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Winter wonderland: Montana smashes Delaware, moves on to FCS quarterfinals

Clifton McDowell
Posted at 10:40 PM, Dec 02, 2023

MISSOULA — Washington-Grizzly Stadium was a wintry playoff wonderland for Montana on Saturday night.

The No. 2-seeded Grizzlies took care of business with a 49-19 second-round victory in the at-times driving snow versus visiting Delaware to advance to the quarterfinals, where they will host seventh-seeded Furman next week.

PHOTOS: MONTANA TOPS DELAWARE IN SNOWY FCS PLAYOFF GAME

The win improved UM's record to 11-1, its most wins in a season since 2009. FBS-bound Delaware, playing in its final FCS postseason game, finished its season with a 9-4 record.

Nick Ostmo
Montana running back Nick Ostmo turns up the field during a second-round FCS playoff game against Delaware on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.

Making his FCS playoff debut, Griz quarterback Clifton McDowell remained unflappable despite throwing an interception on UM's first possession. McDowell accounted for three touchdowns and managed the elements in the first half to help the Grizzlies build a big cushion.

Montana led 16-0 early in the second quarter after a Nico Ramos field goal, a 27-yard touchdown run by Xavier Harris and a 35-yard TD run by Nick Ostmo.

The advantage grew to 35-12 by halftime as McDowell threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Keelan White and and later ran one in from 20 yards. Ramos added another field goal in that stretch, and the Griz also scored a safety on an air-mailed punt snap that went out of the back of the end zone.

GRIZ POSTGAME: HAUCK, MCDOWELL, LEE BREAK DOWN WIN OVER DELAWARE

If the nail hadn't already been driven into the coffin by then, safety Jaxon Lee returned a fumble 48 yards for another touchdown early in the third quarter to put Montana up 42-12.

Delaware quarterback Ryan O'Connor put together a gutsy performance, accounting for 197 yards and had a hand in three TDs but it wasn't nearly enough for the Blue Hens.

Junior Bergen
Montana's Junior Bergen runs with the football during a second-round FCS playoff game against Delaware on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.

Turning point: Leading 3-0 in the first quarter following a 43-yard field goal by Nico Ramos, the Grizzlies made a huge special teams play when Sawyer Racanelli blocked a punt by Ryan Kost to set up their offense at the 27 yard line.

On the next play, Harris took a handoff to the right, shed a tackle and found the end zone from 27-yards to help put Montana ahead 10-0. It was an uphill climb for Delaware from there.

Stat of the game: Again, Montana's defense stood tallest on the "money downs," holding Delaware to a 5-for-16 success rate on third down and 3 for 7 on fourth downs. Five of the Blue Hens' 23 first downs came by way of penalty.

Grizzly game balls: QB Clifton McDowell (Offense). McDowell, who also threw a second-half TD pass to tight end Evan Shafer, had 186 passing yards with two touchdowns and rushed for 51 and another score in a balanced effort.

DL Alex Gubner (Defense). Gubner, the Big Sky Conference defensive player of the year, doesn't light up the stat sheet but his presence is always felt in the interior line. That was no different Saturday, and he was a thorn in Delaware's side all night.

WR Sawyer Racanelli (Special teams). Racanelli has made some big plays on offense this season but his fully extended blocked punt made a huge impact early helping the Griz take a two-score lead that the Blue Hens couldn't come back from.

What's next: Montana will welcome Furman to Washington-Grizzly Stadium for a quarterfinal game, which will be played on Friday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. The Paladins (10-2) beat Chattanooga 26-7 in the second-round on Saturday. The winner will earn a berth in the semifinals.

The Grizzlies and Paladins have met just once before, and it was a significant game in Montana football history. The Griz defeated Furman 13-6 in the 2001 Division I-AA national championship game in Chattanooga, Tenn., the second of the program's two national titles.