By ERIC TABER – Photos by MARK MESENKO
During a span of 2 minutes and 28 seconds, the Montana Grizzlies turned a four-point advantage into a four-possession game, rolling to a 45-23 victory over Valparaiso to open the 2017 football season.
Leading by just four, 17-13, at halftime, the Griz turned it on late in the third quarter and into the final period, scoring three touchdowns during a span of six offensive plays and 28 total points over the final 16:24 of the contest.
“Valpo is an improving football team that came in here very prepared and posed some problems,” third-year head coach Bob Stitt said. “This will be great tape for our guys to watch. We had some issues early but we came out in the second half and played really well defensively and the offense caught fire.”
Making his first start in nearly five years dating back to high school, quarterback Reese Phillips – a transfer from Kentucky – threw for 381 yards, completing 27-of-38 passes including four touchdowns.
“There were some jitters before, but the first drive helped scoring that fast,” Phillips said. “Getting used to being hit again was the biggest thing. I got comfortable as the game went on.”
Phillips’ favorite target on the day was sophomore Jerry Louie-McGee, who caught nine passes for 159 yards and two scores.
“That’s just Jerry being Jerry,” Phillips said. “He’s a guy we want to get touches because that’s what he does. We have a lot of weapons though. We want all of our guys to get touches.”
After the Griz defense held the Crusaders to -2 yards and a quick three-and-out to open the game, the offense took over with a five-play, 77-yard touchdown drive in just 1:23. Running back Jeremy Calhoun ran the ball across the goal line from two yards out, a score that was set up by a 63-yard catch-and-run from Louie-McGee three plays prior.
Valparaiso would respond with scores on its next two possessions, but each time, the Griz was able to keep the Crusaders out of the end zone. They would settle for field goals both times, despite a 50-yard completion that reached the UM 15-yard line and a 61-yard completion that got inside the 10.
A UM field goal gave the Griz a 10-6 advantage, but Valpo’s Chris Duncan hit Donny Navarro for a 33-yard score on a broken play in which Duncan was flushed from the pocket and nearly sacked. The score was set up following a Phillips fumble, giving the Crusaders the ball at their own 41-yard line.
Valpo’s only lead of the day would be short-lived though, as UM meticulously marched down the field for a 13-play, 70-yard scoring drive to regain the lead, 17-13, with a 1-yard run by Calhoun. Valpo was threatening late in the half before Josh Sandry intercepted a pass at the 14-yard line with 18 seconds remaining. It was Sandry’s first career interception.
“The first half didn’t go exactly the way you’d want it to, but it was almost a blessing in disguise because we started pretty fast offensively, and then we got behind,” Stitt said. “It was great to see our guys calm, cool and collected on the sidelines. They stuck together and kept grinding.”
Coming out of the break, the Griz turned it on, scoring three touchdowns on six offensive plays – all for positive yardage.
With 1:24 remaining in the third quarter, Phillips threw his first career touchdown pass, hitting an unguarded Samori Toure for 14 yards. The scoring reception was also a first for Toure, a redshirt freshman.
The Griz D was off the field four plays later, turning it over to the offense again, which scored after three plays, capped with a 45-yard deep pass from Phillips to junior Keenan Curran. Following a Tucker Schye sack and shanked punt, the Griz once again had the ball with great field position, and the offense did not disappoint.
On just the second play of the drive, Phillips hit Louie-McGee for a 25-yard touchdown. Within a matter of 148 seconds, the game had turned from 17-13 to 38-13.
“We were fine; we were just shooting ourselves in the foot,” Phillips said. “As we went on, that’s what we are. That’s what we are when we start scoring a lot and scoring quick.”
Thanks to a stellar 58-yard punt that pinned the Crusaders at the 1-yard line, and back-to-back hurries by the defense, the offense got the ball back with great field position yet again. It scored three plays later, using 1:05 off the clock, with Louis-McGee’s second score of the game, this time with him diving into the end zone.
There was plenty to be happy about with the offense, which was 5-for-5 in the red zone and 9-of-15 (60 percent) on third down. As a team, the Griz racked up 538 yards of offense, including 399 through the air. Calhoun was UM’s leading rusher, carrying 20 times for 77 yards and scoring the game’s first two touchdowns.
On defense, James Banks had 12 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, while Evan Epperly had an interception – and nearly another – as did Sandry. Schye forced and recovered a fumble in addition to his key third-down sack late in the game.
“The defense played really well, especially our D-line,” Schye said. “My teammates up front and everyone across the board played really well.”
The Griz also shined on special teams, with kicker Brandon Purdy having a perfect day (a 24-yard field goal and six point-after attempts). Perhaps the star of the team, though, was punter Eric Williams, who booted four balls for an average of 53.2 yards, including the 58-yarder.
“Eric had a great day,” Stitt said. “That last punt, I told the team, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better punt than that.’ You see a lot of long punts on TV, but for that one to stop on the 1-yard line was incredible. Everyone wants to talk about kickers when they’re not very good. We should talk about them today because they were very good.”
With the win, the Griz remain unbeaten in home season openers dating back to 2003. Montana has a tall task next week, taking on the Washington Huskies in Seattle. Washington, the defending Pac-12 champions are ranked No. 7/8 in this week’s FBS top-25 polls and beat Rutgers on Friday evening.
Split-the-Pot: Today’s winning Split-the-Pot number was 623238. The winner, from Missoula, took home $7,883.
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