MISSOULA, Montana — The Grizzlies appeared shaken following a gruesome injury suffered by Gavin Crow covering a kickoff.
Once Montana overcame any shock, the host Griz avalanched North Alabama in a game that went from slugfest to blowout in the blink of an eye.
North Alabama quarterback Christian Lopez hit big-play threat Cortez Hall for a 74-yard touchdown on the drive following a lower leg injury suffered by Crow, a talented junior safety from UM, about 10 minutes into Montana’s home opener. Jakobi Byrd hauled in a 64-yard touchdown pass from Lopez with one minute, 48 seconds left in the first half to give UNA a 17-16 lead and deflate the rowdy Griz faithful.
Montana manufactured an efficient, fast-paced drive to open the second half, forced a turnover on the first defensive possession following halftime and scored again to swing the momentum in its favor. By the time sophomore Marcus Knight broke multiple tackles on the way to his third touchdown of the evening, the Griz led 33-17 and the home team had the momentum.
By the time Jerry Louie-McGee answered the chants of his first name resonating throughout a raucous Washington-Grizzly Stadium by ripping off a 74-yard touchdown run, the route was on.
Montana scored 24 points in the third quarter, 21 more in the fourth and accelerated its way to a 61-17 win in front of 24,033 on Saturday night in Missoula. The win is Montana’s 16th straight in its home opener and serves as the most points ever surrendered by North Alabama.
“It was a good game, thought that North Alabama was a physical team that tackled well and did a nice job, were ready to go,” Montana second-year head coach Bobby Hauck said. “I thought they handled it and I thought we helped them a little bit.
“At halftime, we said, ‘Our stuff is good, our plan is sound. We just need to play better.’ That’s what we did: play better in the second half.”
North Alabama handled the first crowd at Wash-Griz to watch a season opener on a Missoula evening not blanketed in smoke. The Lions had possession first and marched 60 yards inside the Montana 5-yard line.
On first and goal, Lopez found himself under duress, a common occurrence Saturday. He threw a jump ball to Andre Little but the ball was tipped by Dareon Nash and intercepted by Robby Hauck, the first of three Montana interceptions.
The hosts got on the board first when Knight capped a seven-play, 49-yard drive sparked by a Louie-McGee 31-yard punt return and a subsequent facemask penalty.
On the ensuing kickoff, K.J. Smith bumbled the return. Crow, a 212-pound safety who’s been a special teams standout for the Griz the last two seasons, screamed down the field. But he appeared to hit his shin on a North Alabama blocker’s leg. He writhed in pain on the turf, causing for the medical cart to come on the field.
After about a 10-minute delay, the teams re-took the field. Three plays after the grotesque injury — Crow’s limp foot and lower leg was visible from the press box — Lopez hit Hall for a 75-yard scoring strike that tied the game at 7-7.
Hauck rolled the dice on Montana’s next possession, calling a fake punt with Adam Wilson, who ripped off a 19-yard gain for a first down. A pass interference penalty, one of three drawn in the first quarter by Griz receivers, helped get senior Brandon Purdy into field goal range. The southpaw drilled the 36-yarder.
The Griz pushed the lead to 16-6 thanks to a nine-play, 65-yard drive sparked by a 21-yard scramble by senior quarterback Dalton Sneed and featuring a heavy dose of 220-pound true freshman power running back Nick Ostmo. The drive was capped by a one-yard touchdown plunge by Montana’s quarterback.
But North Alabama scored 10 straight to end the first half with the edge, capped by Byrd’s long touchdown aided by a busted coverage by the Griz secondary.
After halftime, Montana seized the momentum right away, staying ahead of the sticks as Sneed constantly threw to Louie-McGee along with juniors Samori Toure and Sammy Akem. That opened up the inside zone handoffs to Knight, who had his best game in his short career as a Griz.
“To get 10 straight coming out and have a nine-point lead, our guys felt like that was the shift,” Hauck said.
“Our kids can handle some change and they are competitive as heck. They can handle not having great success and make it happen.”
The former Citrus College transfer showed his juice, rushing 19 times for 89 yards and three touchdowns. His one-yard TD plunge to cap Montana’s six-play, 65-yard draft to open the second half gave Montana the lead for good. His twisting, winding, physical 24-yard run with four minutes left in the third quarter put the up by 16 points.
“He did a good job,” Hauck said. “He averaged about five yards per carry. I thought he ran hard, was physical finishing runs and working for extra yards. I thought it was blocked well and I was enthused with our group on the offensive side, offensive line, tight ends, backs, thought the receivers blocked well too.”
With less than three minutes left in the third, North Alabama continued to kick to Louie-McGee despite returns of 31 and 29 yards on his first two fielded punts. Joe Gurley, who averaged 48 yards a punt on seven attempts Saturday, put some serious air under a ball that floated over Louie-McGee’s head.
That’s just what the electric senior wants. With room to operate, Louie-McGee ripped off his first punt return for a score under Hauck and his first since the last month of the 2017 season when he returned one for 48 yards against Northern Arizona.
“The return team, I have to give all the credit to them, going out there and blocking. All I had to do was catch the ball and find space,” Louie-McGee said. “Those guys made me look good. They didn’t even touch me.”
“I thought he was going to get the first or second one,” Hauck added. “He had some space on the returns in the first half. The guys on that team really believe in him so they work hard for him. Our motto is hard work equals real estate. And the last one, we changed it up. It was a different return than they had been running.”
Louie-McGee finished with five returns for 150 yards. Even after the game-breaking return that gave UM a 40-17 lead at the end of the third quarter, UNA still punted to Montana’s sparkplug twice more. Louie-McGee also finished with a team-high seven catches for 78 yards. He now has 190 catches in his career, two away from tying Raul Pacheco’s school record for receptions in a career.
“Hat’s off to that returner,” North Alabama head coach Chris Willis said. “We know he’s a good one. I thought it was a really good punt. Had good height, distance and punted it where he needed it to go. He cut back against the grain. Watching the highlight on the jumbo, we looked like we were too overloaded on our running lanes. Once he got to the second level, some of the guys back there in the three-man shield, he was just a better athlete than them.”
Montana buried the Lions thanks to forcing turnovers and pressuring Lopez defensively. Junior safety Gavin Robertson had a diving interception to end UNA’s first possession of the second half, leading to a 47-yard field goal by Purdy, tying a career long and giving the Griz a 26-17 lead.
Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Alex Gubner had a leaping interception at the line of scrimmage but the Griz went 3-and-out on the ensuing possession.
“Turnovers are relevant,” Hauck said. “You get turnovers, you have a chance to win.”
Louie-McGee’s 29-yard return set up Knight’s longest touchdown run. His touchown return broke open the game.
In the fourth quarter, sophomore tight end Matt Rensvold capped a 78-yard drive with a nine-yard touchdown catch to put the Griz up 30 in a game they entered favored by 27.5 points. Ostmo ran a wheel route and found himself wide open on a 12-yard touchdown that put the Griz up 54-17, Ostmo’s first touchdown. And Drew Turner, a redshirt freshman from Kalispell Glacier who got his first five carries of his career on Montana’s final possession, scored a three-yard touchdown to push the scoring total beyond 60 points.
“In terms of getting 61, we didn’t plan on that but that was a good performance,” Hauck said.