BROOKINGS, S.D. — In an FCS showdown that came down to literal inches, top-ranked and reigning national champion South Dakota State escaped Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium with a 20-16 win over No. 3 Montana State on Saturday.
Sean Chambers and Clevan Thomas Jr. nearly gave the Bobcats a memorable victory, connecting for what initially appeared to be the game-winning touchdown as a time expired. Game officials reviewed the play, though, and ruled that Thomas did not get a foot down inbounds in the back of the end zone. Officials put 1 second back on the clock, allowing the Montana State offense a final play, but Chambers' Hail Mary attempt fell incomplete.
The Bobcats, especially on defense, gave SDSU all it could handle. MSU limited the Jackrabbits to just 17 yards in the first quarter and held them scoreless in the first half. Chambers gave Montana State a 7-0 lead with a 2-yard touchdown run midway through the first quarter. Brendan Hall tacked on a 27-yard field goal in the second quarter to help MSU to a 10-0 halftime lead.
SDSU found a hole in the MSU defense in the second half, though, starting the third quarter with a seven-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 20-yard touchdown run from quarterback Mark Gronowski. The Jackrabbits took their first lead early in the fourth quarter when Gronowski hit Zach Heins for a 16-yard touchdown.
Chambers, who played most of the second half after starting quarterback Tommy Mellott left with an apparent injury, then threw an interception, and SDSU seemed to have grabbed all momentum. But the Bobcat defense answered the bell, holding the Jackrabbits to a three-and-out and forcing a punt. Julius Davis broke through the line and blocked the punt, giving MSU the ball at the SDSU 1-yard line. MSU couldn't convert, though, ultimately settling for a chip-shot field goal from Hall to tie the game at 13 with 10:15 to play.
Montana State's defense forced another three-and-out, with Kenneth Eiden IV sacking Gronowski to end the drive. The Bobcats got the ball back with 8:00 to play, converted a big fourth down near midfield and drove to the SDSU 2-yard line. A false start backed the Bobcats up to the 7-yard line, and they settled for another short field goal from Hall to take a 16-13 lead with 2:04 to go.
SDSU (2-0) needed just two plays to retake the lead. Gronowski dropped a perfect ball to Grahm Goering for a 40-yard gain and then connected with Griffin Wilde, who juked past a couple defenders for a 35-yard touchdown that proved to be the game winner.
Turning point: Officials reversed the initial ruling of Thomas' touchdown as time expired and gave an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to the Montana State sideline. The Bobcats' final play came from the 39-yard line, and an under-pressure Chambers was unable to get the ball into the end zone.
Stat of the game: Gronowski's 184 passing yards ended up being the difference. Both teams tried to lean on their ground attacks, but Gronowski was able to make timely plays in the passing game, notably the two big gains on SDSU's final offensive possession.
Bobcat game balls: Quarterback Sean Chambers (offense) — Chambers nearly propelled the Bobcats to the upset road win, coming up with huge plays down the stretch. He finished with a modest passing line (3 of 9 for 53 yards and interception) but led MSU with 90 rushing yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
Linebacker Danny Uliulakepa (defense) — Uliulakepa set the tone early for the Montana State defense, sacking Gronowski and forcing a fumble that Nolan Askelson recovered to set up MSU's first touchdown. Uliulakepa finished with a team-high seven total tackles.
Placekicker Brendan Hall (special teams) — Hall was reliable in the kicking game, making field goals from 27, 19 and 24 yards.
What's next: Montana State (2-1) returns home for its final non-conference game of the 2023 season, a matchup with Stetson of the Pioneer Football League. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Sept. 16 inside Bobcat Stadium.