Big Plays Haunt Griz in Loss to Bison

Montana hung with the nine-time champion North Dakota State Bison team for much of Saturday’s FCS Playoff game, but big plays from the Bison and injuries to Montana’s starting quarterback and running back proved too much to overcome.

The Grizzlies were within a score at halftime and cut the deficit to just a single point early in the third quarter, but NDSU would go on to score 28 unanswered points on their way to the 49-26 win. The Bison scored almost exclusively on home run plays, hitting on runs of 68, 68, 73 and 75 yards for four touchdowns. They also scored on a scoop-and-score, delivered momentum swinging blows all game long to eliminate the Grizzlies.

It ends Montana’s season in the second round at 8-5 overall, while the Bison advance to their 13th straight quarterfinal.

“I love this team. This is my favorite team that I’ve ever coached. These guys are special,” head coach Bobby Hauck said. “The work that they put in, their willingness to lay it all on the line for Montana, they are special. I flat told them after the game that the only regret I have on this season is I don’t get to coach you guys another game.”

Photo by Tommy Martino courtesy of Grizzly Athletics.

Momentum was on the side of the Grizzlies when Johnson left the game injured. Back-to-back scoring drives for Montana had them down just 14-10 in the final minutes of the first half. The Griz had a chance to score at the end of the half and then get the ball first to start the second half.

Instead, a sack knocked Johnson out of the game and the ball out of his hands, allowing the Bison to scoop it and score. The Griz put together a good first half to be right in the game, gaining 179 yards to NDSU’s 192. They held the Bison to just 21 second quarter yards and only 11 on the ground, but would get away from the them over the final half hour.

“When we got it to 21-20 I felt good. Really good,” Hauck said. “Then we gave up the two big runs and let it get back to a 15-point game. We fought out of that hole early but then we put ourselves right back into it. Tough not having the quarterback in the second and all that stuff is hard. Our guys played hard throughout, they just made more plays than we did. They are a good football team, especially at home. We know what we need to do to play these guys and beat them and hopefully we get the chance next year.”

NDSU went over 500 total yards in the game with over 450 on the ground. The big plays were the difference maker. They had 12 runs of 10-plus yards, which totaled 405 yards, and had four scoring drives of three plays or fewer.

The Grizzlies were just under 50 percent on third down and perfect on their three fourth down conversions, extending drives for much of the game. They scored in all four of their trips to the red zone as well, but turned the ball over three times which led to 21 Bison points.

Lucas Johnson ran for a touchdown, Corbin Walker had his second-career playoff pick-six and Keelan White caught a late pass from Daniel Britt for the Grizzlies scores. Nico Ramos was also 2-for-2 on field goals in the game.

In his final game at Montana, Robby Hauck led the Grizzlies with eight tackles to end his historic career with 482 career stops, the most in the Big Sky and seventh in FCS history. Justin Ford knocked away a couple of passes as the Grizzlies allowed just six completions all game.

Aaron Fontes was impressive in Montana’s air-attack, catching five passes for 75 yards. Isiah Childs ran for a season-high 99 yards in replacement of starter Nick Ostmo. Montana finished with 346 yards of offense.

Montana’s defense forced a three-and-out from the Bison on the first drive of the game and the special teams made an instant impact. Bergen broke a punt out to the right, found a gap and took it 27 yards into NDSU territory to start Montana’s first drive. The Griz would stall out, giving the ball back to the Bison who drove 76 yards in six plays to take a 7-0 lead.

The Bison scored on their next drive as well, breaking their first big run of the day for a 68-yard score to go ahead 14-0 at the 5:57 mark of the first quarter.

Lucas Johnson came out firing on the next Griz drive, completing three-straight passes for a couple of first downs to get Montana into NDSU territory again. Facing a third down, Johnson broke the pocket and found Fontes again for the receivers third first down catch of the drive. It set Montana up in the red zone, where they would face a fourth-and-one inside the 10. Childs muscled through the line, falling forward for the first down at the five.

It appeared Johnson scored on a read option run, but he was ruled down on the one. No matter, the quarterback kept it on the following play to put Montana on the board and make it a one-score game.

Montana’s defense would get a stop thanks to a great tackle from Nash Fouch, and Johnson kept the offensive momentum rolling. He broke a 26-yard run on third down to get the drive near midfield, and then the freshman Gillman went 30 yards on back-to-back runs to get the Griz into scoring range. A sack would stop the drive, but Nico Ramos connected from 40 yards out to cut the lead to 14-10.

The Griz appeared to recover a fumble in NDSU territory on the next drive but a penalty would wipe it away. The Bison used it to drive the field, but the Griz defense stepped up and forced another punt. It would pin Montana deep in Bison territory, where disaster struck just before the half. Johnson was pulled down for a sack and the ball came out, giving NDSU a scoop and score touchdown to make it 21-10.

“Giving up that touchdown on offense really changed the whole tenor of the game,” Hauck said. “I’m not saying if we wouldn’t have done that we wouldn’t have punted it away and they would still get some points, but there wasn’t much time left in the half and we were in pretty good shape at that point certainly.”

Bergen returned the ensuing kickoff near midfield and then Childs broke a 26-yard run to get Montana into field goal range. Ramos would again connect, hitting from 36 yards out this time, to cut the lead to 21-13 at the half. Montana outgained NDSU 102-22 in the second quarter, but the defensive score meant the Bison outscored them 7-6.

On third down situations Montana was good, converting five of 10 and holding NDSU to just 1-of-4 in the opening half. Outside of the two big plays from the Bison, the Griz were possibly the better team in the first half hour.

In the second, Montana got a big play of their own. After a Grizzly three-and-out to open the half, NDSU started another methodical drive into Montana territory. They then took a shot to the outside, but Corbin Walker read the play to perfection and jumped the out-route. He intercepted the pass with a head of steam, taking it back 58 yards for a touchdown that cut the lead to just a point.

The Bison extended it quickly. On the first play of the next drive, they would take an inside run 75 yards for a score to make it 28-20 NDSU. Daniel Britt, who took over for an injured Johnson on the final drive of the opening half, would throw a deep interception on Montana’s next drive.

Once again, a big rush play hurt Montana. It looked like they had TaMerik Williams down at the line of scrimmage, but a broken tackle left him with nothing but open field as he ran 68 yards for a score that made it 35-20 midway through the third quarter.

Britt made a big throw toward the end of the half to Fontes, who rose above a couple of Bison defenders and withstood a big hit for a third down conversion. Childs then took a pitch outside for another first down to move Montana inside the Bison 40-yard line.

They started the fourth quarter with a fourth down conversion as Childs got enough to move the chains. Britt then took a shot for the end zone, but it was intercepted.

The Bison then found their fourth big run of the game, ripping off a 73-yard run for another touchdown that made it 42-20. They would add another short rushing touchdown to get it to 49-20.

Montana added a score to end the game. Britt found Keelan White in the back corner of the end zone for a diving touchdown, his fifth of the year. The extra point was blocked as it ended 49-26.