By ERIC TABER Photos By MARK MESENKO
Chad Chalich hadn’t started a game all season. Most fans didn’t know he would be starting until he trotted out on the field for the Grizzlies’ opening drive. These facts didn’t stop the senior quarterback from rewriting Montana’s record books, though, passing for seven touchdowns and rushing for another in a 62-44 win.
Chalich entered the game with just six passing touchdowns as a Grizzly, eclipsing that mark early on in the fourth quarter when he found Keenan Curran for a six-yard score to break the Montana record.
“Chad, the way that he prepared not only for this game but for every game. You talk about the job of the backup; he prepares for every game like he’s starting and it paid off because when he did get his opportunity he had the best day ever for a quarterback throwing the ball,” coach Bob Stitt said.
Curran also made his way into the Grizzly record books by catching four touchdown passes on the day, tying Jabin Sambrano, Marc Mariani, Mike Rice, Marvin Turk and Joe Douglass for the best individual day by a Montana receiver.
“Keenan had a great day, made a bunch of plays,” Stitt said. “Chad did a great job putting the ball in the air, and Keenan went and got it.”
The two teams combined for over 1,100 total yards and 106 points in a shootout under the lights at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Montana scored at least 20 points in three-quarters and eclipsed the 60-point mark for the third consecutive home game.
Last week against Eastern Washington, big plays through the air for the Eagles doomed Montana. This week, the Grizzlies made those big plays, having four receivers catch a pass of at least 30 yards.
But the Grizzlies didn’t just get it done through the air. Led by John Nguyen‘s 91-yard day, Montana finished with 203 rushing yards as a team. Joey Counts ran for 51 yards, and the quarterback Chalich added to his record-breaking day by rushing for 52 yards and the one touchdown.
“It was just a great opportunity,” Chalich said. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet, but our offense came out and scored 62 points, and that is going to win a lot of ballgames.”
The Grizzly defense started emphatically, stuffing two straight plays before Connor Strahm streaked off the outside edge and sacked Tanner Gueller, forcing a fumble on the Idaho State 11-yard line.
The Bengal’s line created more time on their second drive, allowing Gueller to find a rhythm and march the offense 74 yards down the field. The quarterback completed all five of his pass attempts for 55 yards and a three-yard touchdown to Austin Campbell.
The Bengals defense appeared to be on the brink of forcing a Griz three-and-out and taking control of the game, but Chalich escaped the pocket on third and long and threw across his body to Curran, who leaped over a defender up the sideline for a first down.
Montana then hit the jackpot two plays later when Chalich found Justin Calhoun deep down the right sideline. Calhoun outjumped the defender to bring down the catch and walk in a 61-yard score with 6:30 left to put UM up 13-7.
Fourth downs came up big on Idaho State’s next drive, as the Bengals moved into Griz territory and scored on a fourth down play that was called back for holding. On the next play, another fourth and short, the Grizzlies were flagged for pass interference to give ISU a first down on the Griz 20.
After a short loss, Tanner Gueller linked up with his big brother Mitch for a 16-yard gain, setting up a seven-yard fade to KW Williams to give the Bengals the 14-13 lead.
For the second straight drive, Montana faced a three-and-out, but a diving catch by running back John Nguyen continued the drive. Chalich used the momentum, firing a 33-yard completion to James Homan before hitting Curran for a 25-yard score, bringing the score to 20-14 with 1:52 left in the opening quarter.
The Gueller connection proved too much for the Grizzlies again on the next drive. Tanner found Mitch for a 36-yard bomb down the left sideline for a third-down conversion. The first quarter ended as Idaho State brought the field goal unit out, but they changed up and went for it, coming up short on fourth to open the second quarter.
It didn’t matter. On the next play, Chalich threw a pick to Mario Jenkins. The linebacker returned it to the Grizzlies’ 23, but Idaho State would go no further, settling for a 41-yard field goal to cut the Griz lead to three.
Justin Calhoun brought down the catch of the game on the next Montana drive, reaching back behind his hand and miraculously getting his toes down in the south end zone for a 16-yard score.
Idaho State gambled inside their own 30 on the next drive, successfully converting a fake punt on fourth down. The bold call led to another Williams touchdown reception three plays later, making it 27-24 with 7:45 remaining in the half.
The Bengals finally stopped Montana’s offense, and then Gueller kept it for a 52-yard rush that led to a three-yard score from Michael Dean.
Montana didn’t wait long to answer. Jerry Louie-McGee found a seam up the middle and hauled in a perfectly weighted ball from Chalich for a 52-yard score just two minutes later to give the Griz the lead back for good at 34-31.
Bengal head coach Mike Kramer gambled again late in the first, failing to convert on fourth down from the 50-yard line. Montana made them pay, driving the 50 yards in under a minute and ending the half with Chalich’s school-record tying sixth touchdown pass, this time a fade to Curran who bobbled it once before hauling it in.
The halftime break cooled off both teams offensively, as neither side managed any points in the third quarter. Stitt said that some things went against the Griz defense in the first half, but over the break, they worried about themselves and fixed it.
As for the Grizzly offense, they came out of the locker rooms with a different game plan in mind.
“You can’t try to come out and pick up where you left off when you’re scoring a lot of points because you will get your team into trouble,” Stitt said. “Offensively we came out and wanted to start over, shorten the game, still score points and be aggressive but not give them a chance to get back into it.”
Montana ended the drought with the first play of the fourth quarter, scoring on a QB sneak from Chalich, who was boosted along by a heavy set that included Caleb Kidder, Collin Bingham and Joey Counts in the backfield.
Defensively, Montana kept the pressure up on the next drive when Ryan Johnson came off the edge and ripped the ball from quarterback Trae Pilster.
History came next.
Chalich connected with Curran on a slant route to the left for his seventh touchdown pass, breaking a school record. Curran’s reception also gave him four, which matched a Griz program record.
Idaho State scored on their next possession, but the Griz marched it right back and went over 60 points at home for the third time this season, taking the 24-point lead with just under five minutes remaining.
The Bengals would score again, but Montana used up the final minutes of the clock to secure the 62-44 win.
Montana remains undefeated at home this season after the victory, and they also snapped a two-game losing streak. The Grizzlies will take to the road for a game against Northern Colorado next week before wrapping up the season at home against Montana State.
“Those two losses kind of brought us down but we rallied around each other this last week and came out with a big win. We’re going to take this and move on to this next game,” Chalich said.
Kickoff at Northern Colorado next week is set for noon at Nottingham Field in Greeley.
Split-The-Pot: The winning Split-The-Pot ticket on Saturday was number 48846 for the approximate amount of $9,237, claimed by a fan from Washington.