Griz Beat Bison in 2 OT Thriller to Punch Ticket to Frisco

When Bobby Hauck returned as head coach of the Montana Grizzlies, fans dreamed of a moment like the celebration that played out inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Saturday evening. Hauck promised a return to the top of the FCS and the dominance Montana had become so accustomed to during a legendary run through the 90s and 2000s.

In the time between Hauck’s stints, a monster grew to the east. North Dakota State became the national powerhouse that all other schools looked up to as the team to chase. The Bison won nine national championships from 2010 to 2021. Simply put, they were dominant for the entire decade.

It made it the perfect matchup in the semifinal with a ticket to Frisco on the line. The team of the 2000s vs. the team of the 2010s. The two biggest programs at this level of college football, playing in the Mecca of FCS Football in front of a playoff record crowd.

The game promised to be a classic. The teams delivered with an all-timer that saw Junior Bergen cement a legendary status that may eclipse all others in a long, long history of Grizzly greats. Bergen returned a punt for a score for the second straight week and caught an overtime touchdown, but the most magical moment of the game and the season came in double-overtime.

Photo courtesy of Grizzly Athletics

Bergen caught a pitch from quarterback Clifton McDowell and broke a tackle as a Bison defender grabbed him by the facemask. He stayed on his feet, and threw a pass into the back of the end zone for Keelan White. It was tipped, but not enough, as White hauled in the game-winning conversion.

The Grizzly defense stopped North Dakota St. on a two-point conversion on the next possession, winning 31-29 in double-overtime to send Montana to the title game for the first time since 2009. It’s the fourth time under Hauck that the Grizzlies have reached the championship game, and the eighth time in program history.

“Monumental win in program history,” head coach Bobby Hauck said. “It’s one of the biggest games in stadium history, if not the biggest. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s certainly one of the top five games in stadium history and just an all-time great game.”

The game was a slugfest between two well-coached teams and two stellar defenses. The opportunities for both sides were few and far between, and it appeared that a bit of magic was required for either side to get past the other. Bergen delivered that magic, first with a punt return touchdown that gave them a lead in the fourth quarter and then with two big overtime plays.

Bergen had 155 total yards and two touchdowns to go with the two-point conversion pass in double-overtime.

The Grizzlies were once counted out by many after an early season loss in late September. Since then, Montana has won 10 straight games including back-to-back overtime thrillers on national television. They have defeated the in-state rivals to win a conference title and followed it up with three playoff wins to keep the season alive.

“Every game since the fourth week of September they have risen up. They had to fight their tail off to win games,” Hauck said. “They had their backs against the wall. We want to win championships. We want to win the Big Sky Championship, we want to win the State Championship, we want to do those things.

“We’ve had great performances. We’ve had gutsy performances,” Hauck continued. “And when I was talking to them in the locker room I ran out of adjectives. This team works hard, they train hard, they’ve got tremendous mental as well as physical toughness. They are battlers, they’ve got fight, they’ve got guts. They don’t blink, and they’ve got great belief in each other.”

It was a grind for the Montana offense, who were held to 284 total yards on the day, but it was those big plays combined with a 16-play touchdown drive in the first half that separated the two powerhouses.

Montana had just eight drives in regulation, scoring on two of them and then getting the return touchdown. They went two-for-two in overtime, using just five total plays across both extra possessions to end them with touchdowns.

It may not have been pretty, but the Grizzlies didn’t give up the ball to the Bison defense that was second in the country with 27 turnovers forced.

The defense, meanwhile, held the charging NDSU rushing game in check. When these teams met in last year’s playoff, the Bison rushed for over 400 yards. This time, they gained just 188 on the ground. Montana also forced the nation’s leader in completion percentage to a 9-for-22 performance through the air.

The key for Montana came on third down, where North Dakota State went just 3-for-13 (18.7 percent) on offense. They picked up decent yardage on first and second down, and hit on some big plays, but when Montana needed a stop most they consistently came up with it.

The Bison didn’t score a touchdown until their final possession of the game.

“It feels pretty dang good,” Hauck said of the win. “What a game, just what a game. So much went on in that game and it was so hard fought. The defenses battled, the offenses battled, the special teams battled.”

