South Dakota State earned its most emphatic win of the season over the Big Sky regular-season champion.
The 10th-ranked Jackrabbits and No. 15 Grizzlies have proved they can beat the best in the other's conference, but there will be much more at stake when they meet for a first-round playoff game Saturday in Montana.
The Grizzlies are in the playoffs for a record 23rd time, but earning a third straight berth was anything but easy.
Injuries forced first-year coach Bob Stitt to start his third-string quarterback for three games and with a 4-4 record at the start of the month, Montana was outside of the playoff picture. The Grizzlies responded by closing with three straight wins and are coming off their two best offensive showings of the season.
"I feel really good about where we're at, how we're playing, the health of our team," Stitt said. "Feel very fortunate to be in the playoffs and feel like we belong."
Stitt likes his team's position because he finally has his starting QB back. After missing six games with a leg injury, Brady Gustafson led Montana to a 57-16 win over Eastern Washington on Nov. 14 and threw for 353 yards with four touchdowns in last Saturday's 54-35 win at Montana State.
South Dakota State (8-3) also enters the playoffs with its No. 1 quarterback healthy after Zach Lujan sat out two games with an ankle injury and was limited to a few series in three others. In just his second start since the first weekend of October last Saturday, the junior completed 21 of 37 passes for 246 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions in a 30-24 double-overtime loss to a Western Illinois team that also made the playoffs.
The defeat prevented the Jackrabbits from possibly earning a first-round bye, but they're still heading to the playoffs for a fourth straight year - making them one of five FCS programs that has been to each postseason since 2012.
"We're put the last game behind us. We're looking forward to Montana," said Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier, a STATS FCS Coach of the Year nominee. "This is kind of a second season with a chance to play some good football."
Lujan was playing outstanding football before his injury, averaging 311.0 passing yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions in the first four games. That stretch includes a 55-10 win over No. 17 Southern Utah, the Big Sky champion.
Montana didn't have a matchup with the Thunderbirds this season but did beat No. 2 North Dakota State, the MVC champion that won 28-7 at South Dakota State on Oct. 3.
All eyes were on Missoula, Montana for the FCS Kickoff on Aug. 29 with North Dakota State beginning its title defense, and the Grizzlies gave a national TV audience a show. Montana scored on a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal with 2 seconds left to beat the four-time defending national champion 38-35.
Third-seeded North Dakota State will be awaiting the winner of this game in the second round.
Now that Montana and South Dakota State have their starting QBs backs, both defenses will have a pair of dangerous wide receivers to keep their eye on.
The Grizzlies' Jamaal Jones ranks sixth in the FCS in receiving yards with 1,092 and has nine touchdowns. In the last two games with Gustafson, the junior totaled 288 yards with four TDs.
Montana faces the difficult task of trying to keep the ball out of the hands of Jake Wieneke, who is second in the FCS in receiving yards with 1,344 and has averaged 20.4 yards on 66 catches. The sophomore, a candidate for STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year, also has 11 receiving touchdowns.
"Got to find a way to try to contain him but I feel really confident with the way our corners are playing," Stitt said. "We put them on an island every week and they're coming up big."
Stitt should feel confident after his secondary held Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp, the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year, to a relatively quiet game two weeks ago. The FCS leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches was limited to six receptions and was kept out of the end zone.
Montana will also rely on a defense that is tied for fourth in the FCS in sacks with 38 to get some pressure on Lujan. The Jackrabbits' offensive line will have to pay special attention to STATS National Defensive Player of the Year award finalist Tyrone Holmes, who has an FCS-best 14 sacks and 17 1/2 tackles for loss.
The Grizzlies are 7-0 against South Dakota State, and this is the first meeting since Montana's improbable comeback win in an opening-round game of the 2009 playoffs. Down 27 with 5:40 remaining in the third quarter, the undefeated Grizzlies reeled off 40 consecutive points to pull off a 61-48 victory.