Defense Wins the Day for Montana

The Big Sky game between Montana and Northern Arizona was billed as a shootout. After all, both schools were ranked in the top six in the FCS in passing yards. But Montana’s starting quarterback Gresch Jensen didn’t see the field, and a targeting penalty early in the first quarter on NAU starter Case Cookus set up a much different ball game.

In snowy Missoula, the Lumberjacks’ backup quarterback, freshman Stone Smartt, squared off against a Griz defense on the hunt. Montana struggle offensively all game long, but picked up a huge upset win that kept its playoff hopes alive thanks to a standout defensive effort.

Montana sacked the NAU quarterback seven times and held smart under 50 percent passing for the game, warding off a late two-point conversion for the win.

“That was one of the grittiest performances I’ve ever seen out of a defense since I’ve been here,” Montana quarterback Makena Simis said. “They answered the bell every time we needed them to, that was a special performance.”

For Montana, it was a throwback type of football game. November football in Montana can be treacherous for offenses, particularly those that prefer to gain yards through the air, and Saturday was no different. The Lumberjacks and the Grizzlies were both grounded.

Montana finished the day with just 44 passing yards. Meanwhile, Jerry Louie-McGee and Keenan Curran, two of Montana’s best receivers, rushed the ball for 46 yards. The offense relied heavily upon the defense, particularly the front seven.

The Griz had five different players bring Smartt down in the backfield, led by Tucker Schye and Jesse Sims with two apiece. Connor Strahm, James Banks, and Chris Favoroso all tallied a sack as well.

Knowing that the opposing quarterback wanted to run the ball, the Grizzlies forced him out of his comfort zone.

“We made him do what he doesn’t want to do, sit in the pocket and pass,” Sims said. “We wanted to beat him up and put pressure on him, and that’s what we did.”

It wasn’t a game that was dictated by turnovers. In fact, other than an interception on a Hail Mary to end the half, the Grizzlies forced just one turnover. Banks, who finished the day with 11 tackles, forced the turnover and Josh Sandry dove on top of it. The Grizzly offense scored its only touchdown of the day on the following drive.

The defense was solid all game long defending the run and forcing Smartt into uncomfortable situations. The Griz were second in the conference in sacks coming into the game and had one of its best days getting to the quarterback. Since 1994, the Griz have finished with more sacks just four times, two of which also came against Northern Arizona.

It was the second time this season Montana had a seven-sack performance, the first coming on Sept. 16 against Savannah State.

“If we make him sit in the pocket for a second or two, these guys are going to get to him,” head coach Bob Stitt said after the game.

Montana doesn’t rank in the top half of the conference in scoring or total defense, but they showed the potential that this front line has when it is clicking. Montana had 14 more tackles than Northern Arizona and allowed just 322 total yards, nearly 150 yards fewer than their season average.

The win kept Montana’s playoff hopes alive and snapped a six-game winning streak for Northern Arizona. Coming off a tough loss against Weber State, the effort from the defense may have saved the season.

“The beautiful thing about our team is you don’t have to ever get after anybody because you know they are giving it everything they have,” Stitt said, “and in the end, you are going to be ok.”