MISSOULA — Montana found itself in a season-opening battle Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium — until quarterback Clifton McDowell provided a much-needed spark.
McDowell, a transfer from Central Arkansas, led a quick third-quarter touchdown drive and then scored on a fourth-and-goal plunge 6:34 remaining as Montana pulled away from plucky Butler for a 35-20 win. It was the Grizzlies’ 20th straight home-opening victory dating back to 2004.
UM receiver Junior Bergen set an explosive early tone. On the third play of the game, Bergen caught quick pass from quarterback Sam Vidlak and raced 54 yards for a touchdown and the No. 14-ranked Griz took a 7-0 advantage just 55 seconds in.
Still, the Griz were in a fight leading 21-20 with 4:48 left in the third quarter after Lucas Koslowski intercepted Vidlak. That turnover led to a Bret Bushka touchdown pass to Ryan Lezon on fourth and 2 to make it a one-point game.
Turning point: After Vidlak was picked off for the second time, McDowell took over at QB and the Grizzlies immediately answered. McDowell ran for 10 and 16 yards on consecutive plays, then handed to Eli Gillman who scored from 24 yards tip-toeing the sideline. That put the Grizzlies ahead 28-20 with 3:41 left in the third.
Cornerback Trevin Gradney made an athletic interception of Bushka on a pass down the field on the first play of Butler’s ensuing drive. The Griz defense continued to stand tall — notably when safety Nash Fouch came up to make huge hit on Jack Bill on Bulldogs' sweep play early in the fourth quarter.
Stat of the game: Montana owned a huge disparity in rushing yards, outgaining non-scholarship Butler on the ground 230 to 41. The Grizzlies averaged 5.1 yards per carry with Gillman leading the way with 119 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown.
Griz game balls: QB Clifton McDowell (offense). In need of a jolt leading by just one point, McDowell entered and used his legs to add a new dimension to UM’s offense. McDowell finished with 80 yards on 11 carries. His short TD run in the fourth made it 35-20 and Montana could breathe easier.
CB Trevin Gradney (defense). Gradney, a Billings West product, intercepted Bushka to snuff out a Butler possession in the third. He then broke up a Bushka pass in single coverage down the sideline to force a punt with UM ahead 28-20. Gradney’s effort in coverage proved crucial in the second half.
PK Grant Glasgow (special teams). Glasgow, a redshirt freshman transfer from Kansas, made a pair of field goals, including a 49-yarder that put the Grizzlies ahead 13-3 with 9:43 to go before halftime.
What’s next: The Grizzlies (1-0) hit the road next week to St. George Utah to face Utah Tech for a 7 p.m. contest. Montana and Utah Tech (formerly known as Dixie State) have met just once before, when the Griz won 31-14 in a game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium during the 2021 season.