By ERIC TABER for GoGriz.com
The road woes that have plagued the Montana football team all season continued on Saturday. The Griz fell to Northern Colorado in Greeley 28-25 to drop their fourth consecutive conference game on the road.
“It’s very upsetting to not get the win because we had a lot of opportunities to get points on the board and stop people,” coach Bob Stitt said. “It’s one of those things that’s really tough to stomach.”
Chad Chalich started at quarterback for Montana (6-4/3-4 BSC) for the second consecutive week, but the Grizzlies spent much of the day on the ground. The Griz rushed the ball 60 times on the day, more than any other game this season.
Even with the heavy dose of rush offense, the Grizzly offense moved up and down the field well. They racked up 400 total yards, 228 of which came on the ground, compared to just 241 yards for Northern Colorado (6-4/4-3 BSC). Montana also had 25 first downs, 13 more than the Bears, and had possession for nearly 40 minutes.
The yardage didn’t matter as much as a couple of crucial special teams plays and one costly turnover. The Griz had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown, a missed field goal, a missed extra point and a fumble inside the red zone.
Northern Colorado dropped a lot of numbers into the defensive backfield, which resulted in the increase in rushing attempts for the Griz. Chalich completed just 20 passes, many of which were screens or check-downs, for 172 yards.
“Chad did a nice job, they were just dropping eight all day,” Stitt said. “That was just one of those things, you can’t get off schedule. We’d like to have a few back from the first part of the game, but other than that I thought Chad played pretty good.”
The Bears wasted no time getting on the board, scoring just over a minute into the game on a 58-yard touchdown grab across the middle by Hakeem Deggs.
Things just got worse for the Grizzlies from there. After a three-and-out by Montana, Eric Williams couldn’t handle the snap and had his punt blocked and returned for a touchdown. It was the first blocked punt returned for a touchdown against Montana since 2011 at Sacramento State, and the special teams score put UNC ahead 14-0 with 12:05 left in the first quarter.
“It really sets them up for their defense, the way they are going to play because hey aren’t going to give you big shots, you’re going to have to earn it,” Stitt said of the early deficit. “We said it before the game, we don’t want to play from behind and before we can turn it around we’re down two scores.”
Montana couldn’t get anything started through their offense, but Jerry Louie-McGee‘s playmaking finally opened up the field offensively on the Grizzlies’ third drive. On second and 17, Louie-McGee caught a screen pass that looked contained, but he reversed the field and gained 40 yards to move the Griz into UNC territory.
The Griz would move all the way to the two-yard line, but settled for a field goal on their first scoring drive.
On the ensuing kickoff, Deggs looked poised to break off another big play, returning it out across the thirty. He couldn’t handle the ball, however, and the Griz recovered the fumble at the UNC 41.
Montana couldn’t take advantage of the field position, punting back to the Bears. The Grizzly defense forced a three-and-out, but disaster nearly struck Montana for the second time on a special teams play. John Nguyen couldn’t handle the punt, but the ball ricocheted out of bounds.
The turnover bug wouldn’t avoid Montana for long. The Griz moved the ball inside the red zone, but a fumble from James Homan turned the ball back over to the Bears at the UNC 14.
Defensively, Montana settled in well after the opening drive. They forced the Bears to a three-and-out for the third straight time.
A heavy dose of Nguyen and Joey Counts on the ground moved the Griz back inside the red zone, where Counts scored UM’s first touchdown of the day on a five-yard rush. Montana missed the extra point, making it 14-9 Northern Colorado with just over six minutes left in the half.
Another Northern Colorado fumble, forced by Ryan Johnson, on the first play of a UNC drive gave the Griz the ball back in the red zone with just over two minutes left in the half.
The Griz faced a fourth-and-short, running a QB sneak with Chalich up the middle to convert the first down. A couple of Montana receivers found space in the end zone, but a dropped ball and missed pass resulted in a field goal to end the drive, sending Northern Colorado into the half with a 14-12 lead.
On Montana’s second drive of the new half, the Grizzlies went to the ground often in a long drive. The Griz went 76 yards in 14 plays, but couldn’t find the end zone. Tim Semenza came on for a 23-yard field goal to give the Griz the lead, but missed wide right.
It didn’t take long for Northern Colorado to respond. Trae Riek moved the ball into Grizzly territory on a 19-yard gain from Trae Riek. Darius Graham then found another hole in the Griz day, busting free for a 38-yard score to put the Bears ahead 21-12 at the end of the third.
Montana’s ground game kept pounding, driving the Griz 75 yards in 13 plays on the next drive. The Griz made it to the UNC red zone again, but this time they finished the drive with a touchdown rush from Counts that cut the Bears lead to two.
The defense made a big time stand on the next drive. On third-and-long, the Griz front forced a hurried pass from Kyle Sloter over the middle. After being tipped by multiple players, Justin Strong swooped in to intercept the pass and return it back into Northern Colorado territory.
After two plays, Montana faced third down with 11 yards to go, but a scamble from Chalich picked up a crucial first down. Chalich found Bingham a couple plays later to set the Grizzlies up inside the five.
A power formation featuring Bingham, Counts and Caleb Kidder in the backfield came onto the field to try to get the job done again for Montana, but the Griz mixed it up, faking the hand-off and bootlegging Chalich around the end for a walk-in touchdown to give Montana their first lead. A failed two-point conversion made it 25-21 Montana with just over seven minutes remaining.
The duo of Graham and Riek gashed the Grizzly defense again on the next Northern Colorado drive, and Slotter found tight end Theron Verna out of the backfield to put the bears back on top by three with 3:35 left on the clock.
Chalich rushed for a first down, but the Grizzlies couldn’t make it past the 50, turning the ball over on downs. The Bears ran out the rest of the clock to earn their first win against Montana since 1976.
“You have to give credit to UNC for the way they came out and took the lead. They kept things under control and kept the game close. We had a chance to win at the end and we didn’t do a good enough job.”
The contrast between the Grizzlies at home and on the road has been the story of the season. Montana remains undefeated at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, but they have picked up just one win on the road this year.
“We’ve got to find a way to get our young guys to get ready to go and win a ball game on the road,” Stitt said. “We play completely different on the road than at home.”
Nguyen, Chalich and Counts each had good days running the football. Nguyen led the team with 80 yards, but couldn’t find the end zone. Chalich finished with 76 yards and a score while Counts ran for 72 yards and two touchdowns.
Louie-McGee provided almost the only threat through the air, hauling in 11 passes for 102 yards.
For Northern Colorado, Graham carried a bulk of the load, rushing for 130 yards and a score. Riek added 46 yards on seven carries.
Sloter didn’t throw the ball often, but he made it count when he did. The quarterback had six completions, two of which went for scores, for 100 yards.
“I don’t know what to say,” Stitt said. “We had our chances, and it is really disheartening that we don’t come away with a win on the road.”
The Grizzlies will play their final regular season game of the year next week, hosting Montana State in the 116th Brawl of the Wild.