Griz Beat Furman in OT Thriller to Advance to Semis

The Mecca of FCS Football has played host to some classic playoff football games throughout the years. It has created moments that became legend. Players that became mythical. Games that will be remembered forever.

Friday night’s 35-28 overtime win over Furman in the FCS Quarterfinal is the latest addition to the Washington-Grizzly Stadium lore, and Junior Bergen the latest Grizzly hero. And it’s not a single moment, but two, that Bergen contributed to the storied history of Montana football.

Bergen returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown to start the night off on the perfect foot. But it was a punt return in the fourth quarter that cemented his legend. Bergen went 59 yards up Montana’s sideline, scoring his school-record fourth punt return touchdown to give Montana a late lead in the game.

Photo courtesy of Grizzly Athletics.

It’s a double-up on return scores that hasn’t been done at Montana since 2002, when Jefferson Heidelberger ran both a punt and a kickoff back for scores against Northwestern State, also in the FCS playoffs.

Bergen’s heroics were backed by a stout Montana defense, which came up with an overtime stop thanks to a big tackle for loss from Alex Gubner and three straight pass breakups, the final from Trevin Gradney to seal the win.

It all led to Montana’s ninth straight win and advanced the Grizzlies to the FCS Semifinals for the 11th time in program history.

“What a game. Congrats to Furman,” head coach Bobby Hauck said. “What a wonderful battle they put up tonight to get that to overtime on the last play. Our defense was nails in the second half. After the first quarter they were really something. I was proud of them.”

In a game between two dominant defenses, big plays proved to be the difference-maker. The teams threw haymakers at each other with Bergen’s big play to start the game canceled out by a 70-yard Paladin’s pass that led to a touchdown. They also scored from 53 yards out and had an interception that they returned into Montana territory that led to another score.

Furman landed three massive blows. Montana withstood them all.

The Grizzlies had just one offensive touchdown in regulation, an eight-yard run from Clifton McDowell, but found the end zone in the overtime period and the defense did its job to seal the win.

Montana held Furman to 282 total yards in the game, and they picked up 123 of them on the two big plays early. Outside of that, the Paladins ran 78 plays for 159 yards. It led to an average of just 2.0 yards per play as Montana had two sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

The Paladins had nine three-and-outs and punted 12 times in the game, but were able to score a late touchdown on a desperation fourth down pass to force overtime. Furman quarterback Tyler Huff completed just 16-of-47 passes (34 percent) on the day as Montana’s athletic defense forced him into quick decisions and the secondary made plays on the ball.

Huff ran for 71 yards, but was the only Paladin to find success on the ground as no other player ran for more than 20 yards. Huff also picked up 53 of his on one play as the Grizzlies held him in check for most of the game.

“If you take out those two plays they had about 180 yards of total offense on 78 plays. Terrific job by our defense,” Hauck said. “After that, they didn’t have any answers for us. He chucked it up on that last play, we have to play the ball and get it out but their kid made a good play. Our defense was absolutely nails tonight. It was just flat awesome. Those guys did a magnificent job tonight.”

Braxton Hill led Montana with 10 tackles and added a quarterback hurry. Ryder Meyer had nine tackles and a breakup, while Tyler Flink had seven and a tackle for loss. Riley Wilson had five tackles, but three of them resulted in Furman losses with a sack and two TFL’s.

Montana’s offense found struggles of its own against Furman’s top 10 defense. The Grizzlies had 356 total yards with 208 through the air. McDowell went 17-for-31 with 208 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.

The Grizzly quarterback was Montana’s primary rusher as he carried it 21 times for 118 yards and another score. It was his first 100-yard rushing game at Montana and ninth score on the ground this year.

He also broke the Montana single season rushing record for a quarterback. Dalton Sneed had the previous record with 675 yards in 2018. McDowell now has 734 yards on the year.

Montana had four other rushers who were all held under 20 yards.

Keelan White had five catches for 91 yards and the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Aaron Fontes had four grabs for 57 yards, while Bergen also had 44 yards through the air to bring him up to 242 all-purpose yards on the night.

The Grizzly offense had seven three-and-outs of their own and went just 4-for-17 on third down. But in the end, they did just enough to book a ticket to the semifinal.

“We kicked it around a little bit on offense, we didn’t finish drives, we missed a couple field goals. All the things that get you beat,” Hauck said. “But what I told the team is they can’t all be blowouts. We haven’t had a close game in a while. Great teams, championship teams find a way to win when they aren’t playing their best.

