Griz Get Redemption on Eagles, Advance to FCS Quarterfinal

Washington-Grizzly Stadium, and those that call it home, were built for nights like Friday. A playoff game under the lights on a chilly, Montana December evening. A conference opponent in town. An opponent that – no less – had already defeated the Grizzlies on the season.

In a matchup featuring one of the best offenses and one of the best defenses in the entire country, one could usually assume that a high-scoring shootout would favor the visiting Eastern Washington Eagles. Montana will forgive you for that assumption.

The last time the two teams met, Montana had victory on their fingertips. But a last second hail Mary was broken up at the last second, and Eastern Washington escaped Cheney with a win. This time, the Grizzlies left no doubt.

The defense withstood an outstanding performance from Eric Barriere, one of the all-time greats in the Big Sky Conference, the offense rushed for over 200 yards for just the second time all season and the special teams delivered its signature big plays for a complete 57-41 win.

Photo courtesy of Grizzly Athletics

“We have such a great team. They play with and for each other, they love each other, they love Montana,” Head Coach Bobby Hauck said. “There is no better place to be a college football player than on our sideline tonight in this stadium. It’s as good as it gets anywhere.”

Montana improves to 10-2 and advances to the FCS quarterfinal round with the win, the second time in as many full seasons. They now await the winner of No. 3 James Madison and Southeastern Louisiana.

Montana’s defense, the second best in the country in terms of points allowed per game, was put to the ultimate test. Barriere threw the ball an astounding 80 times, compiling over 530 yards and five touchdowns. But Montana got theirs as well. Despite allowing some big numbers, the Grizzlies returned an interception for a touchdown and a fumble inside the 10 to set up another score.

The special teams unit also came through with a massive play for Montana, blocking a punt to set the Grizzly offense up for another short score. Two weeks after his heroics against Montana State, Junior Bergen again flipped the field position all night long with four punt returns for 67 yards.

“They were huge,” Hauck said of the special teams unit. “Those kids work so hard at it and they play so hard and they know what the heck they are doing. They are smart football players, and the kicking game was dominant again today for I’d say the 11th time in 12 games. It was great.”

It’s not unusual for this Montana team to score on defense or in the special teams. They’ve made a habit of it all season long. On Friday night, they put it all together. The offense had timely plays, scoring six touchdowns on its way to the highest point total of the season for the Grizzlies.

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Cam Humphrey’s stat line will be overshadowed by his opponent, but the senior quarterback did everything right in leading Montana to the victory. A three-touchdown, 160-yard performance included a couple of massive throws to Samuel Akem.

Akem’s efforts were record setting. The senior receiver had 104 yards on just five catches, his first game going over the century mark all year. Most importantly, he hauled in his 28th and 29th career touchdowns, tying him with Marc Mariani for the most in program history.

The Grizzlies succeeded on the ground, as Xavier Harris and Junior Bergen split the carries and each had big games. Harris had a team-high 16 carries for 79 yards and a score. Bergen also found the end zone, running for 45 yards on nine carries.

That doesn’t even include wide receiver Malik Flowers, who had three carries on end-around plays. He had the longest run of the season for the Grizzlies, going 75 yards for a touchdown on the first drive.

“We blocked it well, we ran it well, and I just thought it was good,” Hauck said of the ground game. “We owned the line of scrimmage. When we rush for that many yards and they have to throw it that much, they are flat never, ever going to beat us.”

Montana’s defense spent a lot of time on the field, as Eastern Washington held the ball for over 35 minutes and ran 109 plays. The Griz, on the other hand, had just 59 plays. It was a combined effort from a number of Grizzlies, as the defense swarmed all over the field.

Robby Hauck led the team with 11 tackles, while Jace Lewis pitched in nine total tackles and one for a loss. The outside was tested, as Corbin Walker made eight tackles and broke up a pass. The elusive Barriere avoided Montana most of the night, but Marcus Welnel got home for two big sacks.

