(Montana Sports Information) When Bobby Hauck returned as head coach of the Montana Grizzlies, fans dreamed of a moment like the celebration that played out inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Saturday evening. Hauck promised a return to the top of the FCS and the dominance Montana had become so accustomed to during a legendary run through the 90s and 2000s.

In the time between Hauck’s stints, a monster grew to the east. North Dakota State became the national powerhouse that all other schools looked up to as the team to chase. The Bison won nine national championships from 2010 to 2021. Simply put, they were dominant for the entire decade.

It made it the perfect matchup in the semifinal with a ticket to Frisco on the line. The team of the 2000s vs. the team of the 2010s. The two biggest programs at this level of college football, playing in the Mecca of FCS Football in front of a playoff record crowd.

The game promised to be a classic. The teams delivered with an all-timer that saw Junior Bergen cement a legendary status that may eclipse all others in a long, long history of Grizzly greats. Bergen returned a punt for a score for the second straight week and caught an overtime touchdown, but the most magical moment of the game and the season came in double-overtime.

Bergen caught a pitch from quarterback Clifton McDowell and broke a tackle as a Bison defender grabbed him by the facemask. He stayed on his feet, and threw a pass into the back of the end zone for Keelan White. It was tipped, but not enough, as White hauled in the game-winning conversion.

The Grizzly defense stopped North Dakota St. on a two-point conversion on the next possession, winning 31-29 in double-overtime to send Montana to the title game for the first time since 2009. It’s the fourth time under Hauck that the Grizzlies have reached the championship game, and the eighth time in program history.

“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.”

Alex Gubner attempting to block an extra point. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Alex Gubner attempting to block an extra point. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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The game was a slugfest between two well-coached teams and two stellar defenses. The opportunities for both sides were few and far between, and it appeared that a bit of magic was required for either side to get past the other. Bergen delivered that magic, first with a punt return touchdown that gave them a lead in the fourth quarter and then with two big overtime plays.

Bergen had 155 total yards and two touchdowns to go with the two-point conversion pass in double-overtime.

The Grizzlies were once counted out by many after an early season loss in late September. Since then, Montana has won 10 straight games including back-to-back overtime thrillers on national television. They have defeated the in-state rivals to win a conference title and followed it up with three playoff wins to keep the season alive.

“Every game since the fourth week of September they have risen up. They had to fight their tail off to win games,” Hauck said. “They had their backs against the wall. We want to win championships. We want to win the Big Sky Championship, we want to win the State Championship, we want to do those things.

“We’ve had great performances. We’ve had gutsy performances,” Hauck continued. “And when I was talking to them in the locker room I ran out of adjectives. This team works hard, they train hard, they’ve got tremendous mental as well as physical toughness. They are battlers, they’ve got fight, they’ve got guts. They don’t blink, and they’ve got great belief in each other.”

It was a grind for the Montana offense, who were held to 284 total yards on the day, but it was those big plays combined with a 16-play touchdown drive in the first half that separated the two powerhouses.

Montana had just eight drives in regulation, scoring on two of them and then getting the return touchdown. They went two-for-two in overtime, using just five total plays across both extra possessions to end them with touchdowns.

It may not have been pretty, but the Grizzlies didn’t give up the ball to the Bison defense that was second in the country with 27 turnovers forced.

The defense, meanwhile, held the charging NDSU rushing game in check. When these teams met in last year’s playoff, the Bison rushed for over 400 yards. This time, they gained just 188 on the ground. Montana also forced the nation’s leader in completion percentage to a 9-for-22 performance through the air.

The key for Montana came on third down, where North Dakota State went just 3-for-13 (18.7 percent) on offense. They picked up decent yardage on first and second down, and hit on some big plays, but when Montana needed a stop most they consistently came up with it.

The Bison didn’t score a touchdown until their final possession of the game.

“It feels pretty dang good,” Hauck said of the win. “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.”

North Dakota State outgained Montana 345-284 but both teams had very similar numbers. The Grizzlies had 20 first downs to the Bison’s 19. The Grizzlies ran six more plays as the teams split the time of possession almost evenly. They both had three sacks, and nearly the same amount of tackles.

Game photos

Team after regulation with Coach Hauck getting ready for OT. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Team after regulation with Coach Hauck getting ready for OT. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Nico Ramos kicks extra point off Tavis Benham's hold. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Nico Ramos kicks extra point off Tavis Benham's hold. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Alex Gubner attempting to block an extra point. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Alex Gubner attempting to block an extra point. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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(William Munoz/Missoula Current)
(William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Braxton Hill pressures NDSU QB Cam Miller. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Braxton Hill pressures NDSU quarterback Cam Miller. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Clifton McDowell runs a quarterback keeper for a first down at the goal line. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Clifton McDowell runs a quarterback keeper for a first down at the goal line. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Crowd noise was the 12th man giving NDSU trouble. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Crowd noise was the 12th man giving NDSU trouble. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Evan Shafer catches a pass from Clifton McDowell. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Evan Shafer catches a pass from Clifton McDowell. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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NDSU defenders attempts to bring down Xavier Harris. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
NDSU defenders attempts to bring down Xavier Harris. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Nick Ostmo runs for first down. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Nick Ostmo runs for first down. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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The Griz take the field. (WIlliam Munoz/Missoula Current)
The Griz take the field. (WIlliam Munoz/Missoula Current)
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University of Montana Griz fans. (WIlliam Munoz/Missoula Current)
University of Montana Griz fans. (WIlliam Munoz/Missoula Current)
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North Dakota State fans. (WIlliam Munoz/Missoula Current)
North Dakota State fans. (WIlliam Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Griz fans. (WIlliam Munoz/Missoula Current)
Griz fans. (WIlliam Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Marcus Welner raises the Number 37 flag. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Marcus Welner raises the Number 37 flag. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Griz football fans at the semifinal game in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Griz football fans at the semifinal game in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Griz football fans at the semifinal game in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Griz football fans at the semifinal game in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Griz football fans at the semifinal game in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Griz football fans at the semifinal game in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Griz football fans at the semifinal game in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Griz football fans at the semifinal game in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Griz football fans at the semifinal game in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Griz football fans at the semifinal game in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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Love at first site. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
Love at first site. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
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