“We didn’t play great tonight, but it’s a national quarterfinal game,” Hauck continued. “We’ve been in a quarterfinal three out of the last four years but we haven’t gotten past this game. It’s hard to do. We are by it, we are into the semis, and we can’t wait until next weekend.”

Montana fans have been dreaming of a deep playoff run since Hauck returned to lead the team. They’ve been close, reaching three quarterfinals since 2019. On Friday night, against the same team they beat the last time Montana won a national championship, they finally made it over the hump.

Now, the Grizzlies have their sights on the next round and booking a trip to Frisco, Texas for the national championship. It’s a familiar feeling for Hauck, who made it to three national championship games in his first stint as Montana head coach.

You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect start for Montana. The Grizzlies lost the toss and received the opening kick. Bergen took it at the one-yard line and brought it 99 yards to the house. He found a hole in the middle of the field and split the defenders, cutting left around his own 40.

“On that kickoff return it was a new play. It’s nothing we’ve shown on film,” Hauck said. “We had never run it in a game before. We put it in on Wednesday of this week. The guys worked hard at it and got it blocked. Junior saw it perfectly and came out the back door sort of like a power play that comes out the back gate, and off he went.

“That was a great way to start the game,” Hauck said. “To open the game with that, with something that was new, shows what kind of kids we have and their attention to detail.”

He had 10 defenders beat, but still needed to avoid the kicker. He did so with ease, cutting back inside and scoring his first career kick return touchdown.

It didn’t take Furman long to answer. They competed a 70-yard pass on third down of the following drive to set them up on the Grizzly one, and they would punch it in to tie the game at 7-all.

The two stout defenses lived up to the reputations they entered the game with in forcing four straight punts by both sides. Kale Edwards flew into the back field to disrupt a trick play, speeding to quarterback Tyler Huff before he could complete a fake reverse. It pinned Furman deep, and a 31-yard punt gave it to Montana in Paladin territory.

McDowell carved up the Furman defense in just two plays, keeping a read-option for a 40-yard run to set Montana up inside the 10. He punched it in on the next play, scoring from eight yards out to put Montana up 14-7.

The Paladins again struck with a big third down play on the ensuing drive, as Huff took a run up the middle for a 53-yard touchdown.

McDowell connected for his biggest pass of the opening quarter, scrambling back and throwing a 22-yard heave to Bergen for a first down in Furman territory. They would go no further, and started the second quarter with a 39-yard field goal from Nico Ramos.

The kicker improved to 8-for-8 since taking over against Portland State.

He upped that tally to 9-for-9 on Montana’s next drive. The Grizzlies had a near-touchdown on a deep pass to Bergen but the ball was slightly dislodged as he hit the ground and Montana faced third and long. They would convert the initial third down, but couldn’t find the end zone and settled for a 28-yard field goal to make it 20-14 midway through the second.

The Grizzlies would force another Paladin punt, the fourth in six drives, to get the ball back with just over four minutes to play. The Grizzly defense had given up 144 total yards to that point, but 123 of them came on the two big plays. They had been solid outside of the big plays.

Montana got a big play of their own to start the next drive. McDowell hit Keelan White for a 42-yard gain to get right back into Paladin territory. They couldn’t add points on the drive, as a 42-yard field goal was missed wide right to give Furman the ball with 1:54 to play.

The Griz defense made quick work of the Paladins, and a Riley Wilson sack on third down with 54 seconds to play gave Montana the ball one final time in the half. They would be stopped, and the teams went into the break with a 20-14 advantage in favor of Montana.

The Grizzlies outgained Furman 234-157, which doesn’t include the 99 yards on Bergen’s kick return touchdown. Montana averaged six yards per play and had the ball for nearly 18 minutes in the opening half hour.

Furman had 123 yards on the two big plays. They had just 33 yards in the other 28 plays that they ran in the first half for an average of 1.2 yards per play. Both big plays came on third down, but outside of that the Paladins were just 1-for-7 on the important down.

The two defenses forced five straight punts before a Grizzly turnover created the first real chance of the half. McDowell had a miscommunication with White and threw an interception that was returned 34 yards inside the Montana red zone.

