In a Comeback for the Ages, Griz Rally to Beat SEMO

The Montana Grizzlies pulled off one of the most improbable and historic comebacks in program history Saturday night, rallying from a 21-point third-quarter deficit to score 31 unanswered points, defeating Southeast Missouri 34-24 in the first round of the FCS playoffs.

With the Griz trailing 17-3 at halftime, head coach Bobby Hauck harkened back to his 2009 squad that rallied to score 47 second-half points to beat South Dakota State in the playoffs nearly 13 years ago to the day.

And like in that 2009 game, Montana’s special teams provided the spark, with Malik Flowers doing his best Marc Mariani impression and igniting the comeback with an 80-yard kickoff return in the third quarter.

The halftime speech worked, and from there, the Griz rattled off three more offensive scores and added another special teams touchdown to defeat the Redhawks and keep the postseason run alive.

Photo by Tommy Martino/UM Athletics. AJ Forbes #57 of the Montana Grizzlies hoists head coach Bobby Hauck of the Montana Grizzlies in the air after Montana beat the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Missoula Montana.

Montana will now travel to Fargo to take on the third-ranked and defending national champion North Dakota State Bison on Dec. 3.

“Guts are not in short supply with that bunch, man. They’ve got a lot of guts, they’ve got a lot of heart, courage, and they’re tougher than nails,” said Hauck.

“We were holding the rope as tight as we could, trying not to let it get out of our grasp there in the first half and early in the second half. We were just fighting to stay in the game. Then all of a sudden it took a turn, and we were rolling, and it was a lot of fun in here.”

While the comeback will live in the memory of Griz fans for decades to come, it was also a historic night at Washington-Grizzly Stadium for two other reasons.

With his third-quarter kickoff return for a touchdown, senior Malik Flowers cemented his name among the best returners of all time. Now with seven to his name, Flowers tied the FCS record for the most ever by a single player.

Senior safety Robby Hauck stamped his name in the record books as well, becoming the all-time leading tackler in Big Sky Conference history. Hauck posted 15 stops against the Redhawks to bring his career total to 474 tackles, one better than Ronnie Hamlin of EWU’s career total of 473.

With the new record-holders and quarterback Lucas Johnson surrounding him at the postgame press conference, Hauck once again saluted his team’s bounce-back.

“Congratulations to our team on a really fine comeback effort. There was a lot of fight. It was a heck of a job,” Hauck added.

“And then these guys up here. Congratulations to Lucas on fighting back from a pretty inauspicious start to playing great. To Malik for being an NCAA record holder and sparking us to this comeback win. Then to Robby as the greatest tackler in the history of the Big Sky Conference. So, a heck of a night for the Montana Grizzlies.”

After posting just nine total rushing yards in the first half, Montana poured it on in the second, running out to 390 yards of total offense with 306 of those in the air.

Not only did Flowers have a record-setting day in the kick return game, he also had a career day receiving with 108 yards in the air for UM and 142 return yards for a total of 250 all-purpose yards.

After a slow start, Johnson finished 18-37 for 306 yards and a pair of touchdowns to one interception for a QB rating of 130.6.

Defensively, Hauck led all tacklers with 15 stops, one tackle for loss, and one forced fumble, with Braxton Hill chipped in 14 and a half-sack.

Flowers was not the only special teams standout either, with Junior Bergen returning a punt to the house late in the third quarter to tie the game, totaling 60 yards in the return game.

Led by the OVC Player of the Year, running back Geno Hess, and big-armed quarterback Paxton Delaurent, SEMO racked up 419 total yards with 142 on the ground but wasn’t able to match Montana’s momentum in the second half as the Griz rallied for the win.

Montana struggled to find rhythm in the first half, with errors and missed opportunities putting the home team behind from the get-go.

The Redhawks struck gold early on, capitalizing on a Grizzly mistake to take the lead on the third drive of the game. With UM pinned deep in its own territory, Johnson last the ball in an exchange with running back Nick Ostmo. SEMO’s Lawrence Johnson then scooped it up and returned it 13 yards for an opportunistic score that put the visitors up 7-0 after six minutes.

After more back-and-forth, SEMO extended its lead two drives later when DC Pippin slotted a 35-yard field goal at the start of the second half to go up 10-0 with 13:21 left in the quarter.

Nico Ramos his the first of his two field goals on the day, nailing a 35-yarder to get the Griz on the board with nine minutes to play in the second quarter.

With a comfortable lead, SEMO would go with the ball control strategy from there out, putting together two long scoring drives to end the first and start the second halves.

The Redhawks marched 92 yards in 14 plays over the course of 6:56 to punch in one of two Hess TDs in the game with thirty seconds remaining before the break.

SEMO got the two-fer coming out of the locker room with possession to start the second half as well, going on a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive once again capped by Hess, who barreled in from three out.

Then, the Griz flipped the script.

On the ensuing kickoff, Flowers put the momentum squarely on the Montana sideline, taking the kick 80 yards to the house.

After a quick defensive stand, Montana got right back to work. Johnson got the Griz moving with a 25-yard run on the first play of the drive to go into SEMO territory before finding Cole Grossman for another quick gain of 12.

With UM benefiting from a pass interference call on the next play, Johnson found a wide-open Keelan White for a 17-yard strike that cut the SEMO lead to 24-17, capping a four-play, 69-yard drive.

Feeding off the momentum, the Grizzly defense began swarming DeLaurent, forcing a quick three-and-out with two-straight QB hurries from Patrick O’Connell.

On the ensuing punt, the Griz were back in business once again with Junior Bergen tying the ballgame 24-24 on a 58-yard return. It sent the Thanksgiving weekend Grizzly faithful into a frenzy and was the payoff for game planning done during the week.

“On our scouting report yesterday for our punt return game it was big play mandatory this week because we thought we had them if we could get a return ball, and he gave us that return ball,” said Hauck

“He kicked it to Junior and he didn’t get touched until the shield guy was at three, and he couldn’t get him. It was well-blocked. Great job by Junior getting to it. It was certainly a big plan the game.”

The scoring blitz saw the Griz score a nearly unheard of three touchdowns in just over four minutes of clock time, and put the Griz in attack mode.

Montana put the nail in the SEMO coffin with six minutes to play when Johnson found Grossman across the middle for a 19-yard touchdown pass. The score capped a two-play, 71-yard drive thanks to a huge 52-yard completion to Xavier Harris along the visitor’s sideline.

Photo by Tommy Martino/UM Athletics. The Montana Grizzlies celebrate after beating the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on November 26, 2022 in Missoula, Montana.

Montana now turns its attention to NDSU, the first meeting between the Bison and Griz since the 2015 postseason.

“We’re excited to play that game, and North Dakota State will be too. It’s a game that has, in my opinion, been on a collision course for four seasons now, and we’re finally matching up. So, we’re excited to play that game,” said Hauck.

“But as this is Thanksgiving weekend, I’m very thankful I get to coach this team I love so much another week.”

Montana and NDSU will kick off from the Fargodome at 1:30 p.m. Mountain Time on Saturday, Dec. 3.