MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies are back.
That’s not a hopeful statement, normally uttered after a big win early in the season over the past decade-plus. It’s a factual statement that the Griz stamped in emphatic fashion on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The third-ranked Griz dominated fourth-ranked Montana State from start to finish in the 122nd rendition of the Brawl of the Wild. They led wire-to-wire in a 37-7 victory that netted them their first Big Sky championship since 2009, doing so in front of an announced stadium-record crowd of 27,178 fans.
“What a great job by our players, our coaches getting ready to play this game, win in a demanding fashion and take the Big Sky championship,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “It was a great performance by our team today. We’re very, very excited to get the 74th win over our rival. I’m proud of my football team. I love my guys. Just an awesome effort today.”
The victory should have the Griz in line for the No. 2 seed and home field advantage through the semifinals of the FCS playoffs when the bracket is unveiled Sunday morning. Furman, ranked No. 2 this week, was upset by Wofford, 19-13, while the Treasure State rivalry game was in the first half.
UM completed the regular season with a 10-1 record overall and a 7-1 mark in Big Sky play. The Griz have won seven straight games after losing their league opener at Northern Arizona, their longest win streak since 2009.
That year, they won their seventh title in as many seasons under Hauck in his first stint from 2003-09. He now owns eight of the Big Sky-record 19 conference championships won by the Grizzlies.
MSU dropped to 8-3 overall and 6-2 in Big Sky play but will have to wait until Sunday to see if it earns a first-round bye in the postseason. The Cats were eyeing their second straight league crown as the winner of the game was in line to be the outright champ, the first time in series history it was the case.
“Not a lot of good things to say,” Montana State head coach Brent Vigen said. “We didn’t come out and play the way we certainly would have expected to, hoped to. That’s pretty clear. We got beat in all three phases. … A lot of things I think we can look at, what could we have done better.
“Certainly the credit goes to Montana and how they play. They played better than us today, and that’s evident by the results, scoreboard, everything. This game does not end our season. .. We got to go back to work. We got to look at this film and say what could we, should we have done better and get off the mat and go after that next opportunity.”
Hauck, who returned to Missoula in 2018, improved to 7-5 in the rivalry game and 2-3 in his second stint. Vigen, hired in 2021 to be the head man in Bozeman, dropped to 1-2 in the series and is 0-2 playing in the Garden City.
Hauck improved to 126-35 overall, increasing his first-place mark for all-time wins among Big Sky coaches. He also moved to 74-19 in Big Sky games, tying former Portland State and Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh for second place.
Montana upped its record to 7-1 in games featuring two teams ranked in the top five at Wa-Griz, which opened in 1986. Hauck has been the head coach in five of those contests and pushed his mark to 4-1 in those matchups.
UM scored on seven of 12 drives while it rolled up 430 yards of offense, picked up 21 first downs and converted seven of 14 third downs. The Griz forced MSU into four turnovers on downs and an interception in 11 drives, limited the Cats to 280 yards and held them to 1 of 14 on third and fourth downs.
“We didn’t get into the type of third downs we needed to,” Vigen said. “When you’re chasing points, went for it on fourth-down situations that we probably typically wouldn’t and we weren’t successful.”
Griz quarterback Clifton McDowell finished 17-of-22 passing for 200 yards and one touchdown, a 20-yard strike to wide receiver Junior Bergen, who had a game-high 91 yards on six catches. Nick Ostmo ran for 85 yards and McDowell added 69 to lead the Griz ground game that racked up 202 yards on 40 totes.
“He may have had games where he did certain things better this year,” Hauck said of McDowell, “but in terms of running it, throwing it, managing the game, he’s made great progress and today was his best game in my estimation without watching the film.”
UM held MSU’s vaunted rushing attack to 213 yards on 35 carries, well below the Cats’ average of 301.4 yards per game, second in the FCS. Quarterback Tommy Mellott piled up 108 yards on 10 carries and running back Julius Davis totaled 107 yards on 14 rushes. MSU was 4-of-16 passing for 67 yards.