Furman would convert with a rushing touchdown to take their first lead of the game at 21-20 with 6:22 to play in the third. It was the first second half deficit for Montana since the loss to Northern Arizona on Sep. 23.

The Grizzlies hit a big play on a screen to Fontes for a 24-yard gain into Furman territory. They would advance to the 25-yard line again, but were stopped on third and short and missed a second field goal to give the ball back to the Paladins.

“We moved the ball down to the 25 or 30 a bunch and then just stalled out,” Hauck said. “We have to figure out how we’re going to get the rest of the way in the end zone there. I think if you look at the yardage totals, 356 is not a bad outing but a lot of it is between the 30s. We had some good field position because the special teams were good, we controlled field position with that.”

The teams traded several more punts, and Travis Benham was able to pin Furman on their own three-yard line early in the fourth. The defense then forced a three-and-out, forcing the Paladins to punt

Bergen caught it at the Furman 41-yard line in the middle of the field, but he had space in front of him. He quickly made his way to the left sideline, picking up blocks along the way. He hit a burst of speed as he entered Montana territory. He raced down the sideline for his second return touchdown of the game to give Montana the lead back.

They went for two, and McDowell found Racanelli for a one-handed grab to make it 28-21 Grizzlies with under 10 minutes to play.

“We were mixing up the return. They were overplaying our other return,” Hauck said. “We stuck them once on that for about 15 yards into the boundary. On that play, we got to call it to the wide field and he had more space. There were three excellently executed blocks on that play where guys had the chance to put hands on backs and block in the back, and they did not do it. They had tremendous discipline, and off he went.”

The Paladins picked up a first down with a pass interference penalty on the next drive to keep the drive going. They went for it on fourth down at midfield and picked up another conversion. The defense stepped up, and a big tackle for loss by Wilson moved them into third and long where Walker was able to break up a pass.

Montana would punt it back to Furman, and the Paladins hit on a pass play to move it into Grizzly territory as they looked to tie the game up with a score. The Grizzly defense stopped them on three straight plays, and on a deep fourth down pass Trajon Cotton pulled down an interception to give the ball back to Montana.

The Griz were forced into a three-and-out, and Furman had one final chance. They drove into Montana territory with some quick passes, making it down to the 13 after a pass interference penalty. Montana stopped them three straight times, setting up a fourth down with Furman’s hopes on the line.

A blitz nearly got home, but Huff’s desperation pass was hauled in at the back of the end zone to tie the game and force overtime.

The Grizzlies received the ball first in the extra period and picked up a quick first down on a pair of runs. McDowell then hit White on a slant route across the middle for a 13-yard score to make it 35-28. It’s his fourth score of the season and second in the playoffs.

On Furman’s first play, Gubner broke through the line and brought down Wayne Anderson Jr. for a five yard loss. The Paladins looked to the end zone on the next play, but Walker broke up another pass to set up 3rd-and-15.

Huff threw sideline for what looked to be a 13-yard gain, but Trevin Gradney knocked it out of the receiver’s hands. On fourth down, it was again Gradney’s pass breakup that clinched victory for the Grizzlies to advance them to the FCS semifinals.

Bergen will be remembered as the hero of the night, and the replays of his returns will likely be played on repeat for decades to come in Missoula, but Hauck was quick to point out following the game that it took excellent blocking from 10 other Grizzlies to make it possible.

“Junior is a fabulous returner, as good as there is in the country, but those other 10 guys out there really work their tails off for him and for the Grizzlies,” Hauck said. “They were great. It’s important to them, and they did a nice job with it. There’s always one, the returners got to have somebody because they have the same number of guys on the field, and I like the matchup. The kicker or safety doesn’t get him down very often.”

Montana will appear in their first semifinal since 2009 after the 2011 appearance was vacated. Montana won that game 24-17, in another entry in the all-time classic games played inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium, over Appalachian State.

They will await their opponent as No. 3 South Dakota hosts North Dakota State on Saturday afternoon. Montana will face the winner on either Dec. 15 or 16.

“I’m excited to watch that game because I think those are two very good football teams, that goes without saying. They are going to fight it out, should be a heck of a game in the Dakota Dome, and as far as us I hope we get to play next Saturday,” Hauck said. “I really hope we get a day game because our people from east of the mountains have a hard time getting here on Friday night. I hope everybody can come in, sell this thing out, enjoy it, and I hope we can get a big win and get to the championship next weekend.”