Montana Grizzlies fans are partying like it's 2009. For the first time in 14 years, the Griz will play on the FCS' biggest stage thanks to a heart-stopping 31-29 double overtime victory over North Dakota State on Saturday afternoon. In front of one of the more raucous crowds Washington-Grizzly Stadium has ever seen (and that in itself is saying something) UM delivered an all time classic.
Despite the epic ending, the game started rather slowly for both squads. After a big one-handed catch by North Dakota State receiver Eli Green, the Bison petered out in the red zone and had to settle for an early field goal. After that, the two defenses would each force punts to ensure the score remained 3-0 by the end of the first quarter.
Montana got the contest’s first touchdown in the second fame on the heels of a long 16-play drive orchestrated by quarterback Clifton McDowell. McDowell and company drove clear down to inside the Bison five-yard line. From there, phenom freshman running back Eli Gillman finished it off. The Jerry Rice Award winner pushed in from three yards out to give UM the 7-3 advantage.
Each team would tack on a field goal respectively before halftime.
The real fireworks began in the second half after NDSU forced a turnover on downs. The Bison, trailing by four, took over. The running of RaJa Nelson and TK Marshall got them down to the fringes of the red zone where kicker kicker Griffin Corsa nailed his third field goal of the night.
Up 10-9, Montana got the lift it needed from a not-at-all surprising place. After a missed field goal from kicker Nico Ramos, the Griz defense made a stand. On the ensuing punt, return star Junior Bergen did what he does best and danced his way through the Bison coverage unit and into the end zone. It was Bergen’s fifth career punt return score and second in as many weeks. The stadium was practically shaking at its foundation.
With their backs against the wall in the most hostile environment they’ve seen all year, North Dakota State rose up in the late stages when it mattered most. Signal-caller Cam Miller completed big throw after big throw to get down to the Montana 9-yard line. With 51 seconds left he roped a pass to Green in the end zone. Green came down with it in stride for NDSU’s first touchdown of the game.
The Griz offense couldn’t muster anything with their last drive of regulation and overtime ensued. The second OT contest for both teams this postseason began quickly for the visitors. UM elected to give the ball to the Bison offense first and it only took one play for NDSU to snag the lead. Cole Payton rumbled in for a 25-yard score to silence the crowd.
The Grizzlies, though, answered right back. Bergen played hero again and hauled in a 22-yard strike from McDowell to send the game to a second overtime period.
Gillman swung the pendulum back to Montana in the second extra frame. He jetted in for a 13-yard score to electrify the crowd once more. Having to go for two now, the Griz got the conversion thanks to a wild throw from Bergen with a defender in his face. Receiver Keelan White caught the ball to put the Grizzlies up eight and send the fans into an all out frenzy.
NDSU had one last gasp in them and scored once more on a Marshall run from the two-yard line. The final play was a two-point try. Miller handed the ball off to Nelson who rolled out and looked to throw to the end zone. Montana cornerback Corbin Walker intercepted the pass, though, and the players stormed the field in a rush the program hasn’t seen the likes of in 14 years.
Head coach Bobby Hauck will return to the FCS title for the first time since the 2009 season. Hauck has been to the game three times before but has yet to win it. The Grizzlies were outgained by the Bison in total offense but got the big plays when they needed them most. Bergen’s punt return was a difference maker. McDowell threw for 160 yards and a score while Gillman ran for 49 yards and two TDs.
For NDSU, dropped passes will haunt them in this one. Miller had several incompletions that were right in the hands of his guys. He finished his day with 157 passing yards and a score. The defense surrendered 124 yards on the ground and could not force a turnover, something they’ve been so good at all postseason.
Bison head coach Matt Entz has coached his last game for the green and gold. He has accepted a linebackers coaching job at USC and had planned to leave when NDSU’s playoff run was over.
Montana becomes the first team since James Madison in 2016 to defeat North Dakota State in the semifinal round. will now have three weeks to prepare for top-seed South Dakota State who punched its ticket last night. The Grizzlies and Jackrabbits will battle for the national title on January 7 in Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX.