MISSOULA — In perhaps the biggest Brawl of them all, Montana imposed its will. Now the Grizzlies can finally call themselves Big Sky Conference champions again.
No. 3 Montana ruled the day in all three phases on the way to a 37-7 rout of archrival and No. 4-ranked Montana State in the 122nd edition of the Brawl of the Wild on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
With the victory, the Griz won the outright Big Sky title — their first conference crown since 2009 — and strengthened their resume to perhaps earn the No. 2 seed for the upcoming FCS playoffs. Montana finished the regular season with a 10-1 overall record and a 7-1 mark in the Big Sky. MSU finished 8-3 overall and 6-2 in the league.
"That was something," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. "It was an ass-kicking, let's call it what it is. I'm proud of our football team, I'm proud of our assistant coaches. Brent Pease did an unbelievable job calling it today. I'm proud of our football team. I love this team, like I do most of our teams, but this team is special."
Per tradition, the Grizzlies paraded the Great Divide Trophy across the field, as well as the Big Sky championship plaque, for the 27,178 fans on hand and now own a 74-42-5 overall edge in the longstanding rivalry series.
Montana jumped out to a three-score advantage. Running back Eli Gillman capped the game’s first drive with a 4-yard touchdown run, putting the Griz ahead 7-0 with 8:50 left in the opening quarter. QB Clifton McDowell made it 14-0 with a 4-yard TD run of his own on their next possession. A 40-yard field goal by Nico Ramos gave UM a 17-0 advantage midway through the second.
Desperate for points late in the half, the Bobcats called a late timeout to try to set up a fourth-down Hail Mary play. But Sean Chambers was sacked with one second remaining on the clock. MSU’s Jon Johnson then was flagged for roughing the kicker on a 48-yard try by the Griz, setting up a 33-yard try that Ramos made for a 20-0 lead at the break.
The Bobcats finally got on the board at the outset of the second half with a five-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 19-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Mellott to Ty McCullouch. But the Grizzlies answered immediately with a 20-yard TD pass from McDowell to Junior Bergen – following a big kickoff return by Bergen — to make the score 27-7 early in the third quarter.
Ramos made it 30-7 with his third field goal late in the third. The Bobcats did nothing on their next three possessions, and Griz running back Nick Ostmo provided the dagger with a 64-yard touchdown gallop right up the middle to make it 37-7 with 6:50 remaining.
"We didn't come out and play the way we'd hoped to, expected to," said Bobcats coach Brent Vigen. "It's pretty clear we got beat in all three phases. Never quite got the momentum back. I thought the quick score after half gave us a shot, and then we gave up a kickoff return to midfield, and then they go and score.
"A lot of things I think we can look at. ... What could we have done better? Certainly, I think credit goes to Montana (and) how they played."
Turning point: The momentum swung early. The Griz got a bounce and the Cats missed an opportunity on the first drive of the game when Montana QB Clifton McDowell fumbled in the red zone on a hit by Montana State’s Level Price Jr. Nick Ostmo and MSU linebacker Nolan Askelson both had a shot at recovering it and fought for the ball.
The officials originally gave possession to Montana State, but after review it was clear Ostmo had recovered and the call was reversed. Two plays later Eli Gillman was in the end zone from 4 yards out and Montana led 7-0 with 8:50 left in the opening quarter.
Stat of the game: Montana’s active and aggressive 3-3-5 defense kept the Bobcats at bay throughout. The Grizzlies held Montana State to zero completions and no passing yards in the first half, and by game’s end the Bobcats had just 280 total yards, including 213 rushing yards (roughly 100 below their season average). UM also limited the Cats to a combined 1 for 14 success rate on third and fourth down.
Game balls: Montana QB Clifton McDowell (Offense). McDowell continued his stellar play, leading the Grizzlies’ offense with efficient, mistake-free command. McDowell completed 17 of 22 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown, and also added 69 rushing yards and a TD on the ground.
Montana LB Braxton Hill (Defense). The Grizzlies’ linebackers have led the way on defense all season, and Hill led the way again on Saturday. Hill tracked the ball all over the field, finishing with eight total tackles.
Montana PK Nico Ramos (Special teams). With three field goals, Ramos provided key supplemental scoring in the first quarter and was perfect on all his tries.
What’s next: Both the Grizzlies and Bobcats will wait to hear their names called for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs when the 2023 FCS championship selection show airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time on ESPNU and ESPN+.
Following Saturday’s win (and coupled with Furman’s loss to Wofford), the Grizzlies are in line for a top-two seed, which would mean a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. With three losses (all to top 10 teams), the Bobcats’ situation is less clear but they are still very much in the running for a seed and a first-round bye.