MISSOULA — When it comes to Missoula, and most of the time, all of the Football Championship Subdivision, the Montana Grizzlies are the big bears on the block.
Saturday afternoon, at a chilly and loud Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the Grizzlies proved that fact once again. The fifth-ranked Griz thrashed the 15th-ranked Central Arkansas Bears 41-14 in an FCS second-round playoff game. With the win, the Griz (10-2) advanced to the quarterfinals where they’ll host heated rival Northern Iowa (10-2) on Friday night .
The Bears (9-4) were making their first-ever FCS playoff appearance, and despite being one of the top passing teams in the country this season, they were no match for UM’s vaunted defense, which has now held its last four opponents to 14 points or less.
The Grizzlies held Central Arkansas to 25 yards rushing, turned three first-quarter turnovers into 17 points and pulled away to a 38-0 lead before the Bears scored late.
"You can't really spot a really good football team three turnovers and 17 points," said Clint Conque, coach of the usually ball-hawking Bears. "We really kind of dug ourselves a hole.
"It's really exciting to see all three phases of the game play that well," said Montana linebacker Caleb McSurdy, who recovered one of UCA's five fumbles. "I like how we're starting to peak at the right time. We're still practicing as hard as ever, everybody's on the same page; we've all bought into what we're trying to do here. And to go out and beat a good football team like that - it's exciting."
The Grizzlies won their eighth straight game after a 2-2 start.
"It's a beautiful thing to be hitting on all cylinders right now," said Montana receiver Jabin Sambrano, who caught two first-half touchdown passes from Jordan Johnson.
Jordan Canada ran for two more scores for the Grizzlies, who led 31-0 by halftime.
Central Arkansas, which entered the game plus-13 in turnover margin this season, lost three of five fumbles and committed four turnovers.
The first, a fumbled punt, came after the Bears defense had held Montana to a three-and-out on its first series.
Another Central Arkansas fumble, recovered by freshman strong safety Matt Hermanson, left Montana 21 yards from the end zone, and Johnson hit Sambrano from 8 yards out for a 10-0 lead with 6:40 to go in the first.
Hermanson recovered two Central Arkansas fumbles, and senior cornerback Trumaine Johnson intercepted Nathan Dick later in the first quarter.
Peter Nguyen's 2-yard touchdown run 3 minutes later gave the Grizzlies a 17-0 lead.
Sambrano also caught a 22-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter from Johnson, who completed 16 of 25 for 135 yards.
Canada had TD runs of 11 and 12 yards as the Grizzlies totaled 229 yards rushing. Canada's last touchdown, with 9:30 to go in the third quarter, gave the Grizzlies a 38-0 lead.
Brody McKnight kicked two field goals for Montana that extended his school-record streak to 16.
Much like Montana bullied its way past Montana State two weeks ago, the Griz came out of another bye week and did the same to the Bears. Montana outgained Central Arkansas 415-295 in total yards, the Griz rushed for 225 yards and had 27 first downs compared to UCA's 13. Another glaring stat was time of possession, which UM dominated with almost 18 more minutes than the Bears. The Griz defense not only collected four turnovers but , they also held the Bears to a meager 25 yards rushing. Back on offense, Montana twice drive longer than 80 yards for scores in the first half, which took even more out of the Bears’ potent offensive attack.
"That's exactly where we felt it taking over," Griz head coach Robin Pflugrad said. "I think those long drives - not only did our offensive line take over, we noticed that their defensive line was fatiguing to a certain point."
Nugyen rushed for 79 yards and Canada added 60 , almost all in the first half. Johnson threw for 135 yards and two scores and Antwon Moutra caught six balls for 66 yards.
With the win, Montana advanced to the quarterfinals for fourth time in the last five years. Up next is the Northern Iowa Panthers, the No. 5 overall seed. The Panthers beat Wofford Saturday night to set up the matchup with the Griz.
And while the Griz have yet another home game in December to play, they and the Wash-Griz atmosphere left a lasting impression on the Bears.
"I loved playing here," UCA quarterback Nathan Dick said, "But I wish we could have valued the football a little bit better."
Friday night’s quarterfinal game between Montana and Northern Iowa is set to kick off at 6 p.m. at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The game will be aired nationally on ESPNHD and ESPN will provide the stadium with portable lights. Tickets went on sale Sunday in Missoula at a cost of $26. Montana last played Northern Iowa in the 2001 FCS semifinals in Missoula.