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Game Day Feature: Johnson's return fueled Grizzlies

Griz QB has quickly turned things around in Missoula


November 22, 2013

AP Photo

University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson returned this season after missing the 2012 campaign while embroiled in a sexual assault case. Johnson was acquitted last winter and has come back to lead the Grizzlies to 9-2 season and a likely Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth. In one career start against Montana State, Johnson led the Griz to a 36-10 win in Bozeman back in 2011. Saturday at Bobcat Stadium, he'll try and do it again.

When Jordan Johnson ran out of the Washington-Grizzly Stadium tunnel for the Montana Grizzlies’ season-opening game with Appalachian State back on Aug. 31, it was a moment to remember.

But throughout the course of that night, it was also clear that the Grizzlies, who went 5-6 without Johnson during the 2012 season, were back to normal. In his first game in nearly two years, Johnson threw three touchdown passes and led the Griz to a scintillating 30-6 win over the Mountaineers.

And from there, it’s all finally been normal for junior quarterback from Oregon, who helped push the Griz to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals in his first year as the Griz’ starter, way back in 2011. That season, Johnson guided the Grizzlies to an 11-3 season, and a near-miss at a national championship game berth.

Individually, Johnson was spectacular in the stretch run. During the Griz’ last six games of that season, where he threw 11 of his 24 TD’s in the final six games. Johnson also ran for 506 yards that year, which was third on a Griz’ squad that included star backs Peter Nyguen, Jordan Canada and Dan Moore.

Down the stretch of that season, in only his sophomore year, Johnson was doing things few Grizzly QB’s had done. He was a true dual threat and Montana was poised for even bigger things to come.

However, everything that was normal for Johnson quickly turned to abnormal in the blink of an eye. A sexual assault charge, of which he was unanimously acquitted of in the winter of 2013, would cause him to miss the 2012 season. During that time, he saw the head coach, Robin Pflugrad, who recruited him, get fired, and then watched his team stumble to a 5-6 season, the first losing season for the Griz in 25 years. It was certainly a year that would change Johnson’s life forever.

However, now Johnson’s life is in a much better place. He’s back to being the leader of the Grizzlies, back to being able to focus on just being a student-athlete, and it’s no coincidence, the Griz are back to their winning ways.

And now, Johnson is back in the annual Brawl of the Wild, a game he shined in in 2011 when he threw a pair of TD’s to help the Griz upset then No. 1 Montana State 36-10 in Bozeman. Now, JJ as he’s called is going back to Bozeman to try and do it again.

“Two years ago it was awesome. To go in there, they were ranked No. 1 and to beat them the way we beat them was probably the most fun I’ve had playing football. At any level,” Johnson said. “Just from that standpoint, that’s the only experience I have in this game and it was a lot of fun for me. I can’t wait to play on Saturday.”

The Griz are hoping this Saturday will be just as fun as the last time Johnson was on the field at Bobcat Stadium. So far, the season has been a lot of fun.

Johnson, who was an Big Sky All-Conference performer in 2011, has already thrown for a career-high 27 TD’s in Mick Delaney’s pro style offense, an offense Johnson has never operated in before. He’s been remarkably efficient this season, throwing just four interceptions in 173 pass attempts. He has 2,749 yards passing, and while he doesn’t carry the ball as much as he did in Pflugrad’s spread option attack, he has still made huge plays with his feet throughout the season.

But perhaps bigger than all of his stats, which will surely land him All Big Sky accolades again next week, is the fact that the Griz are winning, and their field general is a huge reason why.

Since a bitter loss at Northern Arizona back on Sept. 28, the Griz have won six of their last seven games to climb to a No. 5 ranking, putting them on the verge of getting a national seed in the upcoming FCS playoffs. Johnson led a spectacular final-minute drive to send the Griz to an overtime win over Cal Poly, and he threw an overtime, walk-off TD in Montana’s wild 51-48 win at Sacramento State. He also nearly engineered a great comeback against Eastern Washington, where he threw three TD passes in the final eight minutes in what turned out to be a 42-36 loss.

There’s no doubt Johnson has been the catalyst for a Griz’ team which has roared back to life after a shockingly difficult 2012 season. The QB who gave the Big Sky Conference fits two years ago is now doing it again.

But perhaps more importantly, his return seemingly injected a new attitude into a Montana Grizzly team now set on taking its rightful place in the FCS playoffs back.

“When you lose a member of the family like that it stings,” Griz star linebacker Jordan Tripp said about Johnson at Big Sky media day. “When you get somebody like that back, it’s pretty special. The whole morale and aura of the team, overnight it just changed.

“You get somebody like that back who truly, genuinely cares about everybody on the team and they’ve got that feeling back. I mean he’s our field general, our compass on offense. He’s going to lead you that way. He’s very smart. The guys really look up to him. He’s chosen as a captain. That attitude, I mean it’s so contagious.”

And with that Grizzly attitude back, with Johnson back at the controls, the Griz are now set to barn storm their way into Bobcat Stadium on Saturday. In 2012, Montana scored just seven points in a 16-7 loss in the Cat-Griz showdown in Missoula. Johnson wasn’t on the field that day, but he will be Saturday in Bozeman. And there’s no doubt, like everything about this season so far, Johnson’s presence in the Brawl of the Wild will make it very different.

“They (Montana State) have one of the best defenses we’ve seen, definitely,” Johnson noted. “You turn on the film and they just line up and say, ‘We’re better than you,’ and lots of times they are. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.

“I feel like we’ve played well to this point,” Johnson said. “We’re 9-2 so you can’t really complain. But I feel like our best football is still out there. We haven’t really put together a complete game on both sides of the ball. If we can do that, I think we could be a really special team.”

The Griz may not have put together a complete game yet, as Johnson insists, but because they have JJ at the helm again, there's no question, they're already a special team.

That's because Johnson is a special player, a special quarterback and a special talent, and the Griz are lucky to have their leader back.


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