Strong second half lifts Montana to a fourth straight win over Montana State in Bobcat Stadium
BOZEMAN — In recent games between the Montana Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats, the first half has been a defensive slug fest. And in the end, the home team hasn’t fared well.
On Saturday, both trends continued.
The No. 5 Montana Grizzlies dominated the second half of the 113th Brawl of the Wild, scoring 21 points and beating the No. 5 Montana State Bobcats 28-14 in front of a record crowd of 21,527 at sunny Bobcat Stadium. The win solidified an FCS playoff berth for the Grizzlies (10-2, 6-2), while it finished off the struggling Cats (7-5, 5-3), who limped to a three-game losing streak to end the season.
“I’ve never lost in Bozeman,” said Montana senior middle linebacker Brock Coyle, a Bozeman native who enjoyed a stellar day with a game-high 14 tackles and two forced fumbles.
“I just couldn’t be more proud of these guys. We’re such a close team and I’m proud of the way we’ve overcome so much adversity and we came out on top. It means everything to me and I know it means everything to the guys ... And hey, man, we got that (Great Divide) trophy back in Missoula.”
While Montana piled on the points behind a remarkable second-half performance from junior quarterback Jordan Johnson, it was the consistency of Coyle, and the Grizzly defense, which stunned MSU’s usually high-octane offense all day long. Montana State converted on just 4 of 13 third-down attempts and managed just 277 yards with two costly fumbles. Cats quarterback DeNarius McGhee, the preseason player of the year in the Big Sky, struggled in completing 17 of 33 passes for 160 yards, and the Cats didn’t score an offensive touchdown, a Shawn Johnson 1-yard run, until the 6:02 mark of the fourth quarter when the Griz were out in front 21-7.
“People will tell you the best pass defense is a pass rush and our guys up front just overwhelmed their offensive line all day,” said Coyle, whose unit tallied four sacks. “When (McGhee) was scrambling, we covered well all day today and I think it got to him.
“He’s a tough kid and I have a lot of respect for him. I told him after the game that he has to be one of the best Bobcats of all time. We knew the offense went through him, and we shut him down pretty good today.”
But as good as Montana’s offense complimented the defensive effort in the final 30 minutes, it wasn’t that way in the first half. Both teams struggled mightily on offense, while the Griz’ special teams were even more anemic.
Johnson struck the first blow when he took a punt back 82 yards to the house with 3:32 left in the first quarter, giving MSU a 7-0 lead.
“He’s a great talent, an amazing return man,” MSU head coach Rob Ash said. “A lot of that was his individual effort.”
And not only did UM give up the return to Johnson, but the Griz also had a punt and a field goal blocked in the first 30 minutes. Still, UM managed to put together a key, 15-play, 89-yard drive which resulted in a diving Jordan Canada TD run. The drive, which sent the Griz and Cats into halftime locked at 7-7, was kept alive by a critical 15-yard scramble by Johnson on a third down play midway through.
As it turns out, Johnson was just getting started.
The Griz got the ball to start the third quarter, and again marched. UM went on a 72-yard drive which chewed up another four minutes of possession, this time capped by a Travon Van 3-yard scoot through the middle of the MSU defense. Jamaal Jones caught two big pass plays on the drive, and helped stake the Griz to a 14-7 lead.
The score stayed that way until a huge shift took place early in the fourth. With MSU’s defense still playing well, the Cats looked like they were headed in the right direction until star senior running back Cody Kirk was drilled and fumbled with 12:26 left in the fourth quarter. From there, it took the Griz just three plays to capitalize, with Johnson hitting a wide open Clay Pierson for a 20 yard strike, giving UM a 21-7 lead.
“It had to be one of the worst plays of my career,” said an emotional Kirk afterwards. “That fumble there, it’s very depressing. We just couldn’t get it rolling after that.”
The Cats answered with Shawn Johnson’s short TD run, but Montana wasn’t done either. On their ensuing possession, the Jordy Johnson and Jones hooked up on two key third-down conversions, and Canada did the rest. He ripped off runs of 11, 12 and eight yards, the last of which salted the game away by putting the Griz ahead by 14 points with just 1:49 left in the game.
