MISSOULA — Joey Counts tried to be a super hero by soaring into the end zone but he could hear the words of his coaches inside his head. He’s treating this season like his second chance and on Saturday afternoon, he got one more try.
One play after diving into the South end zone at Washington-Grizzly Stadium and essentially body surfing atop a host of Griz and Bison, Counts capitalized. On a fourth down with two yards to gain and three seconds to play, the strapping Montana junior running back followed a trio of hard-hitters through the hole and into the college football lore of the Garden City.
Counts’ two-yard touchdown helped Montana secure an instant classic win over four-time defending national champion North Dakota State, a victory that will be remembered among the best in the history of this venue. As Counts high-stepped across the goal line, the record crowd erupted. The Grizzlies had done what most thought they could not. Montana had a 38-35 win over the No. 1 team in the FCS.
For Counts, it served as a sort of rebirth after battling the injury bug for more than a year. The 5-foot-9, 215-pounder is as put together as any player in college football. His rippling yet stout physique is part Adonis, part pit bull. He came to Montana with substantial hype after a record-setting career at Desert Ridge High in Mesa. He set the Arizona all-class record by rushing for more than 400 yards and scoring five touchdowns in a single game as a high school senior.
In 2012, he was thrust into action as a true freshman because of injuries in front of him on the depth chart. By 2013, he looked like could carve out a spot in Montana’s talented running back rotation. As a true sophomore, he was the Grizzlies’ fourth-leading rusher, piling up 207 yards in his first seven games of action and adding a 51-yard receiving touchdown that showed off his sneaky speed. But midway through his breakout season, he broke his foot.
The following July, eight months later, the foot still hadn’t healed. He had surgery and missed all of last season and all of spring drills. He was slow to return even during Montana’s first fall camp under new head coach Bob Stitt. On Saturday, he struggled to find any breathing room against NDSU’s swarming defense. Before the final series, he had eight carries for 14 yards. His ninth carry was denied at the goal line. His 10th carry helped paint a moment those in attendance won’t soon forget.
“God’s got an amazing plan and the adversity that I’ve gone through and the struggle with an injury has all paid off in this moment,” the typically boisterous Counts said, the emotion apparent within his words. “I don’t think you could write a better script to end it.”
Counts’ winning score capped a final drive that boosted No. 13 Montana to a win most thought was impossible. With a new coach, quarterback Brady Gustafson making his first college start and an FCS juggernaut in town, the common narrative around Missoula centered on if UM could avoid being blown out.
The Grizzlies trailed for the duration of the second half. Montana’s final possession came after another stop by its stout defense. The clock read one minute, 39 seconds. Gustafson converted a first down when he found Jones for a 15-yard gain. He converted a fourth down into a first down by hitting redshirt freshman Reece Carlson with a perfect pass on a seam route for a 31-yard gain into the red zone. Gustafson’s 11-yard rope to junior Ellis Henderson on a slant route got Montana down to the two-yard line with a first down and 15 seconds to play.
On first down, Gustafson spiked the ball. On second down, Montana inserted its jumbo package, a personnel group that includes defensive tackles Jamal Wilson and Caleb Kidder and linebacker Jeremiah Kose, all three starters on the Grizzly defense. The ensuing play was a play-action handoff to Counts into a bootleg to the left. Gustafson didn’t see an opening and threw the ball away.
“We were ready for the jumbo play and I probably should’ve called it on the first play, the little bootleg but I didn’t get it called,” Stitt said. “I wanted to get it inside the three where we could use those guys. We’ve been practicing it a lot and those defensive guys are so athletic and powerful, we wanted to get them in there and get Joey on the I (formation) and let him get after it.”
On third down, the jumbo package again got a good push but the blitzing Bison defense met Counts at the goal line. He jumped into the air and seemed to float as more than five seconds ticked off the clock. The ball never broke the plane, setting up a goal line play with the game on the line.
“You’ve got to get in at all costs,” Counts said. “We talk about in the RB (running backs) groups all the time, if you are going to dive into the end-zone, you are not going to put the ball out there, you are going to dive in with your whole body and had I projected my hands over the goal-line, maybe I would’ve scored but we talk about it all the time getting your whole body in the end-zone. It didn’t happen.”
Montana burned its final timeout. The suspense continued to build as NDSU used its final timeout. With smoke swirling in the air and the entire stadium on its feet, Counts took the fourth down hand off, saw a pile in the middle, bounced outside and ran through Jordan Champion’s final tackle attempt to seal the signature win.
“We contemplated (running bootleg) on that last play,” Stitt said. “I thought about changing it, running it to the other side and then we finally said, ‘No, let’s just win the ball game. Let’s run Iso again.’ It was there and man, we got it in.”
“I couldn’t even tell you what was going through my mind,” Counts said. “You can’t explain it. You are so focused and you know what you have to do and you find a way to do it. I was prepared to go over the top if I needed to but I read it with my eyes and I took it.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.