By ERIC TABER for GoGriz.com Photos By MARK MESENKO
It was a tale of two halves for the Montana offense on Saturday, as they scored 35 of their 41 points in the second half, overcoming a 10-6 Saint Francis halftime lead to open the season with a 41-31 win under the lights at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Montana defense dominated throughout, keeping the Red Flash under 200 total yards until a 73-yard touchdown strike with just two minutes left. Third downs were also crucial, with Montana holding Saint Francis to just two successful conversions in 13 attempts.
“Defensively, we played lights out,” head coach Bob Stitt said. “They played exactly how I want them to play and it kept us in the game. It was a great team effort because the defense kept us in it long enough to win the ball game and get the offense going.”
The big-play offense of Montana slowly figured things out, but once the wheels were set in motion, Saint Francis could do little to stop it. Montana scored on five of its eight drives in the second half.
Brady Gustafson more than doubled his yardage production from the first half, going 15-for-22 with 242 yards and three touchdowns in the second half alone. The 6-foot-7 quarterback also showed his wheels, rushing for 49 yards and a pair of scores.
“We called the same plays, it is just getting the ball where it needs to go and Brady did a fantastic job,” Stitt said of the second half. “He did a great job using his legs and we had great protection.”
The two offenses showed the rust and jitters expected in the first game of the season, as both sides struggled to get a drive going early on.
Montana’s opening drive began in Saint Francis territory, but a sack on Brady Gustafson forced a fumble, which Solomon Leaeno returned all the way to the Montana 29-yard line.
Saint Francis couldn’t get anything going, as the Montana defense pushed them a yard backward and the Red Flash missed a field goal. On the next drive, the Griz moved the ball 34 yards in just four plays, but Lorenzo Jerome intercepted a Brady Gustafson pass on the Saint Francis 20-yard line to end the drive.
The Griz started with favorable field position again a couple drives later but couldn’t take advantage, starting and ending the drive on the 50.
On their final possession of the first quarter, John Nguyen busted loose for 33 yards on four straight carries, getting the Grizzlies into field goal range. Tim Semenza hit the 46-yard attempt to give Montana the 3-0 lead after the first.
Josh Buss, who finished the game with eight tackles, found himself alone with Drayer after a play fake and recorded his first sack on Saint Francis’ next drive, a 14-yard loss that ignited the 26,000-plus in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“I thought he was going to get away for a second,” Buss said. “I kind of had to swipe out his legs, but it was an awesome experience getting that first sack.”
Saint Francis found the board on their second drive of the second quarter. A 27-yard completion from Drayer to Kamron Lewis brought the Red Flash to the red zone, where they left with a field goal.
Gustafson fumbled for the second time on Montana’s next drive, setting the Red Flash up just 23 yards away from pay dirt. A six-play, 23-yard drive capped off by a play-action touchdown pass to Marcus Alston that put Saint Francis ahead 10-3.
The Grizzly offense finally started to show life on the final drive of the half, marching 70 yards in 13 plays. Time ran out on Montana, who kicked a field goal on first-and-goal from the five to enter the halftime break down 10-6.
The offensive momentum Montana ended the half with carried over to the first drive of the second. The Griz moved inside the 10-yard line without facing a third down, but consecutive
Gustafson stepped up in the pocket, slipping past a sack, before breaking free. A Red Flash defender met Gustafson on the three, but the Montana quarterback absorbed a hit and dove into the end zone for the first touchdown of the day for Montana.
The momentum didn’t remain in Montana’s possession for long. Jerome took the following kickoff 86 yards to the seven-yard line, missing the touchdown thanks to a chase-down, shoe-string tackle by Evan Epperly.
A personal foul on Montana two plays later set Saint Francis up with another first-and-goal, this time from the six. Disaster nearly struck when Drayer dropped the snap, but he recovered in time to complete a pass to the Montana one, where Drayer would sneak a touchdown in to put the Red Flash back ahead 17-13.
Nguyen sparked life back into Montana a couple possessions later, juking and jumping his way to a 24-yard punt return to the Saint Francis 43.
Jeremy Calhoun had two carries for 16 yards, and Gustafson connected on all three of his passing attempts on the ensuing drive, including an 11-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown pass to Justin Calhoun, to put Montana back in the lead 20-17 with just under three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Grizzlies continued to roll on their next drive, going 81 yards in just four plays. It started with back-to-back screens to Nguyen out of the backfield for 40 total yards. A 10-yard rush by Jeremy Calhoun, plus a facemask penalty on the tackle, set the Griz up on the 16-yard line.
A play-action bootleg by Gustafson found Lane Hovey wide open for his first catch as a Grizzly, a 16-yard score to put the hosts up 27-17.
Montana’s defense kept the pressure up, forcing punts on consecutive Red Flash drives.
Then, lightning struck for the Montana offense in the form of sophomore wideout Keenan Curran. Curran blew past his defender on the sideline, creating enough separation for a deep pass from Gustafson to drop into. Curran outran the defense for a 75-yard touchdown.
“Honestly I thought I was going to get caught, but it was a beautiful ball by Brady and a good call by the coaches,” Curran said. “It is my job to make a play.”
The score put Gustafson over 300 yards and Curran above 100 yards for the day, and looked to give the Griz a comfortable lead with seven minutes remaining.
But Saint Francis wasn’t done yet. Jerome, who the Grizzlies had been avoiding with squib kicks up the middle, found his way to the ball on the ensuing kickoff, then split the Montana defense for a 79-yard touchdown to keep the Red Flash within striking distance.
Montana’s defense couldn’t be denied, however, scoring their third touchdown on as many drives. The Griz ran the ball on nine of 10 plays on the drive, going 70 yards and scoring on a Gustafson quarterback sneak.
“As long as we are putting points on the board, I’m happy,” Gustafson said of his two touchdown runs.
Once again, the Red Flash had a huge play to answer the Grizzlies. Drayer found a streaking Junior Ajayi on the first play of the drive for a 75-yard score to cut the lead back to 10 with a little over two minutes remaining.
An onside kick went unsuccessful, and Nguyen carried the ball four straight times, converting on fourth and short to run out the clock.
Jerome kept Saint Francis in the game nearly single handedly, returning four kicks for 196 yards and a touchdown while also intercepting two passes on defense. Stitt said special teams need to improve moving forward.
“We can’t do that to our football team where we have things under control and then you give them a kick return,” Stitt said.
The Grizzlies were balanced offensively at every position. A trio of players, including Gustafson, rushed over 10 times with John Nguyen‘s 53 yards leading the way. Jeremy Calhoun rushed 14 times for 47 yards while Treshawn Favors ran for 42 yards.
The young receiving corps also put forth a balanced game, led by Curran’s 107 yards and the touchdown. Josh Horner caught six balls for 61 yards and freshman Justin Calhoun finished with 42 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Jerry Louie-McGee made some exciting plays, catching six passes for 60 yards and inciting some cheers from the crowd with his playmaking ability.
“He’s an exciting guy,” Stitt said of Louie-McGee. “If they don’t worry about him, he’s going to hurt them and if they do worry about him then these other guys are going to have some success.”
The Grizzlies finished the second half with 348 total yards of offense while the defense gave up just 135 yards to the Red Flash.
In the red zone, Montana finished perfect, scoring on all five of its trips. Turnovers hurt the Grizzlies, with Gustafson throwing two interceptions and coughing up a couple fumbles. The McKinley interception helped, but Montana ended the game minus-three in the turnover department.
Montana hits the road next week to take on Northern Iowa, which defeated Iowa State 25-20 in its season opener. The Grizzlies return home on Oct. 1 against Southern Utah.