“They had a magnificent drive with six minutes,” Ash said. “What was good about it, and I give them credit, is a lot of people will just pull the reins in, just run three plays and give it back to you. They didn’t do that. They threw the ball down field and took an aggressive approach to try to manage the last part of the game. I give them hats off for that. It was well done.”
“At the beginning of the game we just shot ourselves in the foot,” Jordan Johnson said. “It was just us beating us. They weren’t doing anything different than we thought they were going to do. Once we settled in we started playing our football.”
Johnson finished with 250 yards, one TD and no interceptions, while Jones had a huge day, catching seven balls for 120 yards. Canada led all rushers with 71 yards and two scores. UM dominated time of possession to the tune of a 13-minute advantage.
On defense, the Grizzlies were led by Coyle, but Tyrone Holmes, John "J.P." Kanongata’a and Zack Wagenmann all had sacks on McGhee, who played his final game of a brilliant career at MSU, as did Kirk, who was held to just 49 yards on 11 carries, Tanner Bleskin, who caught five balls for 60 yards, and senior defensive end Brad Daly, who recorded one sack, seven tackles and the blocked UM punt in the first quarter. In all, it was a tough day for the Bobcats, who will lose 11 senior starters off a team which went to three straight FCS playoffs before what turned out to be an injury-riddled and frustrating 2013 campaign.
“I think our guys played their hearts out,” Ash said. “We had more injuries this year than any team I’ve coached in a long time.”
Meanwhile, the Griz have now won four straight games ahead of next weekend’s bye week. Montana found out Sunday that it received the No. 8 seed in the upcoming playoffs and will play either Coastal Carolina or Bethune-Cookman Dec. 7 in the second round in Missoula.
But before that, the Griz reveled in Saturday’s win, which capped a remarkable turnaround. A year ago, the Griz went 5-6 without Johnson, and in the midst of an NCAA investigation and plenty of off-the-field turmoil. Included in that season was a 16-7 loss to the Bobcats at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“I can’t really find the words to describe how good it feels to come here and beat our rival,” Johnson said. “It’s unbelievable. Honestly, it’s one of the big reasons why I stayed at Montana, so I could play in this game.”
“It’s very, very satisfying for those young men who were here, said Griz head coach Mick Delaney. “It’s a great honor to those kids to be able to hang in and not throw in the towel a year ago. We had the two losses this year. Any time you don’t learn from adversity, you’re not going to get better. I think we’ve learned from every game we’ve played to help us the next week.”
Griz 28, Cats 14
Montana 0 7 7 14—28
Montana St. 7 0 0 7—14
MSU — S. Johnson 82 punt return (Perez kick), 3:31.
UM — Canada 7 run (Worst kick), 1:10.
UM — Van 3 run (Worst kick), 11:15.
UM — Pierson 20 pass from J. Johnson (Worst kick), 9:10.
MSU — S.Johnson 1 run (Perez kick), 6:02.
UM — Canada 8 run (Worst kick), 1:49.
A — 21,527.
First downs 22 15
Rushes-yards 42-115 31-117
Passing 250 160
Comp-Att-Int 23-35-0 17-33-0
Return Yards 53 102
Punts-Avg. 6-40.8 8-37.4
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 2-2
Penalties-Yards 7-147 6-75
Time of Possession 36:24 23:36
RUSHING — Montana, Canada 19-71, Van 13-23, J.Johnson 6-18, Nguyen 1-2, Warren 1-2, Team 2-(minus 1). Montana St., McGhee 18-57, Kirk 11-49, S.Johnson 2-11.
PASSING — Montana, J.Johnson 23-35-0-250. Montana St., McGhee 17-33-0-160.
RECEIVING — Montana, Jones 7-120, Warren 4-52, Naccarato 2-32, Pierson 2-30, Henderson 2-7, Van 2-(minus 1), Harper 1-9, Canada 1-4, Hagfors 1-4, Nguyen 1-(minus 7). Montana St., T.Bleskin 5-60, Ellis 3-31, Roderick 2-23, S.Johnson 2-16, Flotkoetter 2-11, Perkins 1-14, Newell 1-4, Kirk 1-1.