Game Recap

Griz defense stays hot, Montana rolls Cal Poly on Homecoming Saturday


It was the question on everybody’s mind heading into Montana’s Homecoming game against Cal Poly on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, debated endlessly on sports talk shows and in newsprint.

Sun-splashed tailgaters on a picture-perfect day outside Washington-Grizzly discussed it openly.

Longtime coach and scout Bob Beers — the first of an endless string of Griz All-American linebackers once upon a time —  grimaced when Skyline Sports put the question to him in the press box before the game, the eye-narrowing, head-tilting, lip-pursing universal symbol for I don’t know, but it’ll be tough.

Not whether Cal Poly, three games into Beau Baldwin’s first fall season as head coach and already down a starting quarterback, could win. But whether the Mustangs could score…at all…period…even a point.

In the end, the Mustangs scored; Shakobe Harper’s 2-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter snapped the Montana defense’s run of nearly three full games without allowing a point, a streak that officially measured in at 165 minutes, 21 seconds.

Unfortunately for Cal Poly, Harper’s touchdown came with Montana already up 39-0, and the Grizzlies went on to win 39-7 in front of 25,600 happy Homecoming fans.

“We didn’t want to lose that shutout there in the fourth quarter,” head coach Bobby Hauck said, “but in modern-day college football, that’s a lot of quarters, a lot of drives and a lot of minutes without a defense giving up a point. I mean, that’s phenomenal.”

Montana’s defense and special teams keyed the rout. The Griz scored two special teams touchdowns, both in the third quarter — a 95-yard kickoff return by junior Malik Flowers to open the second half and a blocked punt recovery by sophomore linebacker Levi Janacaro — and one defensive touchdown, on a 24-yard interception return by senior defensive end Justin Belknap.

On a day when the offense worked through some struggles, that was more than enough to keep No. 4 Montana undefeated at 3-0 and rolling towards next week’s showdown with No. 6 Eastern Washington, which will be nationally televised on ESPN2.

Montana linebacker Levi Janacaro (35) blocks a punt and scopes and scores vs. Cal Poly/by Brooks Nuanez

The fact that a shutout was the assumed result before the game should give observers a good gauge of what the expectations are around this Montana team heading into that game.

So should the fact that UM head coach Bobby Hauck came into the postgame press conference a little dour-faced — after, again, a 39-7 Homecoming win in which the opponent did not score until midway through the fourth quarter.

“We did not play sharp enough today and we need to improve upon today’s performance moving forward,” Hauck said bluntly at the end of his opening remarks.

That wasn’t just Hauck being Hauck. Cal Poly out-gained the Grizzlies, 362 to 354, with the former number by far the most Montana’s defense has given up this season. Caveat – the Griz only had the ball for 27 minutes Saturday. And Montana scored 22 of their 39 points on non-offensive touchdowns.

The Mustangs had multiple chances to snap the scoreless streak before Harper’s touchdown, but missed field-goal attempts of 37 and 39 yards on back-to-back possessions in the final four minutes of the second quarter. Montana junior cornerback Justin Ford picked off a pass inside the Griz 10-yard line on another drive.

Cal Poly averaged 1.3 yards per carry, but Mustangs quarterbacks Conor Bruce and Kahliq Paulette combined to throw for 315 yards, mostly on a steady drumbeat of tunnel screens and quick slants designed to get the ball out quickly and into space behind Montana’s aggressive, blitzing linebackers.

Montana running back Isiah Childs (28) breaks loose vs. Cal Poly/by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s impressive how multiple and chaotic (Montana’s defense) can kind of make it feel,” Cal Poly coach Baldwin said. “What seems simple for them can look tough on opposing offenses. … The offensive staff did a really good job of putting together a plan where we could get the ball out of the QB’s hands.”

While that game plan worked sometimes, Montana also piled up a whopping 14 tackles for loss. Kalispell’s Patrick O’Connell had 3.5 of those, giving him 9.5 in three games. Townsend’s Jace Lewis added 2.5 TFLs, and Eureka’s Garrett Graves, starting in place of Gavin Robertson at safety, led the Griz with 11 tackles.

Griz senior quarterback Cam Humphrey threw for two touchdowns for Montana: a 65-yarder to senior Sammy Akem in the first quarter for Akem’s 24th career score; and a 23-yarder to sophomore Joey Elwell, the first score of the young tight end’s career.

But outside of those two drives and a 74-yard scoring march in the second quarter that ended with a short Kevin Macias field goal, the Grizzlies struggled to move the ball.

Humphrey finished 15 of 24 for 215 yards and the two scores. Freshman Xavier Harris, returning to the field after suffering an injury in the Washington game, ran for 70 yards on nine carries, but everybody else on the team combined for 28 yards on 25 totes.

Montana quarterback Cam Humphrey (2) throws in pocket vs. Cal Poly/by Brooks Nuanez

Luckily, the Griz had other ways to score. Two plays after Akem’s long touchdown opened the scoring for Montana, Belknap, a sixth-year defensive end who previously played at Arizona, dropped back into coverage on a zone blitz.

Bruce, a redshirt junior making his first career start, rifled the ball right between the 9 and 0 on the front of Belknap’s jersey; the transfer from Arizona waltzed into the end zone.

“It was a great call by (defensive coordinator Kent) Baer,” Belknap said. “And it was a cool feeling. I don’t know how to describe it. I haven’t scored in college football before, so it was nice to get a score.”

Montana led 18-0 at the half. Flowers fielded the opening kickoff of the second half, accelerated through a crease and went almost the length of the field for the score, the fourth kickoff return touchdown of his career. That total ranks third in Big Sky history behind Weber State’s Rashid Shaheed and former Eastern Washington stud Lamont Brightful (five KR TD, 1998-2001).

And 30 seconds after Elwell’s touchdown late in the third quarter, Missoula Big Sky alum Levi Janacaro blocked a punt and then fell on the loose ball in the end zone to give the Griz a 39-0 advantage.

“Scoring twice (on special teams) was huge in terms of the outcome of the game,” Hauck said. “Both those plays, the blocked punt and the kick return for the touchdown, we felt like those were opportunities that might transpire if the game played out the way we thought it would, and it’s kind of nice once a while to have the crystal ball.”

Montana tight end Joey Elwell (87) catches a 23-yard touchdown pass vs. Cal Poly/by Brooks Nuanez

Hauck has long been regarded as a top-tier special teams coach. In a way, it’s a perfect distillation of his philosophy. He’s just as determined to have an advantage on the margins as he is in the more celebrated parts of the game.

Montana will have to play better, on both offense and defense, against Eastern Washington next week. Their defense has been and can be ferocious. Their offense can be explosive. But on Saturday, it was the margins that gave the Grizzlies a blowout win.

“There are all kinds of different ways to win games, and I think good teams find a variety of ways to win games,” Hauck said. “Sometimes it’s the offense that carries it, sometimes it’s the defense that carries it, sometimes it’s the special teams units that carry the day. All the great teams that I’ve been around have that in common, that they find ways to win when they maybe don’t play their best game.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Blake Hempstead. All Rights Reserved.

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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