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Football

Montana Grizzlies Survive Double-OT Thriller vs. North Dakota State in FCS Semifinals

Griz will face South Dakota State in FCS championship

By Frank Gogola for 406mtsports.com
Montana wide receiver Keelan White catches a pass in the FCS playoff semifinal game between the Montana Grizzlies and North Dakota State Bison on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula. BEN ALLAN SMITH, Missoulian

MISSOULA — Corbin Walker intercepted a 2-point pass attempt in the end zone and the Montana Grizzlies survived a double-overtime thriller against North Dakota State on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

The Griz punched their ticket to the FCS championship game for the first time since 2009 with the 31-29 victory in the semifinals. It was the second consecutive overtime for the Griz, who defeated the Furman Paladins 35-28 in a single overtime last week in the quarterfinals.

“Double overtime probably is how that should finish up,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “A game like that, both teams fighting their tails off. Obviously we’re ecstatic to get the victory.

“You can’t quantify this statement, but it’s one of the biggest games, the greatest games in the history of our stadium. It was a pleasure to be a part of it. Just a real privilege to be part of that game.”

NDSU scored on the first play of overtime, a 25-yard run by wildcat quarterback Cole Payton. The Griz answered on the second play of their possession when Clifton McDowell connected with Junior Bergen for a 22-yard touchdown.

Montana needed just three plays to score in the second overtime, finding the end zone on a 13-yard run by Eli Gillman, who ran on all three of the Grizzlies’ plays. Bergen then threw the 2-point pass after being face masked, and Keelan White caught the ball after it was tipped.

“It’s a play that we practice every single week,” Bergen said of the 2-point pass. “We’ve called it one time before today. I told Keelan before the play, I was like, ‘Hey, just be alive back there, be ready to go back there.’

“I saw the guy come off the edge and he grabbed my face mask and I looked up and saw Keelan and I was like, ‘Well, it’s a free play anyway, so I might as well give it a shot.’ I threw it as hard as I could and I suppose it got tipped, I couldn’t see it, I don’t know what happened. I just heard the crowd go crazy.”

White added: “We made eye contact and he just chucked it at me. It went over one guy, got tipped and just landed in my hands. It was all pure reaction.”

NDSU scored three plays later on a 2-yard rush by TK Marshall. Wide receiver RaJa Nelson’s 2-point pass was intercepted by Walker in the back right corner of the end zone, leading fans to storm the field.

“It’s something we saw them do a year ago,” Hauck said of the 2-point play. “It goes back to midseason last year I think. Our coaches did a good job of keeping that in their memory banks. Our players knew that they lined up that way, that’s probably what we were getting and we did. So, I thought we had a chance to stop it because we kind of suspected that’s what they would do.

“I was just relieved,” UM linebacker Braxton Hill added. “Then people started coming left and right. I can’t even put it into words, that feeling. I was so excited. It was such a game of ups and downs, and you just got to stay levelheaded, and I think we did that as a team and we finally got a break in overtime. I mean, it was awesome. I can’t even describe it.”

Montana finished with 284 yards of offense while giving up 345 but got a punt return touchdown by Bergen for the second week in a row to help it on the scoreboard. The Griz allowed five red zone trips but held the Bison to field goals on three of those trips, which proved to be decisive in forcing overtime.

McDowell was 16-of-30 passing for 160 yards and one touchdown. Bergen caught that score while leading the team with 59 receiving yards. Gillman ran 12 times for 49 yards and two scores.

Bison quarterback Cam Miller was 9-of-22 passing for 157 yards and one touchdown. Eli Green had five catches for 98 yards and one score. TaMerik Williams led the ground attack with 52 yards on 11 carries.

With the offenses struggling, a 47-yard punt return touchdown by Bergen electrified the stadium early in the fourth quarter. It was his third punt return for a score this season and his second in the past two weeks. His five career touchdowns on punt returns is a tied-Big Sky career record.

“Today it was (Sawyer Racanelli) and he had a huge block and it kind of sprung me free, so appreciate him for that,” Bergen said, adding: “The ball was kind of towards our right side and we had return left on. They were kind of fanned out to the field, so I kind of just stopped, cut it up a little bit and I was going to cut it all the way back, but I was like, ‘No, just trust it.’ Thankfully I did and all those guys got their blocks and were able to get out.”

