MISSOULA — The Montana football team has had a season to remember. Since stumbling to a 28-14 loss to Northern Arizona in the fourth game of the season, the Grizzlies have won 10 consecutive games, including three home playoff games to book a trip to the FCS national championship game in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 7.
It's been a season for the history books, with Montana winning the outright Big Sky Conference championship and advancing to the national championship for the first time since 2009. The Grizzlies have gone undefeated at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, where they trounced rival Montana State and defeated Delaware, Furman and North Dakota State in the FCS playoffs — the latter two wins coming in thrilling overtime games.
Relive Montana's incredible season — from the opening win against Butler to the beatdown of the Bobcats and beyond — in the videos and links below.
The Griz got a slight scare from Butler in their season-opening game, but quarterback Clifton McDowell provided a spark to help UM to the 35-20 win, its 20th consecutive home-opening victory. McDowell had 80 rushing yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, while Eli Gillman carried the ball 19 times for 119 yards and a touchdown.
On their first road trip of the season, the Griz made quick work of Utah Tech on their way to a 43-13 win. Montana forced four turnovers in the game, with Trevin Gradney, Nash Fouch and TraJon Cotton each grabbing interceptions. Gradney also forced a fumble that was recovered by Ryan Tirrell.
With Helena native and UFC superstar Sean O'Malley in attendance, Division II Ferris State gave the Griz all they could handle, but Montana's defense shut out Ferris State after halftime to help preserve the 17-10 win. The Griz linebackers starred all night, and Braxton Hill led the way with 15 total tackles (8 solo) and two sacks.
Montana's offense managed just 12 total first downs and quarterback Sam Vidlak was sacked five times as the Grizzlies suffered their only loss of the regular season, 28-14 at Northern Arizona. Trevin Gradney caught his fourth interception of the season, but it was an overall disappointing Griz performance that proved to be the turning point of their season.
The Griz got back in the column with the 28-20 win over Idaho State at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Clifton McDowell got the start at quarterback and put together an efficient game: 160 passing yards and a touchdown and 66 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Montana's recipe for the rest of the season started to become evident in the 31-23 win at UC Davis, as quarterback Clifton McDowell led a balanced offense, the defense came up with big plays and Junior Bergen swung momentum in the return game. McDowell passed for 243 yards and three touchdowns — two to Aaron Fontes — and the defense made big plays throughout the second half, capped by Ryder Meyer recovering a fourth-quarter fumble to help seal the game. Bergen had 126 return yards in the game.
Clifton McDowell and Junior Bergen connected for a 76-yard touchdown in the first quarter as the Griz built a 20-0 lead and then held off a furious Idaho rally for the 23-21 win. Montana's defense had six sacks in the game, including Kale Edwards' game clincher where he forced a fumble that was recovered by Levi Janacaro on the Vandals' final offensive play of the game.
Jaxon Lee and Braxton Hill returned interceptions for touchdowns as the Griz defense shut out Northern Colorado in the 40-0 win. All told, Montana's defense held the Bears to seven first downs and just 94 total yards. The Griz had six sacks — three by Riley Wilson — and 12 tackles for loss.
Montana's victory blueprint was in full force against visiting Sacramento State, as quarterback Clifton McDowell again led an efficient Griz offense and the defense put the clamps on the Hornets in the 34-7 win. McDowell had 218 yards and two touchdowns through the air — one TD going to Keelan White on a program-record 97-yard pass and catch — and another 83 yards on the ground, while the defense limited Sac State's high-powered offense to just 119 passing yards.
The Griz avoided a classic trap game at Portland State, cruising to a 34-10 win over the Vikings. Montana racked up 231 rushing yards in the game, led by Eli Gillman with 97 yards and 17 carries and Clifton McDowell with 72 yards on eight carries.
In one of the most highly anticipated games in the Brawl of the Wild series, Montana ruled the day in a 37-7 rout of rival Montana State. The Griz defense held the Bobcats to zero completions and no passing yards in the first half and just 280 total yards for the game. McDowell passed for 200 yards and a touchdown and ran for another 69 yards and a score. The win gave Montana its first outright Big Sky Conference championship since 2009.
Montana 49, Delaware 19, FCS playoffs second round
After securing the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye for the FCS playoffs, Montana blasted Delaware 49-19 in the second round. Clifton McDowell had another impressive game with 186 passing yards and two touchdowns to go along with 51 rushing yards and another score. Jaxon Lee scored another defensive touchdown, returning a fumble 48 yards to the end zone to help propel the Grizzlies to the quarterfinal round.
Montana 35, Furman 28 (OT), FCS playoff quarterfinal
Junior Bergen was an all-around star for the Griz against Furman, finishing with 99 kickoff return yards, 99 punt return yards and a touchdown in each phase of the return game to help Montana to a thrilling 35-28 overtime win over the Paladins. Clifton McDowell threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Keelan White in overtime, and the Griz defense kept Furman off the board to send Montana to the semifinals.
Montana 31, North Dakota State 29 (2OT), FCS playoff semifinal
In what might be the greatest game in Washington-Grizzly Stadium history, Montana took down mighty North Dakota State in a 31-29 double-overtime instant classic to punch a ticket to the FCS national championship game. Junior Bergen added to his burgeoning legacy with another punt return touchdown — his program-record fifth career punt return TD — a receiving touchdown and the game-clinching two-point conversion throw.