Thieving defense leads No. 7 Montana past winless Northern Colorado, 40-0

Jaxon Lee
Posted at 4:12 PM, Oct 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-30 11:44:58-04

MISSOULA — How to describe Montana’s offense in the first half Saturday against Northern Colorado? Sluggish. But behind a thieving defense, there was never any doubt for the Griz.

Returning from a bye, the No. 7-ranked Grizzlies got interception returns for touchdowns by defensive back Jaxon Lee in the first half and linebacker Braxton Hill in the second to spearhead a 40-0 victory over winless Northern Colorado at Washinton-Grizzly Stadium.

Lee’s 48-yard pick-6 gave Montana 7-0 lead early in the second quarter, and Hill’s 34-yarder essentially put the game out of reach at 26-0 with 8:17 left in the third. Aside from that, UM’s defense held UNC to just 94 total yards.

Analysis: Jay Kohn, Marty Mornhinweg examine Montana's blowout win over UNC

Montana quarterback Clifton McDowell had 81 passing yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 78 yards. True freshman Keali’I Ah Yat came off the bench and found some success in the passing game. Ah Yat, the son of former Griz All-America QB Brian Ah Yat, saw his first action of the season and threw a second-quarter TD to Junior Bergen

Running back Eli Gillman, recently named to the Jerry Rice Award watch list as one of the top freshman performers in the FCS, also had two. touchdown runs for the Grizzlies, while Sawyer Racanelli caught McDowell’s TD pass in the fourth quarter.

The Griz finished with 542 total yards, including 372 on the ground.

Turning point: With two missed field goals early — one of which was blocked — the Grizzlies’ offense struggled to find points. But UM got a big spark when defensive back Lee picked off a Jacob Sirmon pass at midfield and returned it 48 yards for a touchdown.

That score gave Montana a 7-0 advantage with 11:58 left in the second quarter. Montana’s defense continued to stifle UNC after that, and a 21-yard TD pass from Ah Yat to Bergen put the Griz up 14-0 with 1:25 left before halftime.

Stat of the game: As previously stated, Montana’s defense dominated throughout. A few numbers told the tale.

The Grizzlies held Northern Colorado to seven first downs, had six quarterback sacks and 12 tackles for loss. UNC went 1 for 17 combined on third and fourth down, and accumulated just 94 total yards.

Grizzly game balls: RB Eli Gillman (Offense). After a slow start, Montana’ offense put together a steady if unspectacular performance. Gillman seemed to get stronger as the game progressed, and finished with 106 rushing yards and those two touchdowns.

LB Riley Wilson (Defense). Lee and Hill’s interceptions will lead the highlight reel, but Wilson was devastating in UM’s blitzing defense. Wilson finished with three sacks and four tackles for loss.

What’s next: The Grizzlies, now 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the Big Sky, are home again next week when they host Sacramento State. The Hornets entered their Saturday night home against Idaho State with a 5-2 overall record, a 2-2 mark in the Big Sky and the No. 6 ranking in the STATS Perform FCS Top 25 poll.

Next week’s game is scheduled to kick off at 6 p.m. at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, and again will be broadcast on the Montana Television Network.