North Dakota State outgained Montana 345-284 but both teams had very similar numbers. The Grizzlies had 20 first downs to the Bison’s 19. The Grizzlies ran six more plays as the teams split the time of possession almost evenly. They both had three sacks, and nearly the same amount of tackles.

In a game where so little separated them, it truly was the highlight plays from Bergen that made the difference. He caught six passes for 59 yards, ran it once for 21 yards, threw the extra point and scored one of his two touchdowns on the punt return.

McDowell provided some huge moments as well, going 16-for-30 for 160 yards and a score. He crucially didn’t turn the ball over, and extended several drives with great third down conversions on his feet. He ran for 17 yards, but gained 50 total. He lost 33 yards on sacks. It wasn’t the prettiest stat line, but it was enough for a Montana win.

“Making plays when it is your time to make them and when the game is on the line is a sign of a true competitor and a truly competitive football team,” Hauck said. “Overtime last week, double-overtime this week. It was like last week where we couldn’t get away from them and we had chances to, but there were some truly great things and under-the-radar plays.”

Braxton Hill had the co-team lead in tackles with 10 and provided some massive moments on the defensive side of the ball with 1.5 tackles for loss that included a half-sack. Ryder Meyer also had 10 tackle, five of which were solo,

Montana are now 6-1 at home in semifinal games, and the record crowd of Griz faithful made a difference on Saturday. North Dakota State had five false start penalties and a delay of game due to the incredible atmosphere provided by all 26,000-plus Griz fans inside the stadium.

“I truly enjoyed celebrating with our team. I truly enjoyed celebrating with our fans on the field after the game,” Hauck said. “I told the team I have 27,000 new best friends and I took a picture with every one of them and I’m on 27,000 Instagram’s tonight.”

North Dakota State won the opening toss and elected to receive, and a one-handed grab through great coverage from Eli Green set the Bison up inside the red zone on the opening drive of the game. The third-best red zone offense in the country found points, but Montana’s defense held them to just a field goal with a third down stop.

Montana were forced to punt on their first drive, and NDSU had another low-probability catch to move into Griz territory for the second time. They faced a third-and-short before the raucous crowd of Washington-Grizzly Stadium made its presence felt. The Bison had back-to-back false starts to go 10 yards in the wrong direction.

Kale Edwards then brought down Miller in the backfield to force a Bison punt. The Grizzlies were able to block the punt, but a third false start from NDSU in four plays negated the play. The Bison were then able to pin Montana on their own 13.

From the deep field position, McDowell picked up a key third down with an outside curl route to Aaron Fontes for a seven-yard gain. He went for 13 yards on the next play, finding Bergen on the right side of the field.

Ostmo then carried back-to-back times for another first down near midfield. The Grizzlies were sacked and faced a third and long. McDowell dropped back, scrambled out to the left, and lofted a deep ball to Keelan White up the sideline.

White was held on the play, but fought through the penalty and made a 31-yard grab to set Montana up just outside the red zone as the first quarter came to an end.

Ostmo broke a tackle on the first play of the second to give Montana first down at the Bison 14. The Grizzlies once again faced third down, this time needing seven yards. McDowell dropped back and a pair of Bison defenders broke through the line to get free on McDowell.

The quarterback spun backwards, evading the would-be sack and scrambling for another first down at the Bison two-yard line. McDowell then pitched right to Gillman, who walked into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game for either side, and the 11th rushing score of the season for the Jerry Rice Award winner.

Montana converted three third downs on the 16 play, 87-yard scoring drive that lasted nearly eight full minutes.

The Grizzly defense came up big on the following drive and an NDSU offensive pass interference penalty helped force another Bison punt. Once again, the crowd noise made an impact as a delay of game penalty. A short punt would give Montana the ball back at their own 27 with 8:00 remaining in the half.

Bergen may not have had a chance on the punt return, but Montana gave it to him on a sweep on the first offensive play and he spun multiple times, shaking tacklers for 21-yard gain to get near midfield. He caught a screen pass on the next play for a nine-yard gain on the next play to get into Bison territory.

McDowell had time in the pocket on the next play and scrambled right, dumping to Harris for a check-down pass that resulted in a 24-yard gain and put Montana in the red zone again.

McDowell kept the big plays rolling, keeping on a read-option on the next play for a 15-yard gain to give Montana 1st-and-goal from the four. Montana couldn’t punch it in, and were backed up all the way to the Bison 29-yard line after a loss of 17 on a sack.