And despite the big passing numbers, Montana allowed just 78 yards on the ground, 57 of which came on one play.

“The difference in this game was their inability to run the ball. If you are going to throw it 80 times you aren’t winning very much, and you certainly aren’t going to beat us throwing it 80 times,” Hauck said. “They couldn’t run it, they got the one big run, but other than that they got nothing and that was the difference in the game.

Dave Dickenson is back in the house to raise #37. Photo courtesy of Grizzly Athletics

Big plays looked like they would doom the Griz early on as Eastern Washington had three plays of 50+ yards in the first quarter. But Montana wouldn’t allow a gain over 35 yards for the remainder of the game, as the 14-point first quarter was the most points in any frame by the Eagles.

While Eastern Washington ran 50 more plays than Montana, the Grizzlies averaged nearly a yard more per play. They stopped the Eagles on fourth down twice and held them to just 44 percent on third down conversions.

One of the most telling stats of the game was the average starting field position. Montana, behind great returns and turnovers, started their average drive on their own 44-yard line. Eastern Washington, limited by the big punts of Brian Buschini and fair catches on every kickoff, had an average start from their own 26. The nearly 20yard head start on every drive proved invaluable for Montana.

“You look at the yards and they are skewed in their favor, but those are empty calories. We had a bunch of short fields and they couldn’t handle our defense and our special teams at all,” Hauck said.

Malik Flowers provided the first big play of the game, delivering the opening score on Montana’s third offense play. In motion from the edge, Flowers took a handoff, found the edge and raced past the Eagle defense for a 75-yard touchdown run. The run was the longest of the year by a Grizzly player.

Eastern Washington didn’t wait long to answer, putting together a 66 second touchdown drive to tie the game at 7-all with more than 10 minutes remaining in the first quarter. The Eagles would take the lead a couple drives later on another long pass. Barriere connected with Jakobie James for a 54-yard touchdown to put the visitors ahead 14-7.

Facing a deficit for the first time on the night, Montana responded with a sustained drive that led to points. Kevin Macias knocked home a 37-yard field goal after an eight-play Grizzly drive, pushed forward by a big rush from Junior Bergen, to cut the lead to 14-10.

The big play Eagles offense didn’t let up. Dennis Merritt busted a 57-yard touchdown run to put Eastern Washington ahead 21-10.

“They got off to a really good start and we talked about that a little bit at halftime,” Hauck said. “Us busting a couple of coverages and giving a couple of touchdowns up was not very good by us, but we got it shored up.”

Montana, again on the back of a big run play, responded with three more points. It was Harris this time, running for gains of 24 and 6 yards, putting the Grizzlies into scoring range. Macias hit from 44 yards out to extend his streak to 16 consecutive makes and get Montana back within a score, 21-13.

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The Grizzly defense delivered back-to-back crushing hits, both of which were reviewed for targeting, and both of which resulted in no penalty. The hits, and ensuing reviews, fired up the Montana crowd, resulting in an Eastern Washington false start that ended a drive.

“That was when we really started getting after them,” Hauck said of the two big hits. “Hard hitting is not illegal.”

Electricity was in there air already, but there was no containing the crowd after the following play.

Ryan Tirrell broke through the line and blocked the Eastern punt, with Levi Janacaro recovering the ball on the Eastern Washington 17-yard line. Signature special teams plays have helped Montana to wins all year, and Tirrell’s block set up the Grizzly offense with a short field.

They didn’t disappoint. Four plays later, Bergen handled a pitch from Humphrey on an option to the outside and broke a tackle at the goal line for Montana’s second touchdown of the game. The Griz elected for the extra point, cutting the Eagle lead to just one point.

And those big special teams plays? They didn’t stop with the blocked punt. The Griz defense forced a three-and-out on the next drive, and Junior Bergen went back deep to return the punt. The freshman narrowly eluded the first tackle, then danced his way up the sideline for a 21-yard return. It didn’t lead to Grizzly points, but it did help Montana switch the field and pin Eastern Washington deep in their own territory.

