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

Jan. 7—FRISCO, Texas — 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 fans at Toyota Stadium to repeat as FCS national 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 Jackrabbits 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 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. Stiegelmeier 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 it 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 it. It had the best roster in the FCS, and an uncommon amount of experience and mental and physical maturity by way of a senior class that in some cases has 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. SDSU was also 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. "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 Jackrabbits, but it took them awhile to get there. After SDSU drove the length of the field on its opening drive to take a 7-0 lead on a Davis touchdown run, their play became uncharacteristically sloppy. 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."