By ERIC TABER
Griz Make Strong Case for FCS Playoffs
The resume is complete, the final entry written Saturday afternoon at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman in big, bold print for everyone on the FCS selection committee to see: Montana 54, Montana State 35.
Montana’s body of work should give the committee not just pause, but plenty to like: A season-opening win over North Dakota State, three straight wins to end the regular season, 111 points put up the last two weeks, a team peaking at the right time.
The late-season surge started with an unlikely ending in Pocatello two weeks ago, then really gained steam in last week’s 57-16 demolition of Eastern Washington. Turns out that was only a warm-up act.
On Saturday at Bozeman, the Grizzlies raced out to a 31-7 first-half lead and defeated the Bobcats for the 72nd time in the schools’ long-running rivalry.
Brady Gustafson threw for 353 yards and four touchdowns, three to Jamaal Jones, and Montana (7-4, 6-2 BSC) sent most of the 20,507 in attendance packing before game’s end, looking ahead to next year. Griz fans can start thinking about next week.
“This is why you coach, to coach in games like this,” said UM’s Bob Stitt, who experienced his first Griz-Cat game Saturday. “This win is for Griz Nation. They make it special for us all year long. This win every year is going to be for them. It’s payback.”
Southern Utah (8-3, 7-1 BSC) won the outright Big Sky Conference title Saturday with its 49-41 victory over Northern Arizona. The Thunderbirds will get the Big Sky’s automatic bid into the FCS playoffs.
Stitt believes so. “I think we’ve done enough to extend this thing and play another week,” he said.
Saturday’s game did not start out looking like it would be a lopsided Montana victory. After the Grizzlies went three-and-out on their first possession, the Bobcats (5-6, 3-5 BSC) went 88 yards in just five plays to make it 7-0 less than four minutes in.
Dakota Prukop’s 46-yard strike to Beau Sandland not only opened the scoring, it gave the quarterback his 36th touchdown of the season — 26 through the air, 10 on the ground — breaking the Montana State single-season record. He would add three more scores before his day was done.
Montana gained one yard on its next possession, going three-and-out again, then unleashed what Stitt likes to call “championship football.” That term, defined: The Grizzlies scored on their final seven possessions of the first half to blow the game open and take a 37-14 lead to the locker room.
Montana State would come within a two-point conversion early in the fourth quarter of cutting Montana’s lead to one possession, but an eight-play, 75-yard drive, capped by a Gustafson-to-Jones 17-yard touchdown, made it 51-35 and put an end to any chance of a comeback.
“I’m so proud of our guys and how they played the last two weeks against two really good teams,” said Stitt. “We’re healthy, we’ve got our quarterback back, and we’re playing championship football. There were some bumps in the road, but we knew we could get here.”
Building a sizeable halftime lead was mostly Montana’s doing, but Montana State played a helpful role. The Bobcats turned it over twice on its side of the field and twice gave the ball up on downs. The Grizzlies maximized those four gifts into 28 points.
After Daniel Sullivan hit the first of his four field goals on the afternoon, a 44-yarder that cut the MSU lead to 7-3, Kendrick Van Ackeren stepped in front of a sideline route and intercepted Prukop for turnover No. 1.
Eight plays later, Gustafson hit Jones streaking across the field on a crossing pattern to put Montana up 10-7. The Grizzlies would keep the lead the rest of the afternoon.
MSU went nowhere on its next possession and was forced to punt. But the punt never came. The snap was mishandled by the punter, and he was tackled at the Montana State 18 for turnover No. 2. Three plays later, Jeremy Calhoun ran in untouched off a draw to make it 17-7.
It was one of many plays Saturday that was changed at the line of scrimmage by Gustafson.
“Those were the things that were missing from our offense the last six or seven weeks,” said Stitt. “Brady did a heck of a job today. I give him starting points, and he rolls with it. That’s quarterbacking, and our guy can do it.”
Perhaps sensing that his defense was going to be unable to contain Montana’s offense, MSU coach Rob Ash went for it on fourth down on his team’s next two possessions, including a fourth-and-3 from the Bobcats’ own 38.
Prukop called his own number and ran for 35 yards, but all but two of it was parallel to the line of scrimmage. Van Ackeren, not tricked by Prukop’s change of field, eventually pulled the quarterback down a yard short of the marker, one of Van Ackeren’s team-high 13 tackles on the day.
“Kendrick flies around. We know we can count on him every game, because he comes out and plays exactly the same way every single week,” said Stitt. “Our defense is tough. If we can get ahead of teams and let them pin their ears back, it’s a lot of fun to watch.”
One play after Montana State’s first failed fourth-down attempt, Gustafson hit Jones, who made a SportsCenter-worthy one-handed grab to make it 24-7, and the Griz were off and running. And rolling on both sides of the ball.
Van Ackeren tackled Sandland short of the first-down marker on a fourth-and-6 on MSU’s next possession, leading to two words that had Montana State’s fans ill at ease all afternoon: Grizzly ball.
Less than two minutes later, Gustafson hit Ellis Henderson, covered one-on-one on the right side (note to defensive coordinators: don’t do that; scratch that: keep doing it), for a 49-yard scoring strike. Midway through the second quarter it was 31-7.
Prukop made it 31-14 with a two-yard scoring run, and Sullivan kicked a pair of field goals, from 32 and 24 yards out, to make it 37-14 at the half.
Gustafson had 227 passing yards and three touchdowns in the first half, and Montana rolled up 321 yards of offense.
The game felt out of reach when Calhoun scored from 10 yards out late in the third quarter and when the Grizzlies took a 44-22 lead into the fourth. Then it got uncomfortably tight in a hurry.
Montana State put together 73- and 75-yard scoring drives to make it 44-35, the second score coming when Sandland, all 6-foot-5 of him, somehow snuck unnoticed into the left flat and went in untouched from 22 yards out after catching a pass from Prukop.
Down nine, Ash opted to go for two. Prukop’s pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage, keeping it — whew! — a two-possession game.
Montana put the game away on its next drive, going 75 yards in eight plays — that’s championship football — to make it 51-35. With Montana at midfield, Gustafson, in quick succession, hit Henderson for 12 yards, Ben Roberts for 23 and Jones with a scoring pass from 17 yards out. Game. Over.
Jones finished with nine catches for 132 yards, Henderson with three grabs for 91 yards and Roberts with three receptions for 48 yards. John Nguyen accounted for 134 of Montana’s 184 rushing yards.
Sullivan hit his fourth field goal, from 35 yards out, in the final minute for the game’s final points.
And now the Grizzlies wait. But the general consensus is they need not worry. The resume may be finalized and in the committee’s hands, but the work has been done. And it’s been good. At-large good.
“We belong in that tournament. I’ve said it many times, if you’re healthy in November and December, you can make a run, and we’re finally healthy,” said Stitt, sounding like a coach who won’t be satisfied unless his team is playing in early January.