How Did Montana Make the National Championship Game? Inside the Grizzlies’ Season

    Despite being ranked No. 14 in the preseason polls, the Montana Grizzlies turned a corner midseason, thanks in part to a timely quarterback change.

    It might not quite be a David vs. Goliath matchup, but the two teams in this year’s FCS National Championship Game took two considerably different paths to Frisco. The Montana Grizzlies have played two of the most thrilling games of the playoffs in their last two outings, emerging victorious to take on South Dakota State in the championship game.

    So, how did the Montana Grizzlies make the National Championship Game?

    How Montana Made the National Championship Game

    Last season, the Grizzlies squeaked into the playoffs, winning a first-round game before exiting in a 21-point loss to eventual runners-up North Dakota State. The Grizzlies won eight games but returned some key pieces and entered the 2023 season as the No. 14 team in the FCS polls.

    The Grizzlies started the non-conference schedule with three wins, entering conference play full of confidence. However, Montana immediately stumbled, losing to then 0-3 Northern Arizona in its conference opener, 28-14. The offense had been struggling at the time, failing to reach 20 points in back-to-back games.

    MORE: Who Are the FCS National Championship Game Announcers? 

    Things began to turn around after the loss. The Grizzlies rattled off 7-straight conference wins to win the Big Sky, one of the top conferences in the country. Along the way, the Grizzlies defeated four top 20 teams, culminating with a 37-7 drubbing of rival Montana State, ranked No. 4 at the time.

    The 2-seeded Grizzlies benefitted from home-field advantage in the playoffs, easily dispatching No. 11 Delaware before edging No. 7 Furman in a snowstorm. That game was the first of two thrilling overtime victories.

    That win set up a rematch with North Dakota State — the team that knocked the Grizzlies out in 2022. What ensued was one of the wildest games of the year. After allowing a game-tying touchdown in the final minute for the second-straight week, the Grizzlies survived in two overtimes, denying North Dakota State’s potential game-tying 2-point conversion to make the championship.

    Players Who Led the Montana Grizzlies

    A fantastic defense leads the Grizzlies. Montana has a trio of linebackers among the best in the country. Riley Wilson, Braxton Hill, and Levi Janacaro have combined for 93 pressures and 135 solo tackles. In the process, they’ve only missed 13 tackles and have racked up 105 run stops.

    Montana’s defense may have a slight edge against a South Dakota State offense that uses the run to set up the pass.

    The Grizzlies changed quarterbacks after the Northern Arizona loss, reinvigorating the offense. Since taking over, new starter Clifton McDowell has thrown 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions while adding nearly 800 yards and eight scores on the ground. Against Furman, he threw for 208 yards and ran for 127 in the snow.

    The running game has struggled to get going in the playoffs, but when it’s on, the Grizzlies are dangerous. Eli Gillman and Nick Ostmo form a strong backfield duo capable of breaking big runs.

    Junior Bergen, Keelan White, and Aaron Fontes are all dangerous on the outside, and each has over 600 yards and four touchdowns on the season. In the playoffs, White’s been the main guy with 219 yards and two touchdowns in bad weather.

    The Grizzlies won’t benefit from home-field advantage in Frisco but have the talent to make the game closer than the 13-point spread would suggest.

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