks, but it took them awhile to get there. After SDSU drove the length of the field on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead on a Davis touchdown run their play became uncharacteristically sloppy. Mark Gronowski threw an interception that led to a Grizzlies field goal. An SDSU player ran into a punt, allowing Montana to recover. The running game struggled to get going.

But Montana never made them pay. The Grizzlies answered SDSU's game-opening drive with one of their own, moving to a goal-to-go situation only for Adam Bock to make a stunning tackle at the goal line to keep Montana running back Eli Gillman out of the end zone on 4th down. Instead of a 7-7 game, the Griz came up empty. They'd never threaten the end zone again.

"I've been on the wrong side of too many of those," Bock said of his touchdown-saving tackle, which was one of 11 he had in the game. "That was just huge to come up with that in a big time game. It felt awesome to get some momentum on our side. It was a big momentum shift."

Later the Griz settled for three after a turnover and went three-and-out after SDSU's botched punt. It was 7-3 SDSU at halftime, and it seemed like Montana had missed an opportunity to give themselves a lead to play with. Not surprisingly, the Jacks righted the ship after halftime, and dominated from there.

Rogers said later he wasn't disappointed in his team's first half play. The botched punt, the interception — those were mistakes. They happen. They don't happen to SDSU very often, but they took steps to limit the damage of those mistakes and then stopped making them. SDSU outscored the Griz 16-0 in the third quarter and kept them off the board the rest of the way.

"Coach Rogers gave us a nice motivational speech at the half," said guard Evan Beerntsen. "We made some adjustments and went out and got it done. These seniors have seen a lot, going back to last year when we were down 21-7 at NDSU. We've learned how to face adversity and get through it. And then, our defense, I mean, I can't even...they're so good it's ridiculous."

The Griz rushed for 47 yards on 30 carries. McDowell had just 165 yards passing on 39 throws (22 completions). Jason Freeman had nine tackles for SDSU. Colby Huerter had seven, Tucker Large six and DyShawn Gales and Isaiah Stalbird five. The Jacks had five sacks, with 1.5 each from Quinton Hicks and Cade Terveer.

They were greatly aided by the heroics of punter Hunter Dustman, who dropped all five of his punts inside the 20-yard line, two of them at the five, and allowed just six punt return yards from Montana returns ace Junior Bergen.

"Hunter was great," Rogers said. "He did a great job positioning the ball. That's what we worked on all week. It was an overall team win and special teams was a big part of it."

Gronowski gave SDSU a 14-3 lead in the third on a 10-yard run that was set up by a 34-yard catch-and-run from Zach Heins, and Gronowski would then find Jadon Janke on a 23-yard strike to make it 20-3. Dustman added a 33-yard field goal to make it 23-3 going to the fourth, at which point SDSU's first-ever win over Montana (they were 0-8 against the Griz coming in) was secure.

Gronowski finished the game 13-of-21 for 175 yards passing, 53 yards rushing and a touchdown on the ground and through the air. Davis ran for 87 yards and Amar Johnson 50. The Janke twins combined for nine catches for 121 yards in their final game.

The win was once again topped off with a spirited postgame celebration on the stage behind the north end zone, with a sea of blue gathered on the field below to watch. Jacks fans impressed with their turnout last year and only exceeded it in this trip to Frisco. A fan base could get used to this.

As for Rogers, a former Jackrabbit linebacker whose playing career ended with a gut-punch of a loss to Montana in the 2009 playoffs, it was another emotional day for a coach who takes great pains to be a model of stoic intensity during games but is frequently moved to tears after them.

He said shortly after being elevated to head coach that when the Jacks won last year's national championship, he woke up the next morning "and felt nothing."

Would he feel that way again on Monday?

He smiled sheepishly before saying: "That's who I am by nature, man. I'm gonna enjoy this one tonight but my mind races to the next one pretty fast."

Is it different this time, though, being the head coach?

"I don't think so," he said. "I've wanted this for a long time. As a player, as an assistant and as a head coach. I'm just blessed to be in this position with this football team. I know it's somewhat sick but this is who I am. Football is what I know. It's what I think about, it's what I eat, sleep and live for, and doing it with these guys is what matters to me. I'm just proud of this football team. I'm gonna celebrate this, enjoy this tonight with my family and these guys and look forward to next year tomorrow."