Griz thump Cats 29-10 in Missoula before record crowd, and Montana loved it
The University of Montana had been waiting over 1,000 days since the last Brawl of the Wild in Missoula. The anticipation and excitement has been building all season as the two schools stormed through their seasons to set up a top 10 matchup.
Griz Nation could hardly be contained before the game, packing the stadium early and getting loud for the pregame festivities. All they needed was a big moment on the field to explode.
Bobby Hauck and his team didn't wait long to deliver that for them. Junior Bergen caught a 74-yard touchdown pass on the second play of the game, sending a record-crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium into pandemonium. In a game featuring two of the top 10 scoring defenses in the country, the strike would be all Montana needed to keep Griz Nation's party going all day.
The Grizzly defense didn't allow a touchdown until the final minutes, extending their streak to 14 straight quarters without an opponent finding the end zone, and the offense rolled to a blowout 29-10 victory over their in-state rival. The win ended a four-game streak for the Bobcats in the Brawl of the Wild and brought the Great Divide trophy back to Missoula.
"I'm very happy for our players," Hauck said. "They did a great job getting ready for this game. I thought that the tenor leading up to this, and just the temperament of our team was absolutely perfect and, boy, they played good today."
Montana improves to 9-2 (6-2 BSC) with the win, which ended a program-record nine game winning streak for Montana State. It was the first loss to an FCS opponent for the #3 Bobcats this season.
The 29 points for #7 Montana were the most allowed by Montana State all season, while the Grizzlies also held the Bobcats to their season low total of 10 points. It took a last minute touchdown on the final drive of the game for MSU to get into the double digits, as the Grizzly defense held Montana State under 100 total yards until the fourth quarter.
The vaunted rushing attack of Montana State, featuring the nation's third-leading running back Isaiah Ifanse and his 120.8 yards per game, was held completely in check. They would run for just 96 yards total, as Ifanse carried it 19 times for just 50 yards.
Patrick O'Connell continued a potentially award-winning season in style, leading Montana with 11 tackles and adding 1.5 sacks and tackles for loss. His fellow linebackers Jace Lewis and Marcus Welnel had nine and eight tackles, respectively, while Welnel added a big sack.
The Grizzly defensive line crowded the line of scrimmage all game long, as defensive tackle Alex Gubner ended the day with eight tackles as well. Montana finished with four sacks and nine tackles for loss, while also getting six quarterback hurries.
"We hit (McKay) a lot. I don't think he was thrilled at the end of the game to be out there to tell you the truth, and I don't think I would have been if I was him either," Hauck said.
The defense also added its fifth touchdown of the season, returning a fumble for a touchdown on a fake field goal from Montana State. While Just Ford's interception streak came to an end at eight games, he has the consolation prize of the back-breaking 56-yard fumble recovery touchdown.
"They couldn't handle our defense, they couldn't handle our special teams and that was the difference in the game," Hauck said.
"It was hard-hitting, like it's going to be in this game, and we tackled well. We didn't miss many tackles, and that's just a great team effort and I was really proud of those guys."
The Grizzlies moved the ball well, and they did it best when it was in the hands of true freshman Junior Bergen. The Billings native provided the long touchdown that kicked off the game, but he also average 19 yards on four punt returns, consistently putting Montana into scoring position. He finished with 163 all-purpose yards in his first career Brawl.
It was also the first career Brawl for senior quarterback Cam Humphrey and No. 2 didn't disappoint. Humphrey threw for 220 yards as most of Montana's offense came through the air. Mich Roberts had 53 yards while Ryan Simpson, Cole Grossman, Samuel Akem and Zavier Harris all had multiple grabs.
The Grizzlies ran for just 51 yards, but the passing attack did just enough when combined with the spectacular special teams play of the Grizzlies. The two teams both ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense entering the day, but the advantage was in favor of Montana on Saturday.
"It's the best defense I've been around at Montana," Hauck said. "They are no slouch on defense either, I think they've got the second-best defense of the league, but the defense and Washington-Grizzly Stadium at home is special."
The special teams of Montana controlled the field position all game long. The Grizzlies pinned Montana State inside their 20 on two out of three punts as Brian Buschini averaged 50 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies started three drives in Bobcat territory.
"Those guys, we don't play any starters in our kicking game for the most part, and it's important to those guys and it's important within the fabric of the team to compete and play well in the kicking game," Hauck said. "We've done it 10 out of 11 weeks and I'm proud of that group for sure."
On top of the great coverage and returns, Montana received a career day from kicker Kevin Macias. He went 5-for-5, hitting the first 50 yard field goal for Montana in the last eight years. He has also run his streak up to 14 consecutive made field goals.
"Kevin has been money," Hauck said. "As I've said all year long he's a great kicker and we're lucky to have him, and today was a great cap to the regular season."
