MISSOULA — Before Wednesday’s practice at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Montana defensive coordinator Jason Semore said his Griz needed to make a statement to earn respect on a national level.
Consider the statement made in resounding fashion.
Montana forced four first-half turnovers and ran 56 plays before intermission to build a 30-point lead in burying Northern Colorado early on the way to a 44-14 victory here on Saturday.
“We definitely made that statement,” Montana senior cornerback Ryan McKinley said after snaring one of Montana’s five interceptions. “I feel like with this group of guys we have on defense, we know what we need to do week in and week out. It’s about preparing all week and going out and playing. It may look easy sometimes but it’s real fun to be out there with these guys on defense and know that each and every snap, we have to dominate.”
Semore also talked about the disappointments the Griz still feel from last season’s 28-25 loss in Greeley, Colorado, the third loss in a free fall that saw UM lose four of five to miss the playoffs for just the third time since 1993 last fall. The Griz had not lost to Northern Colorado since 1978 until last season.
Consider revenge, particularly for the Montana defense, exacted swiftly.
The Griz forced seven turnovers total including five interceptions, leading to UM head coach Bob Stitt being able to pull starting quarterback Gresch Jensen early in the third quarter on the way to a pivotal win to keep UM alive in the FCS playoff race.
“You don’t try to talk about it too much but there was a lot of thought about what happened last year against these guys,” Montana senior wide receiver Makena Simis said. “That hurt. That put us in a bad place last year. Although we weren’t talking about it too much, we really wanted to right that wrong.”
The blowout victory boosts Montana to 5-2 in Big Sky Conference play, 7-3 overall. The Griz close their regular-season home slate with a 5-1 record in Missoula.
“Really happy with how we played and we wanted to play quality football today and we wanted to go out and start fast and really be physical but disciplined,” Montana third-year head coach Bob Stitt said. “Our underclassmen really wanted to play well for our seniors. They wanted to send those guys out in our stadium that they deserve. Our senior group is a fantastic group of guys. They were determined back in January to right the ship and get this thing going in the right direction. They believed in the process and every day they live it. We are having a blast playing football right now.”
The loss is Northern Colorado’s sixth straight, dropping the Bears to 2-7 overall. UNC is now 1-6 in conference play with a home game against Cal Poly serving as its season finale. The Bears are a game short after having its contest at Florida cancelled because of Hurricane Irma in September.
“Too many turnovers, not enough plays made,” UNC seventh-year head coach Earnest Collins Jr. said. “That’s the just of the game, man. Just trying to get them better, man, but you just can’t make mistakes like that to that multitude and win the game.”
The Grizzlies celebrated senior day for 16 seniors in front of 22,048 on a chilly but pleasant autumn afternoon. A week after quarterbacking Montana to a crucial 17-15 win over No. 9 Northern Arizona, Simis pushed UM’s lead to 14-7 with a short touchdown catch late in the first quarter.
The touchdown was Jensen’s first of three on Saturday after returning from a concussion that cost him the NAU game. The redshirt freshman completed 17-of-25 passes for 228 yards before taking a seat.
“It’s an emotional experience, one you are not ready to come your whole career and it’s always off in the distance, even earlier in the week this week,” Simis said. “It comes fast no matter what the length of your career. It was special. You don’t want to treat many games differently but senior day is special. I’m thankful we have the group of seniors we do. It’s been a fun ride with them.”
Jensen also scored Montana’s first touchdown on a zone-read keeper from two yards out to cap a 13-play, 70-yard drive on UM’s first possession. Jensen lofted a ball to Samori Toure, who made a leaping snare in which he wrestled the ball away from the defender for a 24-yard score that gave UM a 21-7 lead before the takeaway barrage ensued.
“I was just really antsy, I just really wanted to get in there,” Jensen said. “I didn’t sleep very well last night, just too anxious and just wanted the game to get here and get out there with my teammates. I was very anxious this week trying to get back into things but I wanted to start out fast and keep it going.”
Simis’ score answered an explosive three-play scoring drive by the Bears that included a 64-yard Anthony Davis run and a 26-yard Alex Wesley touchdown catch to tie the score 7-7 early.