The Grizzlies couldn’t hold them there, as the Eagles drove into Grizzly territory. They faced a fourth down inside the 30 and elected to keep the offense on the field. O’Connell nearly got home on Barriere, forcing a quick throw and an incompletion to give the ball back to the Grizzlies.

Montana again effectively iced away the half and were down by just a point at 21-20 after the first 30 minutes. The Griz received the kick coming out of the break, and Garrett Graves returned the kick to near midfield to set Montana up with good field position.

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Harris scampered for 22 yards on the first offensive play, setting Montana up in field goal range once again. Macias remained steady, splitting the uprights from 46 yards out to give Montana its first lead since 7-0.

The Grizzly defense then finally got home to Barriere, with Welnel sacking him at the Eagles 10-yard line. On the ensuing punt, Bergen ignited the Grizzly crowd with yet another memorable return.

He caught the ball with forward momentum already in Eastern Washington territory and found space down the right sideline, returning it 37 yards and very narrowly escaping the final tackle for a score. Montana didn’t waste the opportunity. Harris bounced outside on the first offensive play, scoring his first of the day to give Montana a 30-21 lead.

Eastern Washington, with the help of a big fourth down conversion, would drive and score later in the third quarter to cut the lead back down to 30-28.

Graves once again had a big kick return, then the Griz gave it to Flowers around the end to put Montana into Eagle territory. Humphrey then found Akem on a crossing route over the middle. Just the eighth completion of the game for Humphrey was undoubtedly the most important. Akem turned on the jets and sped past the EWU secondary, finding the end zone to put Montana back up 37-28.

The Grizzly defense rode that momentum. They got home to Barriere, who attempted to pitch it to his running back. The ball sailed over his head, bouncing free for Lewis to recover. No. 37 scooped up the ball and returned it all the way to the five yard line. Three plays later, the Grizzlies went play action, throwing back across the grain to Cole Grossman for a five yard touchdown.

Montana forced a fumble on third down of the ensuing drive but the Eagles recovered near first down yardage. The Eagles went for it on fourth-and-inches, but a false start penalty would push them back five yards. They then sent the punt unit onto the field and kicked it back to Montana.

Early in the fourth quarter Eastern again made it into Griz territory, but again Montana stepped up at the most important time. They forced the Eagles into fourth and short, where Eastern Washington took a deep shot down field. It went over the head of the receiver, giving the ball back to Montana near midfield.

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Humphrey found Akem on a long third down conversion to move Montana to the Eagle 31-yard line. The two then connected yet again, with Humphrey floating a perfect ball over the shoulder and into the end zone. Akem hauled it in, giving Montana a 50-28 lead. The catch pulled him even with Mariani in the record books.

The Eagles wouldn’t go quietly, as Barriere found Limu-Jones for a 35-yard score to bring it back to 50-35 with under five minutes to play. A failed onside kick attempt gave Montana the ball in Eagle territory, where they would run three straight times to burn the clock before punting.

The Eagles had a chance. There were over three minutes remaining, and with the quick strike offense a score and an onside kick weren’t out of the question. Ford made sure that wouldn’t happen.

The cornerback intercepted his ninth pass of the season on a desperation heave, jumping the route and returning it all the way to the house for an emphatic – and very characteristic for this Montana team – exclamation point.

The Eagles would add a final touchdown, a fitting end to an incredible career for Barriere as he tossed a touchdown on his final pass.

But Montana would enter victory formation and ice the playoff victory, advancing to the quarterfinals to face the JMU-SLU winner.

“I’m excited about the fact that we are moving on. I think that Southeast Louisiana can score on anybody and score a lot so that’s not a foregone conclusion,” Hauck said. “We’re hoping for home games but it doesn’t matter where we play, we’re going to go try to win and we’re going to have a good chance of doing that.”