By ERIC TABER
A springtime rainstorm couldn’t put out the fireworks in Washington-Grizzly Stadium as big plays on both sides of the ball highlighted the Montana Grizzlies spring game.
Senior quarterback Brady Gustafson piled up 300 yards passing, completing 15 of 32 passes to lead the Maroon team to a 27-26 win over the White team in the new-look spring game. This was the first time in recent memory the spring game featured two separate offensive and defensive units.
Over 2,500 fans braved the downpour to take in the game, held annually to support the Grizzly Scholarship Association. While the rain made the ball slippery and forced some uncharacteristic errors, the two teams piled 53 points on the scoreboard.
“The weather made it a little tough, but we found a way to move the ball, said Montana head coach Bob Stitt. “We got better today. We got better every day in spring ball, so I’m happy with that and now we’re moving into our next phase.”
“We had a lot of young guys making plays. That was the big thing. Defensively, everyone said: ‘you graduate all this talent, how are you going to be?’ Our guys stepped up. We’re going to be very good on defense. We graduated a bunch of receivers. We’ve got some good receivers now. So we answered a lot of questions with young guys and now we need to move forward and be ready for fall camp,” Stitt added.
The action got underway on the opening kickoff of the scrimmage, when redshirt freshman Jerry Louie-McGee showed why he could be one of Montana’s most explosive players this season, returning the kick 99 yards for a touchdown for the Maroon team.
Louie-McGee had a stellar day. In addition to the 99-yard return, the wide receiver from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, caught six passes for 175 yards and a pair of long touchdown receptions for the White team, one for 67 yards and the other for 71 yards.
Caleb Lyons also had had 100-plus yards receiving for the Maroon team, catching six passes for 111 yards, with a long of 57.
All told the Maroon team threw for 300 yards under Gustafson, and the White team threw for 289 yards, with Chad Chalich and Reese Phillips splitting time at QB.
Phillips passed for 233 of the White team’s yards and two touchdowns (both to Louie-McGee), but also suffered the only interception of the day, and was (touch) sacked six times.
Defensively, the Griz were able to impose their will on several occasions, with the maroon team racking up seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Tucker Schye, Dante Olson and Gage Smith each led the Maroon defense with seven tackles each, with Schye coming up with three sacks.
The White team defense was led by redshirt freshman Josh Sandry who posted six tackles.
Sandry would likely be the recipient of the “Charlie hustle” award (if such a thing existed) for the Griz today, after single-handedly preventing two sure touchdowns.
Receiver James Homan fell victim to Sandry’s hustle when the Bigfork native chased Homan down and stripped him of the ball, then recovered the fumble to prevent a score for the Maroon team.
In a game that went down to the final play, the Maroon team broke out to a 20-7 lead in the first half, only to see the White team come storming back on big plays in the second.
After Louie-McGee opened the scoring for the Maroon team on the opening kickoff, Colin Bingham extended the Maroon team’s lead, receiving a pass from Gustafson on a play-action pass and taking it 45 yards to the house, after picking up a key block from Keenan Curran that allowed him to waltz in to the end zone.
Bingham’s score made it 13-0 for the Maroon team, after Tim Semenza missed the PAT.
The White team got on the board next after picking up great field position thanks to a miffed punt return by Justin Calhoun that resulted in a maroon turnover. On the first play of the revived drive, Chalich threw a 24-yard lob to Homan, who made a leaping grab in the corner of the end zone for the first of his two scores on the day.
Brandon Purdy then converted the PAT, and the White team was within a score of the Maroon team after one quarter.
Brady Gustafson extended the Maroon lead early in the second quarter, finding Keenan Curran streaking down the middle of the field for a 51-yard TD strike.
Curran put in a move that made Markell Sanders slip on the coverage, and Sanders couldn’t recover as Curran streaked by him for the score, putting the Maroon team up 20-7 at the halftime break.
In the third quarter, Jerrin Williams put Maroon back in scoring position, picking off a Phillips pass for his third interception of spring ball. The ensuing Maroon drive stalled however, as Semenza missed the 39-yard field goal attempt.
The next two scores came from the wheels of Louie-McGee, who tied the game at 20 with a pair of speedy strikes on deep passes from Phillips. The first was a 71-yard bomb with six minutes left in the quarter. The second, a 67-yard score at the end of the third quarter that would have put White in the lead, but Harrison Greenberg’s PAT was blocked by Ryan McKinley to keep the scores knotted at 20 heading into the final period of play.
Homan scored his second touchdown of the day on a 15-yard pass from Gustafson to open the fourth quarter. The short scoring pass was set up by a 55-yard burst by running back Treshawn Favors down to the White 15-yard line. The score put Maroon up 27-20 with time winding down.
On the ensuing drive, Chalich put together a 14-play drive that started at the White team’s own 30 yard line, and was capped off by Chalich himself rushing the ball 11 yards for the final score.
A PAT would have tied the game, but the White team wanted to pull of the come-from-behind victory, and went for two.
On the two point conversion, Chalich’s pass to Kobey Eaton was batted down by Ryan McKinley, who made a beautiful diving stop, and the comeback would remain incomplete, as the Maroon Griz left with the 27-26 win.
The Montana Grizzlies now move into off-season preparations for the beginning of fall camp, scheduled to begin on August 7.
The 2017 Grizzly spring game is scheduled for April 22 in Butte, Montana.