CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - Villanova climbed the mountain Friday night, winning the Football Championship Subdivision national title.

The Wildcats defeated Montana, 23-21, at Finley Stadium.

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The victory put the crowning touch on the best season in school history. Villanova (14-1) extended the single-season victory mark it set last week while advancing to its first FCS title game.

Along the way, the Wildcats claimed the Colonial Athletic Association co-championship title and ended the year with nine consecutive victories.

Montana (14-1), on the other hand, suffered its second consecutive championship game defeat and third in six seasons.

"We are national champions, and I don't even know what it feels like," safety Ross Ventrone said. "It hasn't hit me yet. It's like crazy.

"Villanova is known as a basketball school. Not anymore."

Villanova's versatile wideout Matt Szczur was named the game's most outstanding performer. The all-American finished with 270 all-purpose yards. Szczur had 14 carries for 159 yards and two scores. He also had four receptions for 68 yards and returned two kickoffs for 43 yards.

"Montana thought it was going to roll over us," Szczur said. "It didn't happen. This is the greatest feeling. I can't even describe it."

Szczur's second touchdown run was from 3 yards out on a fourth-and-1 play to give the Wildcats a 23-14 advantage with 11 minutes, 3 seconds remaining.

The Grizzlies closed the gap to two points (23-21) on Andrew Selle's 53-yard touchdown pass to Jabin Sambrano with 1:07 left.

"I was so scared at the end of the game," Szczur said. "They threw that bomb, and it caught me off guard. It's settling in right now. National champions!"

Attempting to get the ball back, Montana tried an onside kick, but the ball sailed out of bounds. Villanova was awarded the ball at its 39-yard line due to the penalty and ran out the clock.

"We played really well in the second half and turned the tide," Villanova coach Andy Talley said. "In the locker room our guys were pretty subdued, but we knew what we had to do."

Early on, the Wildcats had a hard time stopping Montana's Marc Mariani. He had nine receptions for 178 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

Mariani's performance and a miscue by Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney enabled the Grizzlies to jump out an early 11-point cushion.

Whitney overthrew a wide-open Dorian Wells on a third-and-5 at the Montana 10-yard line, and Grizzlies middle linebacker Shawn Lebsock intercepted it in the end zone.

Mariani's 56-yard reception on the ensuing possession set up Montana's second touchdown. Six plays after the catch, quarterback Andrew Selle completed a 4-yard touchdown to Sambrano to give the Grizzles a 14-3 advantage with 6 minutes, 48 seconds left in the half.

Villanova responded withSzczur's 5-yard touchdown 3:14 later. The score was 14-9 after Villanova's Nick Yako missed the extra point.

But the Wildcats opened the second half with a 13-play, 81-yard drive that took 7:28 off the clock. Whitney capped it by throwing a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chris Farmer to give Villanova a 16-14 advantage.

Then Szczur scored his second touchdown on the Wildcats' second drive of second half. His 3-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-1 extended Villanova's lead to 23-14 with 11:04 remaining.

"Our guys played great," Talley said. "Montana is a super team.

"If I died here after winning a national championship, that would be a pretty good death."

Notes. The FCS playoffs will expand to 20 teams next season. As a result, the championship game will be pushed back to early January. The number of participating teams increased from 12 to 16 in 1987. . . . Villanova defensive end Tim Kokoschka suffered a broken thumb in the first half. The senior, who stayed in the game, received a cast at halftime. . . . Friday night's attendance of 14,328 was the smallest FCS championship crowd since 14,281 saw Delaware defeat Colgate in 2003.

Contact staff writer Keith Pompey at 610-313-8029 or kpompey@phillynews.com.