By JOEL CARLSON
When it comes to the final month of the regular season, it matters not how it happens or who the opponent is, just that a team wins. Victories become the coin of the realm once the calendar flips to November. And Montana pocketed a big one Saturday in Pocatello.
In a finish that can stack up with any of the jaw-droppers from this fall (think: Michigan-Michigan State), Montana won 33-27 in overtime Saturday over Idaho State when the Grizzlies snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and just maybe gave themselves the late-season spark they need to make a playoff push.
With Idaho State lined up for a potential game-winning 34-yard field goal in overtime, a few plays after Griz quarterback Makena Simis appeared to fumble away Montana’s chances, a season of bad bounces, quarterback injuries and missed opportunities had its script flipped.
ISU’s snapper fired the ball over his holder’s head and bouncing down the turf at Holt Arena. Griz cornerback JR Nelson and the Idaho State holder raced for it and both fell on it. The ball bounced up, right to Eric Johnson, who went 40 yards for the game-ending (and season-saving?) touchdown.
A crazy play that was a fitting end to a wild game.
“Unbelievable,” said first-year coach Bob Stitt on the field after the game. “Finally something good happened to the good guys. What an awesome thing to happen to this team right now. We needed it.”
Indeed. A field goal would have been loss No. 5 on the season and ensured the Brawl of the Wild in two weeks featured a pair of teams not advancing to the FCS playoffs. One still has a pulse. For now.
It was a game Montana appeared to have in hand when the Grizzlies took a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter, but mostly self-inflicted damage kept Montana from pulling away or, in the second half, even keeping the lead.
The Grizzlies missed a pair of field goals, went scoreless on a drive that reached the ISU 1-yard line, saw the opening kickoff of the second half, returned for a touchdown by Ellis Henderson, called back because of a penalty, and won despite fumbling the ball away on their opening possession of overtime.
After scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions of the game, Montana’s offense scored just six points on a pair of field goals over the final 49 minutes of regulation and overtime.
“We had so many chances to put that thing away, and we just continue to shoot ourselves in the foot,” said Stitt. “This game was just like our season: up and down. Right when we think we have a handle on things, we make a mistake, and we made a lot of silly, undisciplined mistakes today.”
If it’s true that the game was a microcosm of the season, as Stitt suggested, then Idaho State’s opening drive reflected opening drives of games past. The Bengals went 75 yards in 12 plays, scoring on a 14-yard pass from Tanner Gueller to KW Williams.
It was the seventh time in nine games this season Montana’s opponent has scored points on its opening possession of the game. Six of those have been touchdowns.
On Saturday the Grizzlies had an immediate response. On their opening drive they went 75 yards in nine plays, with Simis doing his best Alex Kuresa impersonation. The quarterback ran for 33 yards and threw for 12 more on the drive. John Nguyen made it 7-7 when he scampered in from 28 yards out.
Montana forced a three-and-out on Idaho State’s next possession, and a poor punt set the Grizzlies up at ISU’s 45.
Simis hit Nguyen out of the backfield for 10 yards to the 30 on 3rd-and-five, and Jeremy Calhoun did the rest. His 27-yard run set Montana up at the three. He scored on the next play to make it 14-7.
The Grizzlies generated 172 yards of offense in the first quarter, 115 of it coming on the ground.
On its first possession of the second quarter, Montana appeared ready to go up 21-7 when the Grizzlies drove inside the ISU 10-yard line.
Facing 3rd-and-goal at the two, Nguyen was stopped a yard short of the end zone, and Montana hurried into its fourth-down play in an attempt to catch Idaho State off guard. Simis opted for a keeper, and he was driven back to the four, turning the ball over on downs.
So the defense took matters into its own hands. Gueller’s short pass from his own 21 was bobbled by the intended receiver, then kicked into the air. Nelson gathered it and strolled untouched into the end zone to make it 21-7. And the rout was on. Or shoulda-woulda-coulda been.
Daniel Sullivan’s 52-yard field goal attempt later in the second quarter was blocked, and Idaho State responded with a drive that kept the Bengals in the game.
The key play in the drive looks innocent enough in the play-by-play — Gueller, three-yard rush — but it came on 4th-and-three at Montana’s 39 and with an extra helping of second effort and guts.
Gueller gained one yard before getting stacked up by three Griz defenders. Undeterred, he bulled his way for two more yards and, by inches, a first down. But it’s inches that can separate wins and losses.
Three plays later he hit Williams again from 15 yards out to make it 21-13 at the half.
Montana opened the game fast and got an electric start to the second half when Ellis Henderson took the opening kickoff 65 yards for a touchdown. Amid the celebration of a two-touchdown lead, a flag on the carpet.
“It was a late hit or clip or something, just another undisciplined block. It was a great return. Maybe Ellis gets in, maybe he doesn’t, but if we don’t make that block, we keep it legal and have a great return,” said Stitt, who then watched his team end the drive with a missed 34-yard field goal attempt.
“It ends up costing us a touchdown, and then we miss the field goal.” As Idaho State radio commentator Mark Liptak kept repeating: Montana continues to leave the door open. Unless it was slammed shut, it would only be a matter of time before ISU took advantage.
The Grizzlies again got inside the ISU 10 on its second possession of the third quarter, but the drive, which featured 55 rushing yards and a 1st-and-goal at the three, fizzled, and Daniel Sullivan made it 24-13 with a 23-yard field goal.
A Nate Harris interception in the end zone thwarted an ISU drive late in the third quarter, but Simis gave the ball back three plays later when he was intercepted at the Montana 32.
Gueller hit Tyler Graves from three yards out to bring the Bengals within five, 24-19, in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Idaho State’s two-point attempt — both of them, actually, after a Montana penalty — were unsuccessful.
Needing to make a game-defining statement of a drive, Montana went three-and-out, and Jakori Ford put ISU up 25-24 when he ran in from 53 yards out with just over 10 minutes remaining. Gueller hit Graves for the two-point conversion, 27-24. Somehow Idaho State had the lead.
Using a mix of Simis’s arm and Calhoun’s legs, Montana quickly moved down the field on its next possession. The Grizzlies would get to the ISU 9-yard line but no farther. Sullivan was true from 26 yards out to make it 27-27.
Neither team mounted much of a scoring threat over the final six minutes of regulation.
Montana had the final possession after Johnson intercepted Gueller’s wild heave down the field into traffic, giving the Grizzlies the ball at their own 26 and 52 seconds with which to work. They would make it to the Idaho State 44 before time ran out.
Montana had the first possession of overtime and stuck to a ground game that produced a season-high 265 rushing yards. A nine-yard effort by Calhoun set the Grizzlies up 1st-and-goal at the two and gave the freshman 98 yards on the day. Just two more for an even 100 and the lead. Simple enough.
Instead: read option, and Simis elected to keep it. He was tackled behind the line of scrimmage and coughed it up, leaving Idaho State, like Weber State four weeks earlier at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, a short field goal away from the win.
“That was déjà vu,” said Stitt. “He’s supposed to hand it off in that situation. You have first down on the two, you have to hand it off and let your team do its job.
“Jeremy is a heck of a player, and we want to ride him. That’s who you want to hand it off to at the 2-yard line.”
Idaho State gave the ball to Xavier Finney three straight times to set itself up in the middle of the field. After a Montana timeout, the field-goal attempt. And the rest is a sequence for the history book.
A high snap. A scramble for the loose ball. Johnson running toward the end zone. A video review. The official signaling touchdown. Celebration mixed with relief mixed with anticipation for the games ahead.
“This is what this team needed,” said Stitt. “We needed some good luck. We haven’t had a single ounce of good luck this season.”