MISSOULA — Last week, Montana coach Bobby Hauck described playoff overtime as "excruciating." But it has also been very good to his surging Grizzlies.
In a Texas-sized thriller, Montana again survived overtime to punch its ticket to the FCS national championship game. The No. 2-seeded Griz beat perennial power North Dakota State 31-29 in double overtime Saturday in front of a Washington-Grizzly Stadium playoff-record crowd of 26,544 to advance to the title game for the first time since 2009.
Montana, now 13-1 and a winner of 10 straight games, will play defending national champion and top-seeded South Dakota State (14-0) for the championship on Jan. 7 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, at noon Mountain time. The game will air on ABC.
“Monumental win in program history,” head coach Bobby Hauck said. “It’s one of the biggest games in stadium history, if not the biggest. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s certainly one of the top five games in stadium history and just an all-time great game.”
“It feels pretty dang good,” Hauck added. “What a game, just what a game. So much went on in that game and it was so hard fought. The defenses battled, the offenses battled, the special teams battled.”
The Grizzlies prevailed in another wild contest with a familiar formula — timely bend-but-don't-break defense and a collection of clutch plays by superstar Junior Bergen. And overtime was again the route to victory after beating Furman at home in last week's quarterfinal round.
Here's how OT played out:
Montana won the coin toss and elected to play defense first. Then Cole Payton scored on NDSU’s first play of overtime on a 25-yard run up the middle. The extra-point by Griffin Crosa put the Bison up 23-16.
On Montana first OT possession, quarterback Clifton McDowell slung the ball to Bergen down the sideline, and Bergen tip-toed the boundary for a 22-yard touchdown. Nico Ramos’ point-after kick tied the game again 23-23.
By rule, the Griz had the ball first in the second overtime. Eli Gillman found the end zone on the third play of the possession on a 13-yard run. Also by rule, Montana had to attempt a two-point play, and that's when things got positively crazy.
The Griz ran a trick play with Bergen throwing a pass to the end zone. Bergen was under duress, got face-masked by an NDSU defender but managed to throw the ball into traffic, which was deflected into the hands of Keelan White for a successful try and a 31-23 lead.
The Bison countered with a TD of their own on a 2-yard run by T.K. Marshall. But their two-point try, which was a run-pass option by Marshall, was intercepted by Corbin Walker in the end zone and that's where the game was decided.
Overtime was emblematic of the battle that ensued between Montana and North Dakota State all day. And Bergen had his fingerprints all over the Grizzlies' victory.
The Griz were clinging to a 10-9 lead in the fourth quarter and struggling to extend their advantage when the Bison did the one thing you can't do — they kicked the ball to Bergen.
Bergen gathered the ball off the foot of NDSU punter Kaedin Steindorf, cut to his left, slipped past a couple pursuers and ran down the left sideline with an escort of blockers around him for a 47-yard touchdown.
It was Bergen's third touchdown in the return game in the past two weeks, and gave Montana a 16-9 lead (the extra-point try was missed). It sent the crowd into a frenzy and served as a game-changing moment.
Defensively, the Grizzlies held NDSU out of the end zone until the fourth quarter and limited its impact on third downs. The Bison struggled with penalties, drops and overthrows from quarterback Cam Miller.
The Bison didn't go away, though. In the late stages of the fourth quarter, Steindorf ran for 18 yards on a fake punt on fourth down. Montana's T.J. Rausch was flagged for a late hit out of bounds, and then Miller found Braylon Henderson for 20 yards to move the ball to the Grizzlies' 27.
A pass interference call put NDSU on the 12-yard line with under 2:00 left, and two plays later Miller connected with Eli Green for a 9-yard TD pass, the Bison's first touchdown of the day. An extra-point kick by Crosa tied the game 16-16 with 51 seconds left.
From the start, it seemed the game would be hotly contested. The Bison took the opening drive down the field and got a 29-yard field goal from Crosa to take a 3-0 lead.
Montana claimed a 7-3 advantage early in the second quarter on a 3-yard touchdown run by Gillman. That capped a drive that saw the Griz convert three third-down plays, including one on an acrobatic 31-yard catch by White.
Penalties hurt NDSU. At one point in the first quarter the Bison were called for three consecutive false starts, and in the second quarter an offensive pass interference foul nullified a big gain into Griz territory on third down.
One of NDSU's false-start penalties was fortunate because it nullified a blocked punt by the Grizzlies' Isiah Childs.
Nevertheless, Montana made the score 10-3 with 2:55 left in the first half as Grant Glasgow booted a 46-yard field goal, salvaging a drive that had pushed all the way to the NDSU 3-yard line before moving backwards.
The Bison cut UM's lead to 10-6 on the last play of the half as Crosa split the uprights on a 35-yard field goal try.
At the midpoint of the third quarter, Crosa hit another field goal — his third of the day — this time from 37 yards, to pare Montana's lead to 10-9.
Montana got into Bison territory again, but NDSU's Jake Kava forced a fumble from Gillman on a misdirection play that the Griz recovered to avert disaster. Still, the play resulted in a 14-yard loss and Ramos was then short on a 45-yard field goal try.
Turning point: The fake-punt call by the Bison was not only gutsy but it was fortuitous, and it led to NDSU's first touchdown of the game. Montana still had 44 seconds to work with in regulation but was forced to punt.
That sent the game to overtime — UM's second straight OT playoff game and NDSU's second in three weeks — and produced one of the wildest finishes in Griz playoff history.
Stat of the game: There's no doubt that penalties played a major factor, especially for North Dakota State. The Bison were flagged nine times for 60 yards, which included a staggering six false start penalties. The home crowd again played a role.
Montana incurred just two penalties for 30 yards, but they were both in key moments toward the end of the game, including Rausch's late-hit out of bounds.
Grizzly game balls: WR Junior Bergen (Offense). Aside from his special teams theatrics, Bergen caught six passes for 59 yards and an OT touchdown, and also had 21 yards rushing. His miraculous two-point conversion throw makes him 4 for 4 on passes this season.
LB Braxton Hill (Defense). Hill was as active as ever among the Grizzlies' stout linebacker group, and finished with 10 tackles (three solo) with half a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss.
PR Junior Bergen (Special Teams). Two game balls? Why not. Bergen's punt return was the fifth of his career, which extended his school record, and gave the Grizzlies an all-important seven-point lead in the fourth quarter.
What's next: For Montana, it's a long-sought return trip to the national title game, where it will try to win the program's first title since 2009 against South Dakota State. The Grizzlies have lost their past three title games, in 2004, 2008 and 2009 when the championship was played in Chattanooga, Tenn.
NDSU's season ends as it was pursuing a 10th FCS title. But it also marks the end of an era, as coach Matt Entz moves on to Southern Cal to serve as linebackers coach with the added title of assistant head coach for defense.