By ERIC TABER For GoGriz.com
The Montana football team lost 31-21 at Liberty Saturday night in Lynchburg, Va., in a battle of ranked teams and in front of a record crowd of 22,551 at Williams Stadium. The No. 7 Grizzlies fell behind 17-0 early in the second quarter and never led to drop to 1-2 on the season.
Montana scored the final 12 points of the first half to trail 17-12 at the break and were two yards away from taking a lead late in the third quarter when a costly fumble ended the Grizzlies’ chances of making a comeback.
The Flames (2-1) opened the game with a 10-play, 74-yard drive, capped by a four-yard scoring pass from Josh Woodrum to Desmond Rice, and led the final 54 minutes of the game.
“You definitely prefer to play from ahead. You can be a little bit more aggressive in play-action and running the ball,” said first-year coach Bob Stitt, whose team generated just 303 yards of offense.
“We got behind and had to catch up, and we just never got into much of a rhythm.”
Montana rushed 26 times for 21 yards, scored on just three of six possessions inside the red zone, went 3 for 16 on 3rd-down conversions, and had to play the final three quarters with backup quarterback Chad Chalich under center after starter Brady Gustafson was injured late in the first quarter.
Chalich led Montana on its four scoring drives — both throwing and running for a touchdown — and threw for 228 yards, but with the game in the balance the Grizzlies generated negative yardage over their final six possessions of the game after being within five points midway through the third quarter.
“(Brady’s injury) was big, because he’s the one getting all the reps all week long,” said Stitt. “Chad’s not even getting half of them. It makes it tough to use all your offense when your backup’s in.”
And still Montana will look at the loss like it did the Cal Poly defeat two weeks ago, when the Mustangs rallied late for a 20-19 victory. A play here, a play there, and who knows how things might have been different.
After Liberty’s opening scoring drive, Montana went three and out. One play later the Flames were back in the end zone after Woodrum hit Dante Shells for a 72-yard score. A 22-yard field goal early in the second quarter made it 17-0.
Daniel Sullivan had an opportunity to get Montana on the board late in the first quarter, but his 33-yard field goal attempt missed wide left. It was the one of three possessions the Grizzlies had inside the Flames’ 20-yard line that came up empty.
Five minutes into the second quarter, Montana had run 24 plays for 60 yards and no points.
But the back half of the second quarter belonged to the Grizzlies. Chalich hit Ellis Henderson for 43 yards to set up a 22-yarder for Sullivan and one possession later the Idaho transfer hit Jamaal Jones, who finished with seven catches for 168 yards, for a 70-yard scoring strike. The extra point was missed.
Montana left a number of potential game-changing points on the Williams Stadium turf. A handful came late in the second quarter when a blocked punt by Connor Strahm gave Montana possession at the Liberty 4-yard line.
A rush for one yard and two incomplete passes into the end zone later, a Sullivan field goal from 21 yards out made it 17-12 at the half.
“It was really a lot closer game than it looks when you look back at all the opportunities we had to stop them or score,” said Stitt, who will be able to look back at one play in particular that could have changed his team’s fortunes.
Liberty, on 32-yard pass from Damian King to Shells, and Montana, on a Chalich one-yard keeper to cap an 11-play, 81-yard drive, traded scores in the third quarter that made it 24-19.
Griz linebacker Herbert Gamboa sacked Woodrum on the opening play of Liberty’s next possession, the start of a three-and-out.
Starting their next possession on their own 45, the Grizzlies needed just two plays — Chalich to Chase Naccarato for five yards and Chalich to Jones for 46 — to get inside the Liberty 5-yard line.
Taking a handoff on the next play and charging up the middle, Joey Counts was stripped two yards from the goal line. The Flames recovered on the 1-yard line. It would be as close as Montana would get.
The Grizzlies forced a punt on Liberty’s next possession but would lose nine yards on their own possession before punting it themselves. The Flames, on a 40-yard run by D.J. Abnar, went up 31-19 three plays into the fourth quarter.
Montana could not move the ball out of its own end on its next three possessions, but the Grizzlies still had a glimmer of hope when Tucker Schye blocked a punt to give his team the ball at the Liberty 34 with 2:34 remaining. Montana would make it just inside the 10-yard line before turning it over on downs.
The late-game possession shined a bright light on the missed extra point in the second quarter. Had the score been 31-20, the Grizzlies could have kicked a field goal to make it a one-possession game, then, with only one timeout remaining, at least been able to attempt on onside kick.
As it was, Liberty took over up 12. Unable to rush for a first down that would have run out the clock, the Flames elected to take a team safety with 13 seconds left for the game’s final points.
“I’m proud of our guys, because they’re just grinding their way through these games,” said Stitt. “We’ve had a lot of adversity these last two games when we’ve been in great situations to possibly win or go ahead, and we’ve never wavered. We’ve just kept playing.”
Montana will open the Big Sky Conference portion of its schedule next Saturday when the Grizzlies host Northern Arizona at 2 p.m. on Homecoming weekend.
Montana Sports Information