DAVIS, Calif. — Montana’s defense made big plays throughout the second half Saturday night, but it needed another one late to secure a key Big Sky Conference road win over UC Davis.
Enter defensive back Ryder Meyer.
With the Aggies in position to potentially tie the game with 1:18 left, Meyer made a tackle on receiver Andre Crump Jr., who then fumbled the ball. Meyer pounced on the loose change at the 10-yard line and the Griz were able to kneel down for a 31-23 victory.
Montana’s defense only allowed a field goal in the second half while its offense got the game’s biggest play, an 85-yard touchdown gallop by running back Eli Gillman in the third quarter to take a 28-20 lead.
Grant Glasgow tacked on a 38-yard field goal in the fourth, which was followed by a Hunter Ridley field goal from 42 yards that brought the Aggies back within eight points. But that’s as close as they Griz allowed Davis to get.
Playing the entire game at quarterback for the first time this season, Clifton McDowell threw for 243 yard and three touchdowns, including two scoring throws to receiver Aaron Fontes.
Montana’s defense bent but didn’t break, overcoming 359 passing yards and two touchdowns from All-Big Sky QB Miles Hastings as well as three unsportsmanlike conduct fouls and two illegal substitution penalties.
The No. 17-ranked Grizzlies improved to 5-1 overall and to 2-1 in conference play while No. 20 UC Davis, playing without injured running back Lan Larison, the league’s leading rusher, fell to 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big Sky.
Turning point: Backed up on its own 15-yard line and leading by one point, Montana got a huge play when running back Eli Gillman took a pitch to his right, cut up the field and outraced the defense for an 85-yard touchdown to give the Griz a 28-20 lead with 2:32 left in the third quarter.
Montana’s defense then continued its second-half trend of forcing punts, which eventually led to the 38-yard field goal by Glasgow that gave UM a 31-20 lead with 7:03 left.
Stat of the game: Third down conversions. Montana’s offense came in ranked in the lower half of the Big Sky on third-down success but converted nine of them against UC Davis, including 6 of 9 in the first half, which helped them take a 21-20 lead at the break.
Grizzly game balls: WR Aaron Fontes (Offense). Fontes caught five passes for 99 yards, and his two touchdowns proved crucial. His first was a diving snag for the highlight reel — an 11-yarder in which he bobbled but secured the ball just before sliding out of the end zone, giving the Griz a 14-13 lead.
LB Braxton Hill (Defense). Despite an early unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, Hill was again the ringleader of the Grizzlies’ defense, finishing with 10 tackles (seven solo) and a pass breakup to help UM hold the Aggies to just three second-half points.
KR/PR Junior Bergen (Special teams). Bergen was electric again in the return game. He finished with 126 yards on Saturday, 92 on four punt returns and 34 on one kickoff return. Bergen led Montana with a total of 143 all-purpose yards.
What’s next: It doesn’t get easier for the Grizzlies next week as they head west to face longtime Big Sky rival Idaho at the Kibbie Dome on Saturday. The Vandals entered this week 4-1 overall, 2-0 in the league and ranked No. 3 in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll.
It’ll be a late night — the game doesn’t kick off until 8:30 p.m. Mountain time due to it being broadcast nationally on ESPN2. The Griz will look to avenge last year’s 30-23 home loss to Idaho.