By ERIC TABER
Montana needed this game. The week after a loss, with a backup quarterback starting, against a traditional rival and one of the best programs in the Big Sky in recent years, the Griz needed a boost. A second straight loss could have derailed the season heading into the home stretch of the season for the Grizzlies. Instead, they steamrolled through rival Eastern Washington after facing an early deficit, going on a 31-3 run that led to a 34-17 victory.
The win brings Montana to 6-2 on the season and 3-1 in the Big Sky, keeping them in the hunt for the Big Sky Championship.
“Certainly, to beat a team that played in the National Championship game last year is a great win for us,” Head Coach Bobby Hauck said following the game. “I’m proud of our guys for their effort and how they approached the game coming off a loss and how they finished it frankly.”
Any win over a rival is special, but this game came with another bit of history to make it that much sweeter. The Grizzlies picked up win No. 600 in program history, just the 22nd FCS team to reach the mark. Montana becomes the first Big Sky program to reach the milestone and is just the fourth FCS school west of the Mississippi (with North Dakota St., UNI, South Dakota St.) to join the 600-win club.
Hauck and his staff made adjustments offensively with Cam Humphrey starting his first game as a Grizzly in place of the injured Dalton Sneed. Humphrey managed an offense that slowed down the tempo and went to the ground often, racking up 254 rushing yards.
Running back Marcus Knight had another big game, scoring a hat trick of touchdowns and gaining 131 yards on the ground. This is the third time this season Knight has rushed for three touchdowns in a single game, as the back is now up to 12 on the season. The sophomore also had big plays out of the backfield, adding on 65 yards on three catches to bring his all-purpose yardage to 196. He averaged five yards per carry, continually putting the Grizzlies into short-yardage situations.
“As a running back, you are always excited when you get told you are going to be able to run the ball,” Knight said. “We just went into the game ready to run, and like our coaches say the two or three-yard runs early in the game, later in the game when the defense gets worn down they turn into 10, 15 or maybe you break one. So it was just trusting the play calling and trusting the holes, and eventually they are going to pop.”
The rush offense helped Montana control the clock, as they finished with over 37 minutes of possession. A large part of that was the Grizzly defense’s ability to get off the field quickly. In 14 Eastern Washington drives, they were able to stay on the field for two minutes or more just four times. The Grizzlies also forced the Eagles into four three-and-outs.
The Grizzly defense, which allowed a season-high 49 points last week, answered the call on Saturday. The Grizzlies gave up just 17 points, and most of Eastern Washington’s damage came via big plays. It was the lowest scoring total of the season against FCS competition for the Eagles.
The usual suspects led the Grizzly defense, as Dante Olson had 14 tackles, and Robby Hauck added 10 — six of which were solo. Jesse Sims and Jacob McGourin (a Cheney, Wash. navitve) also had sacks, both of which came on third down and ended Eastern Washington drives. Bottling up the run early allowed the Grizzlies to get after the quarterback.
“Stopping the run has been a point of emphasis all week and just in this program, being able to stop the run,” Sims said. “Our offense is doing a great job running the football, so we know on defense we need to be able to stop it. Eastern has a high-powered offense, so once we got the run stopped and they started spreading it out a bit, we knew we needed to get after the quarterback and cover downfield, which we did a good job of.”
Montana continued to show that they will make adjustments at halftime that completely change the tone of the game in the second half. After entering the break trailing 14-10, the Grizzlies won the final 30 minutes 24-3. On the season, the Grizzlies have outscored their opponents by 115 points in the second half.
“Aaron Best had his team ready to go, they came after us in the first half, and that was tough,” Hauck said. “We were down and had to fight our way back, and I really like our football team’s ability to do that. I think we’re a second-half team; I think we’re a fourth-quarter team, which is where we want to be playing our best on any given Saturday, and that’s what it was. I’m happy for our guys, and I’m happy for the University of Montana on 600 wins.”
Humphrey finished with a solid line of 20-for-29, 176 yards and a touchdown in his first start at Montana. He also had 35 yards on the ground, picking up a couple of key third-down conversions with his feet. Montana also got a key contribution from freshman Nick Ostmo, who ran 18 times for 79 yards.
“Going into the week I was kind of aware of the situation,” Humphrey said. “I knew the team was going to rally around me, and the defense was going to step up, which they did. The O-linemen played a hell of a game, and we have a pretty good running back behind me as well, so they made it easy.”
The ability to run the ball well, and limit your opponent on the ground, is a key component of a Bobby Hauck football team. They accomplished that goal on Saturday, outgaining the Eagles by 153 yards on the ground. The Eagles ran for just 101 yards.
“That’s good, hard-nosed football,” Hauck said. “It looked like late fall in the Northern Rockies out there early in the game, and you have to be able to run the ball or you’re not going to win late in the season. And you have to be able to stop it because the other team is trying to do it. Certainly we did a good job on both sides of that equation.”