NDSU coach Matt Entz noted: “We missed tackles. They do a great job. I know coach Hauck is their special teams coordinator and he does a great job. He’s confident. They’re confident. When you know you have a kid like that with that capabilities and talent back there, it’s amazing how hard the other 10 kids play on that unit. If you’d have told me we gave up 16 points in regulation and didn’t win, I would’ve thought you were joking.”

After Bergen’s return, Ramos missed the extra point, keeping it a seven-point margin at 16-9 with 11:22 remaining in the game. The Griz then forced a three-and-out as NDSU false started for the fifth time and dropped a pass that would have been a first down for the second time.

Montana forced another three-and-out but North Dakota State’s Kaedin Steindorf faked the punt and ran for 18 yards and the first down. Montana’s TJ Rausch was penalized for a late hit, the first penalty of the game on the Griz, putting NDSU at the UM 43-yard line.

Miller then connected with Braylon Henderson for a 20-yard gain. He fumbled on the next play but NDSU recovered. Walker was called for pass interference on the ensuing play. Two plays later, Miller hit Green for a 9-yard score. The extra point tied the game 16-16 with 51 seconds left in regulation.

The wild close to the game was the opposite of the first half, when possessions were at a premium. NDSU won the toss, elected to receive and scored on its opening drive with a 30-yard field goal by Griffin Crosa. That drive included Green corralling a one-handed catch against safety TraJon Cotton in one-on-one coverage for a 35-yard gain. He couldn’t repeat the one-handed grab in the end zone on third down, leading to the field goal just 3:17 into the game.

After punting once, Montana showed its ability to put together a 16-play, 87-yard drive in which the Griz converted three third downs. Aaron Fontes caught a 7-yard pass, White grabbed a 31-yard catch while being held and McDowell avoided a blindside sack on the third, third down to scramble for 9 yards. Two plays later, Gillman took a toss sweep right for a 3-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead with 11:55 left in the second quarter.

The Griz looked to be in position to make it a two-score game by advancing to the NDSU 4-yard line thanks to three plays of 15 or more yards. However, a negative run by Gillman and back-to-back sacks on McDowell forced them to settle for a 46-yard field goal. Grant Glasgow made that kick, his first attempt since Oct. 28, giving the Griz a 10-3 lead with 2:55 left in the first half.

North Dakota State attempted to tie the game on the final series of the second quarter by marching to the UM 17-yard line when Green converted a fourth-and-2 with a 17-yard wide receiver reverse run. Two shots to the end zone came up empty and Crosa split the uprights with a 35-yard field goal, leaving the Griz with a 10-6 halftime lead.

Montana cornerback Ronald Jackson Jr. (2) celebrates the Grizzlies’ victory during the FCS semifinal playoff game between Montana and NDSU at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023.BEN ALLAN SMITH Missoulian

Montana gave the Bison prime field position when McDowell threw an incompletion on a fourth-and-2 from the NDSU 44-yard line early in the third quarter. The Bison moved 36 yards in nine plays, but Montana buckled down in the red zone to hold them to a 38-yard field. That cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 10-9 with 5:09 left in the third quarter.

On the ensuing possession, Montana kept the drive alive by converting a pair of third downs. McDowell evaded a rush to throw a 5-yard pass to White for a toe-tap catch on the sideline. He then escaped pressure to scramble for 10 yards and another first down. The Griz later converted a fourth-and-1 at the NDSU 25-yard line on a 6-yard pass to tight end Evan Shafer.

However, a fumble backed them up for a longer field goal and Nico Ramos missed a 45-yarder with 12:38 remaining in the game. Loshiaka Roques was credited with a block on the kick. The Griz defense hunkered down by forcing a three-and-out that included an intentional grounding on third down.

That set up a punt to Bergen, which kicked off a crazy finish.

“Nobody likes playing in overtime, so coming up with a win is just awesome,” White said. “Just pure relief and excitement and just feeling blessed really.”

The Griz return to the FCS final for the first time since 2009. They will face defending champion South Dakota State, who stomped Albany in an FCS semifinal, 59-0 on Friday night. The FCS championship will take place on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas.

A photo gallery from the game can be seen here.

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