“We don’t want to give up a yard, but it was pretty good, it was pretty physical,” Hauck said of UM’s rush defense. “I think the ball carriers were getting whacked at the end of runs pretty good. I believe that took its toll.”
Montana scored on the opening drive of the game when running back Eli Gillman punched in a 4-yard touchdown run. The Griz picked up six first downs and converted three third downs on the 15-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 6:10. McDowell connected with Aaron Fontes for 14 yards on third-and-6, McDowell escaped a sack and ran for 7 yards on third-and-6, and he picked up 3 yards on a third-and-3, fumbling the ball, which UM recovered.
The Griz then forced a three-and-out on MSU’s first offensive drive and marched 70 yards in seven plays over 2:52 to take a 14-0 lead with 4:21 left in the first quarter. McDowell ran in a 4-yard QB keeper for the touchdown two plays after he connected with Bergen for 38 yards.
“That first series, their offense against our defense, was not good,” Vigen said. “They came out and they converted a couple of early third downs. The number of tackles we would of missed on that particular drive would of been more than usual for us.
“To flip it around, we went three-and-out. That sequence doesn’t set the tone the way you want to. It doesn’t end the game by any means, but it doesn’t set the tone the way you wanted to. That proved to be a tough way to start.”
MSU looked to be in prime position to get on the board the next possession after Mellott broke off a 46-yard run to the UM 14-yard line. The Cats false started on first down and Griz linebacker Riley Wilson dropped Davis for a 7-yard loss on third down. That forced a 42-yard field goal attempt that Casey Kautzman missed wide left with 0:23 left in the quarter.
The Griz made it three scores in three drives and a 17-0 lead when Nico Ramos drilled a 40-yard field goal to end a nine-play, 52-yard drive that took 5:52 off the clock. The Griz did get down down to the MSU 15-yard line after a trick play, but holding and false start penalties pushed them back.
In need of a score, MSU ripped off big runs again to get to the UM 23-yard line. Griz defensive tackle Alex Gubner and linebacker Levi Janacaro came up with tackles for loss on back-to-back plays. MSU went for it on fourth-and-5 from UM’s 27-yard line and Mellott threw an incomplete pass in the end zone.
After the Griz went three-and-out for the first time, they forced a turnover on downs when Kale Edwards took down Sean Chambers for UM’s first sack of the game. With one second left in the first half, Grant Glasgow missed a 48-yard field goal but MSU was penalized for roughing the kicker. Ramos followed by making a 33-yard field goal for a 20-0 halftime advantage.
Montana State gained some life when it scored on the opening drive of the second half. Mellott found Ty McCullouch for a 19-yard touchdown three plays after he ripped off a 30-yard run. That was the Cats’ first completion on five pass attempts. It cut the Griz lead to 20-7 with 12:59 left in the third quarter.
UM answered that touchdown in a major way as Bergen ripped off a 49-yard kickoff return to the 50-yard line. Bergen then ended the six-play drive with a 20-yard touchdown catch from McDowell, giving the Griz a 27-7 lead.
“If we can back that score up with a three-and-out or stop, I think that momentum is on our side,” Vigen said. “The scoreboard wasn’t on our side, but the momentum would have been on our side at that point in time. We didn’t do that.
“Pretty thick air today, and that’s one of the few (kickoffs) that Brendan (Hall) hasn’t kicked out (for a touchback), but nonetheless, we got to cover it. We didn’t, they get out to midfield and they followed it up with a score. Whatever piece we maybe grabbed there, we gave it right back.”
Ramos added a 29-yard field goal with 0:03 left in the third quarter to push Montana’s advantage to 30-7. With MSU in desperation mode, Griz cornerback Trevin Gradney picked off Mellott with 7:45 left in the game. Two plays later, Ostmo bursted for a 64-yard touchdown run to put UM up 37-7 with 6:50 left.
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