MISSOULA — Once again, the No. 18 Montana Grizzlies needed a scrappy performance to win a close contest, as they took on Idaho State on Saturday afternoon at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Montana ultimately won the game, 28-20, but it wasn't pretty throughout the game for the Grizzlies as they were pushed to the very brink by the Bengals. But in the end, Montana (4-1, 1-1 Big Sky) got it done as they bounced back from last week's loss to Northern Arizona to get their first Big Sky Conference victory.
"We didn't have a very good performance last week. That's mildly stated," UM head coach Bobby Hauck said. "So we needed to play assignment football. Do our job. Their second scoring drive, we had guys slide back into that world where they weren't doing their assignment and letting things get away, but for the most part today we played assignment football and I'm proud of our team, I like our guys."
With Clifton McDowell starting at quarterback, the Grizzlies came out firing with an 11-play drive to score out of the gates.
"It felt very good coming out and scoring on the opening drive," McDowell said. "I wish we could've scored a little bit more in the first half but we went into halftime and made some adjustments."
It was a run-heavy approach for the Grizzlies with McDowell under center, as the senior ran the ball 20 times and passed it 20 more, and the Grizzlies finished with 174 yards total on the ground. McDowell finished passing 13 for 20 for 160 yards and one touchdown and added a net of 66 yards on the ground and one more score.
"You can get them outnumbered at times unless they guess right and some of it's reads, some of it's not," Hauck said. "I think Clif does a nice job with the read stuff. It was nice to go set the tone for the game."
But the Bengals were a game opponent more so than in recent years thanks to their proficient passing attack.
That kept UM on their toes with the game going into half tied 7-7, and needing adjustments.
"The general things we talked about were the defense needs to come up with the football and get some takeaways the offense needs to continue drives, take the ball down the field, win on first down," Hauck said. "They were blitzing a ton of first down and some of it in the first half was simply making plays."
And the Griz found those answers as Ronald Jackson Jr. got an interception on the first play of the third quarter that UM turned into a score when McDowell hit Aaron Fontes for a touchdown pass.
The game became a shootout in the second half — with Montana using some trickery to mix things up on offense — and in the second quarter up one, the Grizzlies saw an opportunity to run a fake punt on fourth down with Travis Benham hitting Garrett Graves with a pass to extend a drive that ultimately led to Eli Gillman's touchdown that made it 28-20.
"We were actually going to run it in the first half, we had two of them on the call sheet," Hauck explained. "I don't know if that's the smartest call, but we went for it and it's good to have some guts once in a while and it worked. It was well executed by those guys. We were back in our end up one. That's a good job by those guys making that happen."
In the end, the Griz were tasked with one final stand against ISU, and they got the job done as Corbin Walker picked off Jordan Cooke's final pass to seal the game and win for Montana.
"They were throwing back shoulders all game so it was really just being good on the line and just seeing the ball thrown and that really did it for us," Walker said. "Our goal is to go 1-0 every single week. We've got to take our mistakes and learn from it and go on to next week and get the dub."
And the schedule doesn't get much easier for the Grizzlies in their next two contests as they're on the road against ranked opponents starting with UC Davis next Saturday in California followed by a road trip to Idaho.