The major factor in dominating the running game was the play of Montana’s lines. The defensive line mixed a number of players, including several freshmen, to control the line of scrimmage. The same could be said of the offensive line, who had a good push all day long. They established the line, and the backs then made plays.
“Our backs are running hard. Marcus ran hard, Nick ran hard, they got a lot of yards after contact, and they were breaking tackles,” Hauck said. “The front was pushing it, and with the young guys we have going right now. I think the future is bright.”
Humphrey established himself early in the game with a dazzling play, bouncing off his own lineman before spinning away from a sack and delivering a perfect strike on the run for a Grizzly first down. He managed an impressive first drive, going 61 yards and taking up nearly half the quarter as the Griz opened the game with a field goal. The quarterback went 4-for-5 for 30 yards with a couple of nice rushes in his first drive under center.
Eastern drove into Montana territory on its first drive but failed to convert on fourth down to give it back to the Grizzlies.
The Grizzly defense held strong in the first quarter, and Humphrey capped off the quarter with a scramble on third down to keep a Montana drive alive and finish the first frame with a 3-0 lead. Eastern Washington had the ball for just three minutes in the opening quarter, as the Grizzly offense controlled the tempo and pace of the game early.
Humphrey let loose his first deep pass early in the second, and a pass interference penalty kept the Grizzlies from a big play. A couple plays later, Humphrey again kept the drive alive on his feet, escaping the pocket and lowering his shoulder as he bullied his way to a first down. Montana then rolled the dice, going for it on fourth down from the Eastern 19-yard line. They couldn’t convert as Humphrey’s pass hit the dirt, and the Eagles took over on downs.
Eastern Washington took advantage, going 81 yards in just over two minutes to take its first lead of the game 7-3. The Eagles got the ball back quickly and scored just as fast, using a big 62-yard completion by Limu-Jones to set up a touchdown drive that lasted less than a minute. The touchdown gave Eastern Washington a 14-3 lead with 6:29 remaining in the half.
Montana found a big play of its own on the ensuing drive as Humphrey found Knight out of the backfield for a 37-yard gain. As the snow started to come in force, the Grizzlies went to the ground four straight times, and Knight found the endzone with a four-yard touchdown rush to cut the lead to 14-10.
The teams traded punts, but Adam Wilson won the field position battle by booming a career-high 60-yard punt to put the Eagles on their own five. The Eagles ran out the clock from there to take a 14-10 halftime lead.
On its second drive of the half, Eastern Washington went for it on fourth down from their own territory and picked up a crucial conversion. They gained 40 yards in two rush plays, bringing the ball into the red zone. The Griz defense held up, forcing a field goal as Eastern Washington took a 17-10 lead.
The Grizzlies picked up their tempo on the following drive to an impressive result. After operating without much no-huddle for much of the game, the Grizzlies picked up the pace and scored on a five-play drive in just 1:32. Knight broke through the line, juking a tackler and racing 45 yards to the endzone to tie the game at 17-all.
Barriere had a pass deflected back into his own hands on the next drive, and Montana then brought him down for a 17-yard loss on the play. A 17-yard punt followed two plays later, giving the Grizzlies the ball inside Eastern territory to start the drive. The field position proved vital, as it set up Brandon Purdy for a 46-yard field goal to give Montana the lead back at 20-17.
The Grizzly defense continued to have success getting to Barriere, sacking the quarterback on third down to force a three-and-out. Keynan Foster then had a 13-yard return on the punt to set the Grizzlies up in Eastern Washington territory for the second straight drive.
Knight brought the Grizzlies deep into Eagle territory on a shovel pass from Humphrey, then broke free around the edge for a nine-yard touchdown. It was the third rushing score of the game for the back and brought him to a dozen touchdowns on the year.
Eastern Washington then couldn’t handle the kickoff, turning the ball back over to the Grizzlies as Malik Flowers came flying in for a recovery at the Eastern Washington 23-yard line. Humphrey completed an 18-yard pass to Samuel Akem. The Humphrey-Akem connection worked again on third down for a back shoulder touchdown that gave the Grizzlies a 34-17 lead with 12:02 remaining.
The electricity inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium didn’t abate when the Montana defense retook the field. The defense forced a three-and-out as Jesse Sims sacked Barriere on third down. Louie-McGee then fair caught the punt at the Eastern Washington 48-yard line, once again setting the Griz up with great field position for the fourth straight drive. The Griz turned the ball over, but Montana’s defense again shut down the high-powered Eagle offense. In five drives, Montana’s defense forced the EWU offense back six yards.
Montana put an exclamation point on the defensive performance by stopping the Eagles on fourth down on their final drive of the game. The Grizzlies took over on their own 14 after the stop and ran out the clock.
In year two under Head Coach Bobby Hauck, the Grizzlies have already matched the number of wins they had a season ago. And with four games remaining, the Griz have their sights set on closing out the season strong and returning to the playoffs.
Next week, they will head to Hillsboro, Ore. to face an upstart Portland State team that enters this Saturday winners of three straight games. They then return home for games against Idaho and Weber State before closing the season on the road against Montana State.
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