Griz seeking redemption tonight
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George Ferguson Havre Daily News sports editor [email protected]news.com
Second chances don't come around too often. But for what it's worth, the Montana Grizzlies have certainly earned theirs. Tonight in Chattanooga, Tenn., the top-ranked and unbeaten Grizzlies (14-0) will get their shot at redemption when they take on second-ranked Villanova for the Football Championship Subdivision national championship at 6 p.m. inside Finley Stadium. Montana lost to Richmond 24-7 in the title game a year ago, but is hoping tonight's game is a different story. And as noted before, the Griz have certainly earned their shot at a third national championship. This is Montana's seventh trip to the finals (2-4) and second consecutive appearance, while Villanova makes its first trip to the championship game. Montana won the Big Sky championship outright, gaining a share of the conference title for the 12th straight year and earning its 17th consecutive playoff berth an NCAA record. The Grizzlies rebounded from a 41-14 deficit in the first round to beat South Dakota State 61-48, scoring 34 points in the fourth quarter. Montana then beat Stephen F. Austin 51-0. Montana then earned a wild 24-17 semifinal win over Appalachian State to earn a spot in the title game. The Grizzlies fought sub-zero wind chill and heavy snow to move the ball effectively on the ground against a solid Mountaineers defense. "We've got a second chance," said safety Shann Schillinger. "Being a senior, that's all I could ask for. "That's a credit to Coach (Bobby) Hauck and his staff, and the people around me for putting in the time. I don't think people realize how much time goes into it, and we're excited about this opportunity we've got. We're going to put this one behind us pretty soon, and get onto the next one." But for all the reveling in last Saturday's dramatic win over App. State, the Griz have quickly turned their attention to Villanova. Villanova (13-1) earned the automatic bid from the Colonial Athletic Association and shared the conference crown with Richmond. It was the Wildcats' first league title since sharing the Atlantic 10 championship in 2001 with Hofstra, Maine and William & Mary. The Wildcats beat Holy Cross 38-28 in the first round and then avenged their only loss of the regular season by beating New Hampshire 46-7 on a snowy Philadelphia day. Villanova earned its first trip to the national championship game with a 14-13 comeback win over William & Mary. The Wildcats were down 10-0 at the half, but rallied to earn the victory. The Wildcats' versatile offense was held to just 70 yards of total offense at halftime, but a Matt Szczur 62-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation got Villanova back into the game at 10-7. Villanova's offense was stellar in the fourth quarter, holding the ball for 13 of 15 minutes, with quarterback Chris Whitney (2,679 yards of total offense, 23 Tds, three interceptions) scoring the game-winning touchdown on a sneak through the right side of the offensive line early in the fourth after a 40-yard field goal by William & Mary's Brian Pate extended the Tribe lead to 13-7. Whitney put up just 135 yards of total offense against the Tribe. Villanova's fourth-ranked rushing attack features Whitney, the resurgent Angelo Babbaro (394 yards rushing, six Tds) and Aaron Ball (743 yards rushing, six Tds). Another major part of VU's success has been the outstanding play of its offensive line, led by All-Americans Ben Ijalana at tackle and Brian Brannigan at center. The Wildcats' receiving corps features Brandyn Harvey (53 catches, 13.1 average, five Tds) and all-purpose, versatile Colonial Athletic Association offensive player of the year Szczur (1,991 combined yards, 15 Tds). Szczur was the focus of Villanova's second half comeback. The junior finished the game with 156 combined yards. As good as Montana's rush defense has been this season, Villanova's has been even better, ranking third in FCS. The unit surrendered just 97 yards against a solid Tribe rushing attack, led by running back Jonathan Grimes. The Wildcats' defense has held opponents to just 14 points per game and features Buchanan Award nominee Tim Kukucka (63 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss) at defensive end, defensive tackle Phil Matusz (29 tackles, four tackles for loss), linebackers Terence Thomas (108 tackles, nine tackles for loss) and Osayi Osunde (80 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss). Hard-hitting safeties Ross Ventrone (68 tackles, six pass breakups) and John Dempsey (70 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss) lead a secondary that is known more for its pass support and blitzing than its pass coverage. The Wildcats rank 103rd against the pass, but are 29th overall in total defense. "They've got a good history," Hauck said. "The coach has been there a while and done a nice job with his football team. We've played their conference here and there a lot, so we have a healthy dose of respect for them, I tell you that." Montana counters Nova with a potent offense and a defense playing the best it has all season. Payton Award-nominated running back Chase Reynolds (1,438 yards rushing, 22 Tds) led the Montana effort last week offensively, rushing for 193 yards and two scores, including a 39-yard scoring run to give the Grizzlies the lead in the first quarter. The Grizzlies have one of the top run-blocking lines in the country, paced by senior tackle Levi Horn. Quarterback Andrew Selle (2,692 yards passing, 26 combined Tds, six interceptions) completed just 11-of-27 passes against ASU, but has a reliable arm and is protective of the football. Selle was under constant pressure against Appalachian State and is likely to get even more pressure from a Villanova defense known for its complex blitz schemes. Montana's wide receiving group is littered with talent in All-American Marc Mariani (71 catches, 18.3 average, 12 Tds), Tyler Palmer (37 catches, 12.6 average, four Tds), Sambrano (26 catches, 16.7 average, three Tds) and tight end Steven Pfahler (27 catches, 13.4 average, four Tds). Montana boasts the nation's ninthbest rushing defense and allowed just 144 yards on the ground against Edwards, Devon Moore and the Mountaineers. But the pass defense is one of the worst in FCS, ranking 108th. The unit features defensive end Jace Palmer (37 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups), linebacker Shawn Lebsock (98 tackles), strong safety Erik Stoll (87 tackles), free safety Shann Schillinger (82 tackles, four interceptions) and Johnson (12 pass breakups, five interceptions). Schillinger was one of the defensive stalwarts for Montana in the win over Appalachian State with a teamhigh 13 tackles, while Lebsock added 11 and Stoll and Alex Shaw contributed 10 each. Linebacker Brandon Fisher, the son of Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher, had nine tackles and three key pass breakups. Montana left for Tennessee on Tuesday after practicing on Sunday and Monday in Missoula. UM has also had three practices in Chattanooga leading up to tonight's game. Kickoff is slated for 6:07 MST tonight, and an estimated 6,000 Montana fans should be in attendance. Tonight's FCS title game will be broadcast live on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD.