MISSOULA — The goalposts are officially down because it was the final game of the season at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
But for the Montana Grizzlies football program, they've got one more contest left heading into the New Year.
For the first time since 2009, Montana is headed to the FCS national championship game after toppling the dynastic North Dakota State Bison in a double-overtime instant classic, 31-29, on Saturday evening in a raucous scene in Missoula. And with the win, the Grizzlies are headed to Frisco, Texas for their shot at a national championship.
"It means the world to me, and it means the world to everyone on our team and all the coaches and, you know, we put a lot of work in since August," UM senior linebacker Braxton Hill said. "And, you know, it's a brotherhood inside of that locker room, and I just couldn't be more blessed to be on this team and grateful for our coaches and the guys that I get to play with every day."
The scene on Saturday evening in Missoula is one that will live in Grizzly lore forever. Fans on the field celebrating frenetically and blissfully after the Montana Grizzlies defeated NDSU to get back to the national championship.
While the back-to-back overtime games in the playoffs may have added some unwanted stressors — as UM beat Furman in the extra period in the quarterfinals — the Grizzlies found a way to prevail, and in turn, enjoy the moment.
"It's an act. I am not relaxed. Not at all," UM head coach Bobby Hauck said with a laugh about the OT games. "And like I said last week, because overtime is gut-wrenching. What does that make double overtime? Horrible. It's like (Keelan White) said, nobody loves overtime, we want to win. It's hard. We want to win by 50 in regulation. So anyway, I am having a blast. Obviously, this group of people likes and loves each other. They play hard for each other. It's a privilege to be their coach. And yeah, that that's where I'm enjoying it."
"I mean, just pure relief," added White, UM's junior receiver. "Nobody likes playing in overtime. So when you can come up with a win, it's just awesome. So just pure relief and excitement and just feeling blessed, really."
And there's plays that will stand the test of time when looking back at this run, like the electric Junior Bergen, who one week after taking a kick and punt return back for touchdowns against Furman, stepped up when the lights were brightest again in the fourth quarter against NDSU, with his fifth career punt return score to give the Griz the lead to ignite Missoula.
"The ball was kind of towards our right side, and we had return left on and they were kind of fanned out to the field," Bergen, UM's junior wide receiver and returner, said. "So I kind of just stopped and cut it up a little bit. And I was gonna cut it all the way back. But I was like, nah dude, trust it. And thankfully, I did. And you know, all those guys got their blocks, and we were able to get out."
"What's going on in my head is probably, 'I'll be damned we did it again,'" Hauck added. "You know, it's just, we find ways to win. And, you know, that's a big, big, big play in the game. Maybe the play in the game."
Then, there was the first overtime, where NDSU scored on the first play to take the lead, but Montana took just two plays to respond as quarterback Clifton McDowell found Bergen for his second score of the game.
"You know, just leaving your mark on games like these," Bergen said. "(Assistant coach Rob Phenicie) went and talked about all their semifinal games and guys who left big marks on that game. We just wanted to take it upon ourselves to potentially make plays in that game as well. Fortunately, that's what we did."
In the second overtime, Eli Gillman — Montana's Jerry Rice Award winner for the top freshman in FCS football — scored to put UM up, but the 2-point conversion was what sealed it as again Bergen was called upon to make a big play with the ball in his hands. After getting the pitch from McDowell on the trick play, Bergen got his facemask ripped by a defender, but he still heaved it to White who caught the ball in the end zone after a Bison player tipped it in an iconic moment for UM.
"Just a blessing, man," White said. "I came in as a walk on in 2019. And I never thought I'd be in a spot like this now. And just to be here now, just feel blessed."
In response, the Bison again scored, but on their 2-point attempt, their trick play saw the ball end up in the hands of Corbin Walker as the Grizzlies sealed the win, and sent the stadium into a frenzy, adding another chapter to a historic season and for a decorated program that has waited so long to get back to this scenario: Playing for the opportunity to become national champions.
"It means everything," Hill said. "You know, I just want more time with the guys in the locker room and the coaches. I mean, from Monday meetings to lifts to practice to anything and everything, you know, we just, every day, we just soak it up, and you know, I just don't want it to end. So that's why we play so hard. We play hard for one another and it's special and I'm just so glad that we have another couple weeks together and we're going to cherish each and every day."
It'll be No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the FCS national championship as the second-ranked Grizzlies (13-1) will take on the reigning champion and top-ranked South Dakota State Jackrabbits (14-0) on Sunday, Jan. 7 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. It's the first time Montana has been in the championship game since 2009, and the Griz are looking for their first title since 2001.
"It's exciting. I mean, golly, everybody's pretty excited," Hauck said. "It's fun. Winning that game brings great joy to everybody on our team and staff, but Grizzly football brings a lot of joy and happiness to a lot of people in Montana and in our alumni base.
"Grizzly football is special and that was a special game."