FRISCO, Texas (AP) — South Dakota State never bought into all the hype as defending FCS national champions. With standout quarterback Mark Gronowski and a stifling defense, the Jackrabbits just went out and won another title.
“That first one was … really, really sweet, just because it was that first one,” said Gronowski, who started his third Football Championship Subdivision title game. “We got to see the other team do it three years ago and be up on that stage where we weren’t, so I think that’s part of the thing that makes this whole thing so much sweeter.”
Gronowski ran for a touchdown and threw for another after halftime as SDSU repeated as champions with a 23-3 win over Montana on Sunday. The Jackrabbits have won 29 games in a row, including over North Dakota State last year for their first national title.
“With as much hype surrounding this football program, we never paid much attention to it. We stayed consistent. We worked extremely hard week in and week out, and this is the result,” said Jimmy Rogers, the first-year head coach with a 15-0 record after being South Dakota State’s defensive coordinator last season.
SDSU linebacker Adam Boch stuffed running back Eli Gillman for no gain on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on Montana’s opening drive. SDSU allowed only 273 total yards, had five sacks and wrapped up a four-game playoff run in which it allowed only 15 points and had two shutouts.
“Best defense in FCS history,” Rogers said. “I’m proud of that, proud of this football team, proud to go back-to-back.”
South Dakota State had an impressive game-opening drive, but led only 7-3 at halftime. Gronowski then bulled into the end zone for a 10-yard score midway through the third quarter, and on the next possession threw a 23-yard TD to Jadon Janke.
Gronowski was 13-of-21 passing for 175 yards and ran eight times for 62 yards to join Carson Wentz and Brock Jensen, quarterbacks who won multiple championships with North Dakota State, as the only players selected as most outstanding player in consecutive FCS title games. Gronowski was a true freshman when he tore his left ACL on the opening series of the unusual May 2021 title game the Jackrabbits lost at the end of a pandemic-affected season.
“They have a heck of a leader back there. And he makes them go for sure,” Montana linebacker Braxton Hill said.
Montana’s 27 playoff appearances are the most in the second tier of Division I football. National champions in 1995 and 2001, the Grizzlies (13-2) have now finished as the runner-up six times, four under coach Bobby Hauck.
This was the Grizzlies’ first title game since 2009, when they were runner-ups for the third time in Hauck’s first seven seasons. Hauck then left for FBS team UNLV and also was on staff at San Diego State before returning to Montana in 2018.
Less than two weeks after South Dakota State was crowned champions last year, John Stiegelmeier retired after 26 seasons as head coach. He was succeeded by Rogers, a former Jackrabbits linebacker who was captain of their first playoff team in 2009 — when they lost to Montana after blowing a 27-point lead.
Both teams had only one possession in the first quarter Sunday. Montana’s opening drive spilled into the first play of the second quarter, when Boch had the big fourth-down stop.
South Dakota State had opened the game with a 75-play, 11-play drive. Gronowski completed his first five passes for 55 yards and converted a third-and-4 with a 9-yard keeper right before Isaiah Davis’ 6-yard TD run.
“The fourth down stop was a big play in the game,” Hauck said. “They’re just a big, physical senior-oriented team and they do a nice job.”
Montana: Playmaking quarterback Clifton McDowell, who had been 11-0 as the Griz starter, was under increased pressure, especially after halftime. He completed 22 of 39 passes for 165 yards, but was sacked four times. After he was stripped of the ball when being sacked late in the third quarter, 295-yard defensive tackle Ryan Van Marel came up with the ball.
South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits became the first team since North Dakota State (2017-19) to repeat as champions.
Montana: The Big Sky champion Grizzlies take on one of SDSU’s Missouri Valley Conference rivals in their 2024 opener. They host Missouri State on Aug. 31.
South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits open next season on the road Aug. 31 at Big 12 team Oklahoma State, the first major conference team they will play since a 7-3 loss at Iowa of the Big Ten in the 2022 opener that was their last loss.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football