This was the second lowest combined ranking for the two teams in the history of the rivalry. The previous game, a 36-10 win in 2011 against #1 Montana State, also ended a nine-game winning streak for the Bobcats. With playoff seeding on the line in the finale of the regular season, Montana once again delivered a performance that will live on in the long history of this rivalry game.
"It's good to win this game, certainly," Hauck said. "You've got to beat everybody at Montana, but you've really got to beat the neighbors to the east. We expect to win this game and I'm glad we did today."
Montana couldn't have scripted a better start to the game. On just the second play, Junior Bergen left the backfield in motion. The speedy freshman found a seam, Cam Humphrey floated a perfect pass, and the rest was all green. Bergen took it 74 yards for the touchdown, giving Montana a 7-0 lead less than a minute into the game.
"The first touchdown was sweet, that was something we had dialed up for this specific team and this gameplan," Hauck said. "It wasn't something we've shown, and they bit on it he was in the end zone. The punt return game was awesome, I thought he was going to come out on that last one, but that was great."
Griz Nation, showing up in record numbers as 26,856 fans attended, got loud and proud and backed up the pesky red zone defense of Montana late in the first quarter. Montana State drove it deep and faced a third and short from the five-yard line, but back to back false starts pushed the Bobcats back.
Then Patrick O'Connell and Alex Gubner got home to the quarterback and the sack forced a fourth down, limiting the Bobcats to just three points. It would be the only points the Bobcats would score until their final offensive play of the game.
Humphrey took to the air again on the following drive for big plays, finding Grossman and Bozeman-native Ryan Simpson for a total of 46 yards. The Grizzlies would stall out in Bobcat territory, but Kevin Macias knocked a 42-yard field goal through to put Montana back ahead by a touchdown.
Bergen provided another moment of electricity in the special teams, busting a tackle and returning a punt for 22 yards to set Montana up in Bobcat territory to start the drive. The Griz would get stuffed on a fourth down a few plays later.
On Montana's next drive they again made it into Bobcat territory, but an interception on the five yard line gave the ball back to Montana State. The Griz defense stood strong, and Garrett Graves made an outstanding tackle off the edge on Tommy Mellott to force a three and out.
Malik Flowers broke off a long run on a jet sweep on the following Montana drive to once again get them into field goal range, but the Griz were forced to settle for a field goal to take a 13-3 lead.
As the time wound down in the first half, the Grizzly defense once again forced a three-and-out to give Montana one last shot at points. The Bobcats punted from deep in their own territory to Bergen, who continued his impressive performance with a 21-yard return. It set Montana up for another field goal with 12 seconds left in the half, giving Montana a 16-3 advantage at the half.
The halftime break did nothing to slow Montana's momentum. The Griz forced another three-and-out as O'Connell got home for another sack. On the ensuing punt, Bergen pulled some magic out of a hat yet again.
The freshman drifted back to catch the punt over his shoulder. After it appeared he would lose yards on the return, the freshman danced between tacklers, slipped off some Bobcats and brought it back 31 yards to again give Montana a drive starting in Bobcat territory.
The Griz wouldn't advance the ball far, but it didn't matter. Macias blasted a 50-yard field goal just past the crossbar, giving Montana a 19-3 lead.
Montana State pulled out all the stops on the next drive, inserting All-American linebacker Troy Anderson in the backfield alongside Mellott and Ifanse. It didn't make a difference, as Montana forced the fifth three-and-out of the game.
The Grizzlies turned the ball over deep in Bobcat territory, but it just set the Montana defense up for more heroics. They stopped Montana State in three plays yet again. The Bobcats lined up for a field goal, but faked the kick. An attempted pitch from the holder was batted away by Jace Lewis, and Ford scooped the ball up and returned it 56 yards for a Montana touchdown. The defensive touchdown put Montana ahead 26-3 late in the third quarter.
Montana State put together a drive of more than 30 yards for just the second time all day early in the fourth, getting into Montana territory. The Grizzly defense didn't let them get any further, stopping them on three straight and forcing a fourth-and-nine. The Bobcats went for it, and the Grizzlies brought the house. Welnel sacked McKay, giving the ball back to Montana on the 46-yard line.
The turnover was turned into points, as Montana - with backups in the game - drove it into field goal range to set up Macias for a 37-yard strike to extend the lead to 29-3.
Montana State added a late touchdown to make it 29-10, but the celebration was already on in the capacity Washington-Grizzly Stadium. A crowd that had waited years for this moment went into a frenzy as the final seconds ticked off and the Grizzlies lifted The Great Divide Trophy at home for the first time since 2014.
The Grizzlies will now wait to see where they land in the FCS Playoffs. The 2021 FCS football championship selection show is Sunday, Nov. 21 at 10:30 a.m. Montana will be appearing in the playoffs for the second straight season and extends their record to 25 career postseason appearances.