The Montana Grizzlies got shocked for almost 30 minutes. The Grizzlies then did most of the shocking in the final 30, but it still wasn’t enough.
Tim Flanders rushed for a school-record 287 yards and a touchdown and No. 1 Sam Houston State advanced to its first national champ
ionship game with a 31-28 win over No. 5 Montana in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinal on Friday night at Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, TX.
The Bearkats (14-0) will play North Dakota State in the FCS championship game on Jan. 7, while the Griz’ season ended with a stellar 11-3 mark.
The Bearkats roared out of the gate with 21 quick points in the opening quarter. Bell finished Sam Houston State's first series with an 11-yard touchdown run.
On the Bearkats' next play from scrimmage, Flanders took the handoff on a draw, broke three tackles and sprinted past would-be tacklers for a 69-yard score.
Just before the end of the quarter, Bell found wide receiver Grant Merritt for a 20-yard touchdown to extend the Bearkats lead to 21-0. All that was done against a Montana defense which came in allowing just 13 points and less than 200 yards rushing over the course of its last six games – all wins.
"There's a reason they haven't lost a football game yet," said UM senior linebacker Caleb McSurdy, who had four tackles. "They've put up some pretty big numbers. We just took too long to get acclimated and for the most part we probably didn't tackle well. And that's a credit to their guys, too, because they've got some dudes."
SHSU led 28-7 late in the second quarter, when the Grizzlies' defense turned momentum. With the Bearkats driving for another score, linebacker Caleb McSurdy deflected a pass from Bell and returned it all the way for a 61-yard touchdown to pull Montana back to within 28-14. Montana could have gotten even closer had the Griz converted on a key fourth-and goal earlier in the half, or had they opted to take the three points – which turned out to be the final margin in the game.
"Looking back it probably does look like, ‘Wow, we need those points,'" Griz head coach Robin Pflugrad said. "I think the philosophy at that point of the game was we needed some momentum, we needed some confidence, and that's what we tried to do to get it."
Following a 25-yard field goal by Bearkats kicker Craig Alaniz in the third quarter, Montana began chipping away at the deficit, and for the most part. UM dominated the second half.
Jordan Canada finished a 10-play, 61-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to make it 31-21, and quarterback Jordan Johnson's 54-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter drew the Grizzlies within three.
The Grizzlies were moving again, until Johnson threw incomplete on a third-and-11 with about six minutes left, forcing a Montana punt. That stall, and three turnovers were part of what hurt Montana in the end. Johnson was involved in two fumbles, the second of which gave the Bearkats the ball deep in UM territory, which eventually led to the only field goal of the game – again, which turned out to be the final margin of victory.
"I thought we would (get the ball back), but you can't leave it up to the defense," Johnson said. "It was my fault for underthrowing the ball. When plays are there to be made, you have to make them. I didn't do that."
And the Bearkats never gave it back. Flanders secured the win with a 22-yard run on fourth-and-1 from the Bearkats' 47 near the 2-minute mark. It was the biggest play of what was a momentus second half.
"My thought was that we just have to keep getting first downs. That was the main thing," Flanders said. "On first-and-10, we just had to get at least 3 or 4 yards to keep the ball moving forward. Everything just took care of itself."
The Bearkats finished with 496 yards and their top-ranked rushing defense held Montana to 103 yards on the ground. Johnson completed 21 of 33 passes for 277 yards for the Grizzlies (11-3), who were making their 11th trip to the FCS semifinals. Johnson once again led the Grizzlies with 277 yards passing, 64 rushing and two TD’s. True freshman Matt Hermanson led the defense with 13 tackles. Jabin Sambrano, who scored the first Griz TD on abeautiful strike from Johnson in the second quarter, had three catches for 72 yards. Sambrano was one of 23 seniors who will depart the UM program.
"I was proud of how we played the second half” Pflugrad said. “We just dug ourselves a big hole in that first half, and you know, credit Sam Houston for that. Excellent team, excellent team speed.
“That’s why this loss hurts so bad, they put in a lot of blood sweat and tears for the University of Montana,” he added. “Both on the field, community service wise and in the class room. It’s a tremendous loss for this senior class. I can’t say enough about those guys.”