By ERIC TABER for GoGriz.com
Montana failed to score in the second half, but it didn’t matter. A dominating defensive performance led No. 14 Montana to a 20-14 upset win on the road against No. 3 Northern Iowa.
The Grizzlies (2-0) held their own defensively against UNI (1-1) quarterback Aaron Bailey, holding him to a 43 percent connection rate and under 200 yards. More importantly, Montana held Bailey to just eight rushing yards on 20 attempts, containing the mobile quarterback all game long.
“We didn’t want to let the quarterback sit back there and have time so we brought a little pressure,” Griz linebacker Connor Strahm said. “Our defensive coaches brought in a great game plan to try to get him on the run and try to make some plays.”
Montana allowed 351 total yards to the Panthers and stuffed UNI on all three fourth-down attempts. Third downs helped the Montana defense as well, limiting Northern Iowa to just six conversions on 19 attempts.
“When our defense has a long field to defend, it is tough to score on us,” coach Bob Stitt said.
Over 12,000 fans packed the dome, eagerly awaiting Northern Iowa’s return home after they started the season with a 25-20 victory against FBS Iowa State on the road in week one. The crowd and atmosphere made it tough for Montana, but escaping the hostile environment with a win gives Stitt confidence moving forward.
“This game gives us confidence that we can play against anybody on the road,” Stitt said. “This is a tough place, they haven’t lost very many games here just like we don’t lose very many at our place… I think that was very Montanan, to come into this place and come out with a win.”
The Grizzlies forced a quick three-and-out defensively to open the game and wasted no time getting on the board. After a couple first down passes to Jerry Louie-McGee, Brady Gustafson hid the ball on a play-action pass, throwing across the action to a wide open Josh Horner for a 35-yard score.
After another UNI three-and-out the Grizzlies used a 29-yard punt return from Louie-McGee to get into field goal range, where Tim Semenza hit a 47-yarder to put Montana ahead 10-0.
Montana looked to be in prime position to score again after the defense forced a fumble on the Panthers’ first play of the drive, but back-to-back QB sneaks from Gustafson were stuffed as the Grizzlies turned it over on downs.
Northern Iowa used the defensive momentum to put together a nine-play, 63-yard drive to cut the Grizzly lead to three points. A couple possessions later the Panthers’ moved inside the two-yard line of Montana but came away empty-handed after a Josh Buss rush forced an incomplete pass on fourth down.
On the next Panther drive they moved into scoring range again, but missed a 33-yard field goal wide-right. The bend but don’t break defense of Montana survived again to keep the Griz up 10-7, setting the stage for not only the play of the game, but one of the best plays of the college football week.
Redshirt freshman Jerry Louie-McGee fielded a punt inside his own red zone at the 19, sliding to his right to avoid the initial tackle and moving straight into the middle of the field. He juked and jumped dodging eight or nine Panther tackles between the hash marks, somehow eluding all defenders on his way to an 81-yard touchdown, the first of his Grizzly career.
“I couldn’t tell you how it all happened, but it was pretty awesome scoring my first touchdown,” Louie-McGee said. “I had some great and it lined up all the way to the end zone, it was pretty cool.”
On Montana’s next drive, the Grizzlies moved the ball from inside their own 10 all the way to the Northern Iowa 18, ending the drive with a 35-yard field goal from Semenza that put the Griz up 20-7 with just over two minutes left.
That would be the last scoring drive of the entire game for Montana.
The defenses controlled the game the rest of the way, with neither side scoring in the third quarter.
Norhern Iowa finally pieced together a scoring drive near the halfway point in the fourth quarter, capping a 66-yard drive with an impressive 28-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Bailey to Daurice Fountain in the back corner of the end zone, cutting the Griz lead to just six points.
On the final drive of the game, Northern Iowa had just over a minute left and no timeouts. They neared Grizzly territory, but a couple of penalties pushed the Panthers back, forcing a desperation hook-and-ladder final play that Montana stopped for the win.
The Grizzly offense totaled just 70 yards in the second half, picking up only three first downs in the final half hour of play. The defense held its own, however, allowing 174 second-half yards but just the one touchdown.
Despite the offensive struggles, Montana leaves a tough match-up where they entered as the underdog with a win, which is all that matters in Coach Stitt’s book.
“I’m not worried about what people are going to say, that we didn’t have any points in the second half or not enough yards or whatever, I don’t care, we got the W,” Stitt said. “That is the ultimate goal every week, how do we put these kids on the field and get the win.”
Justin Strong led the Grizzly defense with 10 tackles, including nine solo take downs. Connor Strahm had a big game as well, recording a sack and a half to go along with four tackles, while fellow linebacker Josh Buss had seven solo tackles and a forced fumble.
Montana has a bye week before returning to action Sept. 24 on the road against Cal Poly.