By ERIC TABER For GoGriz.com | Photos by MARK MESENKO for MakeItMissoula.com
Another Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, another nail-biter that wasn’t decided until the game’s final seconds. But this time Griz fans went home feeling empty after watching a winnable game slip through their team’s grasp.
Shortly after Montana failed to convert on a late 4th-and-inches that would have iced the game, Cal Poly’s Alex Vega kicked a game-winning 49-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to give the Mustangs a 20-19 victory at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Montana, which knocked off North Dakota State with a late touchdown last week, threw three interceptions and went 0 for 3 on fourth-down conversions Saturday, and scored just five points on eight second-half possessions to lose to Cal Poly for the second straight season.
“It’s the opposite end of the spectrum. You have the ultimate high last week and then a huge disappointment this week,” said first-year coach Bob Stitt. “We had opportunities to put them away, and we didn’t get it done.”
It appeared Montana had made the play of the game when Derek Crittenden sacked Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown in the end zone for a safety to put the Grizzlies up 19-17 with 3:43 remaining. All that remained was to take the ensuing possession and grind out the clock.
But like the week before, the favored team was unable to get it done.
Facing 4th-and-inches on the Cal Poly 32-yard line with 1:18 left and the Mustangs out of timeouts, Montana went with its jumbo package, and linebacker Herbert Gamboa was stopped for no gain (though even a first-down run would have been nullified by an illegal procedure penalty).
Cal Poly took over and went 36 yards in 11 plays, including a converted 4th-and-2, to set up the winning field goal, which had enough leg to be good from another 10 yards out.
One year after giving up 421 yards on the ground in a 41-21 loss to Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, Montana’s defense gave up a quiet 330 and kept the Mustangs out of the end zone in the second half. But the offense was unable to reward the effort.
“It’s too bad. Our defense fought their hearts out. We were thin on the defensive line, and we still held these guys to 20 points. It should have been enough,” said Stitt. “We needed to score more points, and we had opportunities to do that.
“But hats off to Cal Poly. They played a great game. They came in here in front of a hostile crowd and beat us. They had an amazing drive at the end, and their kid did a great job coming in and kicking the field goal.”
Montana opened the game’s scoring in the first quarter when quarterback Brady Gustafson took it in from less than a yard out, one play after John Nguyen’s 41-yard burst through a large hole on the left side of the line gave the Grizzlies 1st-and-goal.
The Grizzlies were in Cal Poly territory again on their next possession, but a failed pass attempt on 4th-and-1 turned the ball over to the Mustangs.
Brown, who rushed for 226 yards in last year’s meeting, struck on the very next play. After faking a handoff up the middle, he took the ball around right end and ran 60 yards untouched to tie the game at 7-7.
The dual-threat quarterback was at it again midway through the second quarter. One play after running for 28 yards, he hit Roland Jackson for a 36-yard touchdown to put the Mustangs up for the first time, 14-7.
After a number of stalled efforts, Montana finally put a strong drive together late in the half that sent the teams to the locker room tied 14-14.
Taking over at its 16-yard line, the Grizzlies needed less than 90 seconds to go 84 yards in 12 plays. Jamaal Jones made like Odell Beckham Jr. on an 18-yard reception to the 6-yard line, and Gustafson hit Ellis Henderson on a short crossing route 20 seconds before the break to bring the teams even.
If the drive felt at the time like a precursor to a big second half, it didn’t turn out to be. Cal Poly started to get its running game going in the third quarter, and the Mustangs largely kept the Griz offense off the field. Montana got the ball just twice in the quarter and ran only 11 plays for 30 yards.
Cal Poly dominated the quarter in every aspect but the scoreboard. Despite holding the ball for 12:25 of the quarter’s 15 minutes, the Mustangs scored just three points on a 48-yard field goal that capped a 17-play drive that ate up 6:58.
With its defense giving it every opportunity to take control of the game, Montana’s offense remained out of sorts into the fourth quarter. The team’s first four possessions of the second half resulted in 42 yards and a pair of Gustafson interceptions.
But the Grizzlies finally got the break they needed early in the fourth quarter on the same play Gustafson threw his third pick. B.J. Nard, who had all three of his team’s interceptions, was tackled and striped from behind by Henderson, who recovered the fumble.
Gustafson hit Josh Horner for 44 yards on the next play, and the Grizzlies drove down to the Cal Poly 5-yard line before settling for a game-tying field goal with 8:52 left.
Montana forced a punt on Cal Poly’s next possession and took over at its own 2-yard line with 5:31 on the clock.
Gustafson rushed for six yards to get his team off the goal line, and three straight first-down plays moved the ball close to midfield before the drive sputtered.
Had Montana won the game, Chris Lider’s 57-yard punt that flipped the field and pinned the Mustangs down on their own 2-yard line would have been the play of the game, considering Crittenden shook off a block and took down Brown in the end zone on the very next play.
But Cal Poly kicked off, and Montana began the drive that didn’t quite become the drive to a 2-0 start to the season. And a visiting kicker left the field a hero.
“I love our team and the way they fight. They give us a chance to win at the end. Unfortunately tonight that didn’t happen,” said Stitt. “But this is how you grow as a team. We have to learn how to win in the end. This loss is going to bring us closer together.”
Montana will be off next weekend. The Grizzlies’ next game will be at Liberty on Sept. 19.
(PHOTO GALLERY BY MARK MESENKO. CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE)
Montana Sports Information