Electric: Griz light up Panthers
MISSOULA — It wasn't just the portable lights brought in by ESPN that got a bolt of electricity during Friday night's nationally televised Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinal game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The visiting Northern Iowa Panthers got zapped as well, and Montana sophomore quarterback Jordan Johnson did most of the shocking.
Johnson threw for three touchdowns and ran for another as the No. 5-ranked Griz blew out No. 2 Northern Iowa 48-10 in front of a raucous Wash-Griz, Friday night lights crowd. It was UM's 11th straight FCS quarterfinal win at home and ninth straight on the season, setting up another game under the lights on ESPN, this Friday against top-ranked Sam Houston State in Huntsville, TX.
But as lopsided as the game was, UNI did its best to silence the 23,000-plus Griz fans when the Panthers went up 7-0 midway through the first quarter. However, Johnson didn't take long to start making magic in the biggest game of his young life.
Johnson took off on a third-and-8 pass play, cut behind Jordan Canada's block and ran 23 yards to set up first and goal. Canada then scored to tie the game 7-7 near the end of the first quarter and the Griz were off and running. Johnson put UM up 14-7 early in the second when he made some nifty moves on a run covering six yards.
He also made another long run in second quarter, followed by two Peter Nuygen runs as the Griz went ahead 21-7, then he put the finishing touches on a magnificent first half by finding Kavario Middelton on a 5-yard strike with :30 left in the half as the Griz led 28-10 at intermission. The Middelton scoring drive included a daring 22-yard pass play to Antwon Moutra, one of Johnson's many great throws on the night.
"Jordy did exactly what I envisioned him doing when he came to Montana," said Robin Pflugrad, UM's second-year coach. "I watched him in high school many, many times, and he played like he did tonight.
"We knew coming in that they were going to be a really good defense, and that their defensive line had a bunch of quick guys," said Johnson. "We didn't get down on ourselves though we didn't get things going (early). We just kept pushing, and eventually starting playing like we could play."
Johnson added another TD pass at the start of the third quarter. He took Montana down the field and threw a great 8-yard pass to Sam Gratton to put the Griz ahead 35-10 with almost the whole second half still to go. He later hit Gratton twice down field in the fourth quarter, the latter lass covering 25 yards to really stick the dagger in the Panthers, who not only struggled to stop Johnson and the Griz rushing attack, but who were also harassed by the UM defense all night.
UNI senior QB Tirrell Rennie came in leading the Panthers in rushing and had only threw two interceptions all season. But the Griz picked Rennie off twice, including a pick-six by Donnie Lisowski halfway through the fourth quarter which made the final margin of 38 points. Rennie was also sacked five times, including two by Griz sophomore linebacker J.P. Kanongata'a. Rennie finished the game with 51 yards rushing and 93 passing, while the Griz outgained UNI, 463-257 in yards. Trumaine Johnson also picked off Rennie in the third quarter.
"He's (Rennie) a tremendous athlete," said Griz linebacker Caleb McSurdy, who had 10 tackles. "He's the type of guy where the more film you watch, the more you lie awake thinking about him. He'll gash you from all different areas of the field.
"We just knew it would take all 11 (players) getting to the ball on every play and being gap-sound and leverage-sound. For the most part, we were pretty good on that."
As good as the Griz defense was, the night belonged to the composed and ever-improving sophomore signal caller. Johnson finished the game with 196 yards passing and no INT's, as well as a Griz-best 86 yards on the ground. Montana rushed for over 200 yards for the eighth straight game. Nuygen rushed for 57 yards and Dan Moore added a bruising 51 yards. Gratton caught for balls for a game-high 90 yards, while Moutra had 56 yards on three catches. Jabin Sambrano totaled 209 all-purpose yards, including 94 in punt returns, as the Griz were a perfect 5-for-5 in redzone scoring chances.
"It was a lot of fun, our guys were very focused" Pflugrad said. "The first couple series on offense their defensive line did an outstanding job. But our offensive line did a great job of adjusting. And the defense just came to play again.
"This is my second night game, but the first one I've gotten a chance to start," said McSurdy. "It's just a special environment. Our fans are awesome. I had friends and family watching all over the country, and so I wanted to go out and have a great showing. And we did.
The Grizzlies will meet No. 1 seed Sam Houston State at 6 p.m. on Friday night in Huntsville. The game will be televised again on ESPN. The winner will then face either North Dakota State or Georgia Southern in the FCS Championship Game Jan. 7 in Frisco, TX.