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Montana survives Furman, pushes into FCS semifinals for first time in 12 years

Junior Bergen
Posted at 10:51 PM, Dec 08, 2023

MISSOULA — Junior Bergen electrified the home crowd and the gritty Montana Grizzlies won an instant classic at Washington-Grizzly Stadium to advance to the FCS playoff semifinals for the first time in 12 years.

The No. 2-seeded Grizzlies overcame pesky No. 7-seed Furman 35-28 in a quarterfinal game in overtime Saturday night and advanced to the final four of the postseason, where they haven't been since the 2011season.

PHOTOS: NO. 2 MONTANA OUTLASTS NO. 7 FURMAN IN OT PLAYOFF THRILLER

Clifton McDowell threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Keelan White on Montana's first possession of overtime, then the Grizzlies' defense kept Furman off the board to survive.

Furman forced OT with a 10-play drive, capped by a 13-yard heave from Tyler Huff to 6-foot-7 tight end Mason Pline. A successful extra point tied the game — although the Paladins were lined up to go for a two-point try before a false start negated the play.

Montana will host the winner of a quarterfinal game Saturday between North Dakota State and South Dakota in next week's semifinal round, where a berth to the title game in Frisco, Texas, will be on the line.

"Sometimes games don't go as smoothly as you'd like," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. "We haven't had a close game in quite a long time. It's probably good for us to be in a game like that.

"I would say this as well: Good teams find a way to win, but great teams win when they don't have their 'A' game and they aren't playing their best. That was not out best game this season (but) we found a way to win. That is a championship effort by the Montana Grizzlies."

GRIZ POSTGAME: HAUCK, BERGEN, COTTON BREAK DOWN WIN OVER FURMAN

The Griz started fast — very fast — as Bergen began his huge night be taking the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to send Washington-Grizzly Stadium into a frenzy. But the game soon settled into a back-and-forth battle.

Furman answered on its first possession. Under pressure, QB Tyler Huff squeezed off a quick slant to Colton Hinton, who ran all the way to the 1 for a 70-yard gain to set up a short touchdown plunge by Dominic Roberto to tie it 7-7.

The Griz reclaimed the lead at 14-7 on an 8-yard scoring run by QB Clifton McDowell, but Huff scampered 53 yards untouched to the end zone to tie it 14-14 for Furman on the next possession.

Montana's defense began to settle in during the second quarter. Griz kicker Nico Ramos hit a 39-yard field goal to give UM a 17-14 advantage. Ramos later added a 28-yarder to put the Griz up 20-14 at the 8:15 mark of the second. Ramos, though, missed a 42-yarder towards the end of the quarter.

Furman punted five straight times through the second quarter and early in the third. But Micah Robinson's interception of McDowell set up another 1-yard TD run by Roberto, which gave the Paladins a 21-20 advantage with 6:22 left in the third.

As effective as Montana's defense was, Furman was equally tough by forcing field goal attempts and keeping Montana's offense out of the end zone after the first quarter. In the third, Ramos came up short on another 42-yard attempt.

Bergen lit a fire under the Griz faithful again in the fourth with a 59-yard punt return for a touchdown, giving him two special teams TDs in the same game and putting UM ahead 28-21.

Bergen now has four punt returns for touchdowns in his career, a school record.

Turning point: Trailing 21-20, Montana's Travis Benham pinned Furman on its own 3-yard line with a 53-yard punt. That proved huge, as the Paladins went three-and-out, setting up Bergen's 59-yard punt return for a touchdown that put the Griz back in front.

A two-point conversion — which receiver Sawyer Racanelli made happen with a one-handed catch — made the score 28-21 in favor of Montana in the fourth quarter, and forced the Paladins to push the game into OT on a remarkable fourth-down play late in the game.

Stat of the game: As is a recurring theme, the Grizzlies' defense was great on third-down plays throughout, but especially in the second half. UM held Furman to a 1-for-11 success rate on third down after halftime and 4 for 21 for the game.

Grizzly game balls: QB Clifton McDowell (Offense). On a night where there wasn't a whole lot happening for UM's offense, McDowell rushed for 118 yards, passed for 208 more and accounted for two TDs, negating what was a costly interception earlier.

LB Riley Wilson (Defense). Montana's linebackers were again super active, and Wilson was among the most distruptive. Wilson had five total tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss.

KR/PR Junior Bergen (Special teams). Bergen was the all-around star of the game, finishing with 99 kickoff return yards, 99 punt return yards a touchdown in each phase of the return game.

What's next: Either way, the Grizzlies (now 12-1 overall) will face a Missouri Valley Football Conference team in the semifinals next week, as North Dakota State and South Dakota square off in the quarterfinals on Saturday for a trip to Missoula.

The Grizzlies are making a trip to the semifinals for the first time since 2011, when they were defeated on the road by Sam Houston State.