Montana’s aggressive defense then took over, bringing relentless pressure on UNC quarterback Connor Regan. Interceptions by junior linebacker Josh Buss, junior safety Evan Epperly and McKinley chased UNC’s backup — Regan is starting in place of injured junior Jacob Knipp — before the second quarter ended.
“The quarterback was just throwing it up there, honestly,” McKinley said. “We just had to come down with it, make a play on it. That’s what coaches have been preaching to us: when the ball is in the air, we have to attack it and come down with it. It felt like everyone had a pick out there.
“Us in the secondary, we know we have a very, very talented front seven and we know they can get to the quarterback at will. For us in the back end, we just have to wait for them to chuck it up and make a play on it.”
Schye’s deflection at the line of scrimmage resulted in Buss’s pick on the UNC 15. Montana converted the first pick into the first of three Brandon Purdy field goals before halftime.
One play later, Northern Colorado’s next possession ended promptly when Regan, under duress, badly missed Ellis Onic, instead throwing directly to Epperly. But the Bears stopped Montana on fourth down inside the 10 to slow down the onslaught momentarily.
Montana’s defense again stiffened, forcing a punt that sophomore Dante Olson blocked. Two Jeremy Calhoun runs, including a six-yard touchdown burst, later and the hosts led 31-7. Two plays later, Regan threw a hitch that McKinley jumped aggressively to again give the offense a short field. That pick led to a 24-yard field goal by Purdy that he banked off the right upright in front of the south end-zone.
The Griz defense was not finished. A sack-strip by junior Chris Favoroso that Schye recovered gave the hosts the ball on the UNC 30 with 12 seconds to play. Purdy, a sophomore lefty from Kalispell Glacier, drilled a career-long 47-yard field goal to give UM a 30-point advantage, 37-7, as the first half clock expired.
The onslaught continued after halftime. The first possession of the second half lasted 99 seconds as Jensen found Justin Calhoun for a 56-yard touchdown. Northern Colorado marched 76 yards in 11 plays only to see its first drive of the second half end when Schye battled Mott’s fourth-down pass down with UNC four yards from the end-zone.
With a 44-7 lead midway through the third frame, Stitt pulled Jensen and put in junior Caleb Hill at quarterback.
“You don’t want to jinx yourself and think about taking the quarterback out early in a game but the plan was to get it under control and get him off the field as soon as we possibly could and get Caleb in there and get him some reps,” Stitt said. “We did a nice job in the first half. We wanted to come out and have a great first drive of the second half. That worked out, we scored so we wanted to get Caleb ready to go.”
After a short possession and UM punt, Northern Colorado drove into the red-zone again. The Griz pass rush flushed Mott and Schye chopped the ball out of the sophomore’s hands. Senior James Banks recovered to seal the runaway victory.
Northern Colorado’s final score came when Marshaun Cameron stepped in front of a Hill attempt, picked it off and raced 21 yards for a touchdown. UM’s fourth interception came on redshirt freshman Dareon Nash’s first in his career. Montana’s final interception and takeaway came on senior safety Korey Alexander’s first pick of his career with three minutes to play.
Montana’s attention now fully turns to rival Montana State. The Bobcat game at Northern Arizona had not kicked off at the time this story was printed. The Griz will likely need a second straight win in Bozeman to get to 8-3 and assure its 22nd berth in the FCS playoffs in the last 25 years.
“We have finished our regular season now and Super Bowl Saturday,” Stitt said. “We have been talking about it a long time. It couldn’t have gotten here fast enough.
“After meetings last night, I was back in the office watching Cat tape. his morning, when we got done, I was watching Cat tape. We are very focused on that. That is always in the back of your mind. If you play at Montana, that is always in the back of your mind, especially mine. I remind these guys at practice every day how many days it is and now we have a week. We have a week to prepare and go into this thing.
“There’s nothing more important in our football life than winning that ball game on Saturday. Our guys get it, they’ve been through it. All of our young guys have been through it, even the redshirt freshmen were out there on the 50-yard line when all that stuff went down last year. Everybody has been in it, everyone knows how important it is. I’m really looking forward to practice this week and preparing for that game.”
Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.