By ERIC TABER |Photos by MARK MESENKO
To the disbelief of a record crowd, the gambler played it safe. And the end result was a memorable start to the Bob Stitt era at Montana.
Joey Counts scored on a 1-yard run off left tackle on fourth down with two seconds remaining to rally Montana to a 38-35 victory over four-time defending national champion North Dakota State Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.
The game was played in front of a record crowd of 26,472 and a national television audience on ESPN. And was a baptism by fire for Stitt, whose team generated 544 yards of offense. None was more important than the 544th, which brought Stitt a win in his first game as Montana’s coach.
“I could have never imagined what this was like,” he said. “It means a lot that our fans would come out and support us like this. Their support gives us a chance to beat teams like North Dakota State.”
Stitt went for it on fourth down six times Saturday, four times in his own territory, but with less than three minutes remaining and Montana trailing 35-28, he took the sure points from the NDSU 11-yard line on fourth and goal. Daniel Sullivan’s 28-yarder made it 35-31.
That decision put a heavy burden on Montana’s defense: Stop an offense that had helped the Bison go 58-3 the last four years, mostly by eating up yardage and clock on long, sustained ground-based drives.
The Grizzlies, who allowed just seven second-half points after trailing 28-21 at the break, did what they needed to do and forced a three-and-out, which gave Montana the ball back at its own 20-yard line with 1:39 on the clock.
Montana made it to the North Dakota State 44, but three incompletions left the Grizzlies facing a fourth and 10. With the game on the line, Brady Gustafson, who was making his first career start, hit Reese Carlson down the middle on a 31-yard strike to the 13.
Gustafson hit Ellis Henderson one play later to bring the ball to the 1-yard line. Just 15 seconds remained.
After a pair of incompletions, one to stop the clock with 15 seconds left, another on second and goal, Counts got the call. He attempted to go up and over the line, but he was stopped a half yard short, setting up an all-or-nothing play. Fourth and goal. Six seconds left.
Using a three-man backfield, Stitt called Counts’ number again, and this time the back found an opening off left tackle and went in standing up. His scoring run set off bedlam in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“We’ve been working (on that three-man backfield set) all fall camp. We didn’t show it at all in our scrimmages, but I told our guys it would come down to that, and it did,” Stitt said.
Montana ran it 35 times Saturday, mostly John Nguyen skittering between the tackles for 86 yards, and threw it 57 times. Gustafson went 30-for-55 for 434 yards and three touchdowns in his first start.
“Brady was awesome,” Stitt said. “He did everything that we asked him to do. He had a few situations when he didn’t hit things, but he never lost focus. He just kept grinding, and he never, ever panicked. He was leading all day.”
After North Dakota State opened the game with an air-tight and efficient eight-play, 75-yard drive to go up 7-0 less than five minutes into the game, Montana’s fans got their first taste of a Stitt-coached offense.
Facing a fourth and four from their own 45-yard line — in the first quarter, on their first drive of the season and already down a touchdown — the Grizzlies went for it. That they failed to make a first down was almost beside the point. A new kind of play-calling had arrived.
Montana tied it 7-7 when Gustafson hit Jamaal Jones on a 7-yard scoring strike across the middle, then took its first lead, 10-7, when Sullivan hit a 22-yard field goal late in the first quarter following a North Dakota State fumble deep in its own end.
The turnover was forced when Tyrone Holmes sacked NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz. The loose ball was recovered by Kendrick Van Ackeren. It was one of the few miscues Saturday for Wentz, who passed for 198 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for 70 yards and two more scores.
Wentz had both of his rushing touchdowns in the second quarter. His second scoring run made it 21-13, but Montana answered 70 seconds later when Gustafson hit Ben Roberts down the left side for an acrobatic, 38-yard score. Gustafson connected with Roberts for the two-point conversion to make it 21-21.
Wentz hit Zach Vraa from 10 yards out to make it 28-21 just 26 seconds before halftime, and Montana’s deficit could have been even larger. At their own 33 with 19 seconds left, the Grizzlies tried a hook-and-lateral, but Ryan Burke’s lateral ended up on the ground.
NDSU recovered and took possession, but Ben LeCompte’s 44-yard field goal attempt as time expired was wide left.
After gaining 283 yards of offense in the first half, North Dakota State was limited to just 45 in the third quarter, and Gustafson’s 62-yard scoring pass to Ellis Henderson, who finished with seven catches for 133 yards, midway through the quarter sent the teams into the fourth tied 28-28.
North Dakota State went up 35-28 on its first drive of the fourth quarter, going 79 yards in seven plays, capped by King Frazier’s 7-yard scoring run. But the Bison would generate just five yards of offense the last 10 minutes of the game.
Montana’s prospects looked bleak after a video review turned a Gustafson incomplete pass into a fumble that was recovered by the Bison at the Griz 45-yard line.
But just a handful of plays later, Wentz couldn’t connect on a handoff, and Van Ackeren, who led Montana with 10 tackles, was there to recover the critical fumble. The clock showed 6:20.
Montana had first and goal at the NDSU 2-yard line on its ensuing possession, but negative rushes by Nguyen and Counts, followed by an incomplete pass from Gustafson, had Stitt calling on Sullivan, who was good on all three of his attempts on the day, for the field goal that made it 35-31 with 2:47 left.
And the rest will go down in Griz history. As will the postgame embrace on the field between Stitt and a teary-eyed Kent Haslam, Montana’s Director of Athletics who took a chance on the NCAA Division II coach last winter.
Asked what Haslam said during their embrace, Stitt said, “He just told me, ‘That’s how we do it here.”
(PHOTO GALLERY BY MARK MESENKO. CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE)
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