Grizzly defense suffocates Coyotes in 24-7 win

The Montana defense put in yet another commanding performance Saturday, keeping South Dakota scoreless for three and a half quarters of football in a 24-7 rout of the Coyotes at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

The No. 2/3 Griz held USD – a playoff team from a season ago out of the Missouri Valley Football Conference who were receiving votes in the top-25 – to just 90 yards rushing and forced a turnover or a punt from the visitors on 12 of their 14 drives.

Montana, meanwhile, scored on the first drive of the game and didn’t look back with a balanced offensive attack that saw 171 yards on the ground and 180 through the air for 351 yards of total offense.

Quarterback Lucas Johnson found Cole Grossman across the middle for a 57-yard strike on the first play of the day from scrimmage to get the Grizzly offense rolling.

Johnson was once again crisp for the Griz in his second game under center at UM, completing 79 percent of his passes for 180 yards and adding 75 more with his feet for a personal haul of 255 yards and three scores.

University of Montana students cheer during the game against the University of South Dakota Coyotes at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on September 10, 2022 in Missoula, Montana. Montana beat South Dakota 24-7. Photo by Tommy Martino/UM Athletics.

But the defense was the story of the day. Led by Patrick O’Connell’s 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks, Montana’s D allowed the Coyotes into their own territory just four times and forced six USD three-and-outs.

Defending Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week Braxton Hill put the exclamation point on the defensive performance by forcing a safety late in the fourth quarter, the first for the Griz since 2019.

“The defense was dominating today, obviously. We’re disappointed we gave up the score late in the fourth quarter, but that’s the way it goes. They were under 100 yards rushing and 200 yards of total offense, so it was a pretty good day by our D,” said head coach Bobby Hauck.

The win, paired with UM’s 47-0 shut-out of Northwestern State on week one, gives the Grizzlies the program’s best two-game start to a season in twenty years with a combined score of 71-7. Montana started the 2002 season with two wins that combined for a 66-7 score: 21-0 at Hofstra and 45-7 against Albany.

The Griz were also six minutes away from setting another mark that dates further back in program history. You have to go back to 1947 to find the last time Montana started a season with two shut-outs, blanking Eastern Washington and Portland 21-0 each that season. If it weren’t for a late score from the Coyotes the Griz would have made some serious history.

Montana improves to 14-6 all-time against South Dakota, having now won seven-straight over the Coyotes dating back to 1975. The Griz have also won four of the last five meetings against teams from the Missouri Valley since Hauck returned to UM in 2018.

The Grizzlies started the game in almost the best possible way. After a touchback on the opening kickoff, Johnson found Grossman across the middle, who sprinted for a 57-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage to set the tone. Johnson capped the opening drive off five plays later with a four yard scramble to put the Griz up 6-0 early.

He again showcased his legs two drives later for Montana’s next score following a pair of South Dakota punts.

The senior put up a pump fake, then sprinted to the left sideline, lowered his shoulder, and dove in for a 24-yard touchdown that brought the house down and put the Grizzlies up 13-0 with just under three minutes to play in the first quarter.

The Griz would go scoreless in the second quarter, however, as the hot start to the game for the offense cooled to a simmer.

“We kind of stall ourselves out a few times. We had a chance to go up three touchdowns there in the second quarter, and we fumbled the ball away. That was really costly,” added Hauck.

“We just left some opportunities to really pull away from them. I never felt uncomfortable, but I wish we’d have gotten away from them a little better. And when I say that, I don’t mean to be disrespectful because I think South Dakota’s got a good football team. They’re well-coached. I think they’re good.”

Braxton Hill #35 celebrates a safety with teammates in the fourth quarter of the game against the University of South Dakota Coyotes at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on September 10, 2022 in Missoula, Montana. Photo by Tommy Martino/UM Athletics

After starting the year +5 on the differential chart, the Griz lost the turnover battle to South Dakota, with Junior Bergen giving up an uncharacteristic fumble and Johnson throwing an interception.

Montana’s defense kept up the pressure throughout the first half, forcing a Coyote punt on five of the visitor’s first six drives of the game. USD’s only scoring opportunity was early in the second quarter when Eddie Ogamba pushed a 38-yard field goal attempt wide-right to keep the visitors off the board.

Missoula native Tyler Flink picked up his first career sack a week after returning a blocked punt for his first touchdown. Buchanan Award finalist Patrick O’Connell also added his sack-and-a-half in the opening period, partnering with Marcus Welnel for UM’s third of the day on USD’s final drive of a half.

The Griz opened the scoring in the second half with a 28-yard field goal from Montana’s senior transfer kicker Nico Ramos, the first of his career in maroon and silver after missing week one to injury.

After another punt from the Coyotes, Johnson orchestrated Montana’s next scoring drive, moving the Griz 64 yards in five plays, jump started by a pass interference penalty on a target to Aaron Fontes. Johnson then capped the drive with a 12-yard dart to Bergen across the middle of the end zone to put the Griz up 22-0 after a UM two-point conversion attempt was just short.

Montana’s defensive shut-out streak was finally snapped after seven scoreless quarters of football with 6:27 to play in the fourth when Travis Theis rumbled 25 yards for a score after the Griz gave it up on downs.

Just three plays earlier, Johnson was caught in the backfield on a fourth and one attempt at mid-field to give the Coyotes their best starting field position of the game.

In the end Montana’s defense overwhelmed the visitors, with the Griz allowing USD to average just 2.5 yards per carry, frustrating the Coyotes into 12 total penalties.

“We played hard throughout. Some of the mistakes we made cost us some stops and drives, and we’ll get that straightened out,” said Hauck.

“All I know is its’ really great to be 2-and-0, and I’m excited about our team.”

Montana now gets set to face a second-straight Missouri Valley team when the Griz hit the road next week to face Indiana State.