The Grizzlies went with Grant Glasgow, and he delivered, hammering home a 46-yard field to put Montana ahead 10-3 with just under three minutes to play in the half. It was the first make for Glasgow since Oct. 14 against Idaho.

The defense delivered a big play on the next Bison drive as Levi Janacaro and Alex Gubner broke through the line and brought down rushing quarterback Cole Payton down in the backfield for four-yard loss. NDSU were able to convert the long third down, and Miller connected with Green again to move the Bison into Griz territory.

Hayden Harris hauled Miller down for a sack on the next play to back the Bison up five yards on first down. The Bison picked up a 13-yard gain two plays later, but Ronald Jackson Jr. delivered a big hit to set up a 4th-and-2 from the 34 with 23 seconds left in the half.

The Bison converted with a trick play pitch to Green to move into the red zone. The Griz forced two straight incompletions, setting up third down with seven seconds remaining. Miller’s pass was incomplete on third down, and the Bison connected on a 35-yard field goal to end the half.

Montana entered the break with a 10-6 advantage. The Bison had the yards advantage at the break 193-151, but the Grizzlies converted 3-of-5 third downs and held NDSU to just two third down conversions in seven attempts. Chances were few and far between, as Montana scored on two of just three total drives in the half.

North Dakota St. had four drives, beginning and ending with field goals with two punts sandwiched in between. The Griz held the FCS leader in completion percentage to just 7-for-14 passing in the opening half, but he did hit some big plays to Green, who had four catches for 89 yards.

McDowell completed 70 percent of his passes for 94 yards in the first half. The Griz ran for 57 yards in the first half led by 26 from Ostmo. The senior moved into the top 10 in program history with 1,838 career yards.

Montana got the ball out of the break, but went three-and-out on the first drive. Benham went back to punt, and was hit after the kick for a roughing the kicker penalty to keep Montana’s drive alive. They couldn’t take advantage of the penalty, punting again to pin NDSU down inside their own 10.

They picked up a good gain to set up third and short, but the North end zone delivered and forced another false start to change it to third and long. Braxton Hill blasted Miller as he threw on the play, and the pass came up short and the Bison went three and out. NDSU punted from their own goal line and it went out of bounds at the Montana 48-yard line.

The Griz made it into Bison territory and faced a 4th-and-2 from the NDSU 44. They went for it, and a pass fell incomplete to give it back to NDSU near midfield.

The Bison moved into the red zone quickly, but Montana’s defense again rose to the occasion when it mattered most. They forced a 38-yard field goal from Griffin Crosa that cut the Grizzly lead to 10-9 with five minutes to play in the third.

Gillman found his biggest run of the game to start the next drive with an eight yard gain and McDowell followed it up with seven yards on a fake toss. They picked up a big third down conversion on another pass from McDowell on a broken play to White for a toe-tapping grab on the sideline that moved the chains.

McDowell created magic on third down a few plays later. He couldn’t find an open receiver, but escaped a collapsing pocket and juked his way to a 10-yard gain and another third down conversion.

Ostmo then picked up nine yards on the next play, and Montana eventually faced another 3rd-and-1 on the final play of the third quarter.

The fourth quarter began with fourth down, and the Grizzlies went for it. They went play-action and McDowell appeared to bobble the ball as he dropped back, but he was able to recover and dump to Evan Shafer for a six-yard gain and a crucial Grizzly first down.

The Grizzlies fumbled on a reverse to Fontes a few plays later. They were able to recover, but faced 3rd-and-19 and a pass into the end zone was broken up. They took a 45-yard field goal, but it came up just short off the foot of Nico Ramos to give the ball back to the Bison with 12:38 to play in the game.

It seemed the perfect moment for the Bison to shift the momentum. Instead, the Grizzly defense stepped up with three huge defensive plays. The final was a quarterback pressure that forced Miller to throw it away for an intentional grounding penalty.

It forced a Bison punt from deep in their own territory. The crowd that witnessed greatness from Junior Bergen last week knew what to expect if No. 5 got his hands on the ball.

Bergen provided greatness. He took the punt in Bison territory and retreated a few yards off right away, running to his left. He slipped a tackle before coming to a stand-still at the Bison 47, faking to his right to move the coverage before bursting back to the outside.

