DAVIS, Calif. — The Montana Grizzlies went head-to-head with the UC Davis Aggies in a ranked Big Sky Conference matchup on Saturday evening. And in the end, it was the No. 17 Grizzlies who prevailed over the No. 20 Aggies as Montana won 31-23 to get a much-needed statement victory in the Big Sky.
"It's a really big win for us, that's a good Davis football team," UM head coach Bobby Hauck said. "They're a balanced, good team, they're well coached, and for us to go take that win was awesome. What a fabulous effort, offense, defense, kicking game for our team."
From the start, and for the first time in a few weeks, the Grizzlies (5-1, 2-1 Big Sky) felt in control of the game throughout the entire contest.
Even after fumbling on their opening drive, the Griz rebounded to score as Clifton McDowell hit Keelan White for a 21-yard touchdown on their second drive to get UM on the board first.
Later in the first quarter, UM weathered three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties — which were called on Hauck, Braxton Hill and Garrett Graves — and had another fumble in the red zone as they were trying to put the game away in the fourth quarter.
Still, through all of that, the Griz found a way to get the job done.
"That was cool to see," Hauck said. "They kind of just locked arms and anytime something went wrong, and there's constant chaos on the battlefield and whichever team handles it the best they're going to win, and our team handled it better than their team did."
While UM felt in the driver's seat, they needed big performances at key moments.
After giving up 20 points in the first half, the Griz defense clamped down in the second, and made it difficult for Davis to gain any momentum.
"We were just sticking to the same exact gameplan that we had in the first half," said Hill, who led the team in total tackles with 10. "They just had some explosive plays in the first half. In the second half, we were just doing our job, doing our 1/11th, just like the coaches talk about and we were playing well."
"When we were in man, we covered better, and then we gave them different zone looks and sometimes (Davis QB Miles Hastings) got it, sometimes he didn't but we gave him some zone looks that he didn't know pre-snap which was advantageous for us, and then we're a really, really, really good tackling football team and, you know, we missed a couple in the first half but we tackled really well."
Even late, Montana needed a big stop to seal it, and they got that as Ryder Meyer forced and recovered a fumble.
"You just get relieved and then you immediately want to go to the sideline and celebrate with your coaches and all my teammates and whatnot," Hill said of the game-sealing stop. "It's a team game, we play for one another, so in a moment like that, super excited for Ryder and the whole team is excited."
On offense, again it was McDowell starting at quarterback, and he played from start to finish, throwing three scores and for 243 yards while rushing for a net of 49 yards.
"I feel like we took advantage of throwing for sure this game," junior wide receiver Aaron Fontes said. "Running with Clif, I'm just happy that Clif is being able to show his arm that he has, and some people don't think he has an arm which he does."
"I think the protection was pretty good for the most part tonight, and he looked comfortable because of that," Hauck added. "I think that coach (Brent) Pease had some good stuff for him that he liked so it's probably a combination of those two things.
"Thought we had some good drives, thought we threw the ball well. I thought that our receivers were getting open and winning in the man coverage which was the best it's been this year."
Fontes (five catches, 99 yards, two scores) and White (four catches, 67 yards, one score) each had career days to lead the offense, and Fontes scored on back-to-back drives in the first half, including an unbelievable circus catch that put Montana up 14-13 in the second quarter.
"That was supposed to be a back line throw and I kind of had to scramble and when Clif threw it," Fontes said with a big smile. "I knew I just had to dive at it and I tried to get one hand, and I was looking at it the whole way and noticed that it was still up, and so I just kind of caught it, curled it and emotions took over after that."
The game against Davis was a circled game for UM heading into the season, and it was an encouraging outcome for a team that had been 13-13 on the road under Bobby Hauck since 2018 heading into the game, and they did it against a ranked conference foe.
"Every game is a big game, but that game did seem like a big game and every win is a win, but anytime you can go on the road and get a win like that against a really good team and kind of came down to the very end so it felt pretty awesome," Hill said.
"It feels good," Fontes added. "We don't really care about the numbers, the stats, when it comes to conference. I feel like we're just going to play our game, Montana football, that's just us."