Sawyer Racanelli then cleared out two Bison with a big block, allowing Bergen to get to the sideline. He made one more hesitation move, and carried a Bison defender into the end zone for the score.

“Obviously the punt return from Junior was special to get another one this week,” Hauck said.

The Grizzlies missed the extra point, but took the 16-9 lead after the score.

North Dakota State was stopped early on the ensuing kick return, and then on another third and short the Grizzly crowd delivered again. The Bison false started for the fifth time in the game. It forced a pass from NDSU, and they dropped the ball and were forced to punt yet again.

They contained Bergen this time and Montana took over on their own 37 with just over nine minutes to play. The Griz kept it on the ground three times to pick up a first down, but would eventually punt. They pinned the Bison inside their own 20 with 5:06 left on the clock.

Riley Wilson, who stepped up with a huge sack late in the win over Furman, delivered a huge play with a sack on third down. The Bison went for it on fourth down with a fake punt for an 18-yard gain that ended with a late hit out of bounds. Instead of Montana ball, it became first down NDSU in Grizzly territory.

On the first play following the fake, Hill broke into the backfield for a tackle for a three-yard loss. They blitzed on second down and nearly got home, but Miller’s pass in the face of pressure was completed for a first down on the Montana 26.

Miller fumbled on the next play but was able to recover to keep the drive alive inside of two minutes. The Grizzlies committed pass interference to give the Bison a first down from the 12-yrad line. They went into the end zone from there for the first touchdown of the game. They kicked the extra point to tie it at 16-all with 51 seconds to play.

The Grizzlies were aggressive. After an incompletion on first down, McDowell completed a 13-yard pass to Fontes to get near midfield. There were three straight incompletions from there, and Montana were forced to punt. The Bison took a knee, and the teams went into overtime.

North Dakota State chose to play in the south end zone and scored on the first play of overtime with a quarterback keeper from Cole Payton. They made the extra point to go ahead 23-16.

The Grizzlies answered in two plays, as McDowell rushed on first down and then dumped to Bergen for a 22-yard score up the right sideline to send the game into a second overtime.

They went to the north end zone for the second overtime and Montana started with the ball. Gillman opened the drive with five yards up the gut. They went to the freshman again and he got seven more yards for a Grizzly first down.

Gillman’s third run was the biggest, as the line opened up a massive hole and the freshman scored from 13 yards out. The rules of overtime then forced Montana to attempt a two-point conversion.

It became the perfect moment for someone to write the latest dramatic chapter in the history of Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Bergen stepped up to author a play that will be remembered forever in Missoula.

Montana went into the trick play book, pitching to Bergen on a reverse. He ran right and avoided a tackle that included a facemask penalty, and fired the ball into the end zone. It was tipped by the defense, but White had room and hauled it in for a successful try to make it 31-23 Grizzlies.

North Dakota State scored in three plays to make it 31-29. The Bison needed to convert the two-point conversion to extend the game. They went with a trick play as well, also looking for a wide receiver pass. Montana read it to perfection. The pass was intercepted in the end zone, and Montana kneeled it for the win.

“We have that play and we run it. We call it Bison,” Hauck said of NDSU’s play call. “So our guys knew how to line it up because they’ve seen it.”

He spoke with his team before the game about the moment, and what they needed to do.

“We just talked about, well we’ve been here before. We know what to expect. We reviewed the overtime rules. We had won nine coin tosses in a row and then won one and promptly gave up a touchdown on the first play. I guess it’s just appropriate that it came down to a two-point play where they had us and we chucked it up and made a play, and then we stopped them on a play that they’ve run before and we copied.”

It’s the second straight win at home against North Dakota State following a 2015 thriller to open the season. But the win provides even more sentimental value as the Bison were the ones to end Montana’s last two seasons, and three of their last five trips to the postseason.

The dynasty of North Dakota State ran into a resurgent Montana team on Saturday, and it’s the Grizzlies who will dance on to the title game in Frisco.

“We’re going to enjoy this for a week and then we’re going to get on to South Dakota State,” Hauck said.

The Grizzlies will face the Jackrabbits, the defending national champions who are currently on a 28-game winning streak, on January 7. The game will kick off at 12:00 p.m. (MT) and information about tickets and travel will be provided as soon as it becomes available.