Many of the Mustangs watched Montana chop down the juggernaut of the FCS. It did nothing but heighten the excitement amongst Cal Poly as it makes its way to Missoula for its season-opener against the Grizzlies.
Almost one million people watched as Montana took down top-ranked and four-time reigning national champion North Dakota State in the first college football game of the season. The nationally televised event on ESPN drew eyes from all over the West. Cal Poly senior Chris Brown watched as Montana scored with two seconds to play to hand NDSU just its fourth loss since the beginning of the 2011 season.
“That’s two really good teams going at it and it did nothing but make us excited,” said Brown, a Compton, California native who set a Big Sky Conference record for a quarterback by rushing for 1,285 yards last season. “We are trying to focus on us and what we need to do to come out on top this week. We want to play as one on offense and defense and if we do that, we will come out with a win.”
The No. 13 Grizzlies opened up the Bob Stitt era in style, running 92 plays and amassing 544 total yards against NDSU’s previously vaunted defense. UM’s junior quarterback Brady Gustafson threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns as the debut of Stitt’s offense lived up to the formidable hype surrounding the spread up-tempo attack since his hiring from Division II Colorado School of Mines.
“It was great watching them play but I think seeing their personnel, I think (Stitt) hit it right on the head earlier (during the Big Sky Conference coaches’ call) when he said he’s very confident with the personnel he’s playing with,” Cal Poly Tim Walsh said during the same conference call on Wednesday morning. “The wide receiver corps, the size of their offensive line, the depth they have at running back and of course the quarterback, the personnel fits exactly what he wants to do. That showed up very clearly against North Dakota State, who is traditionally one of the best defenses in the FCS. That’s a great win for them. What they did, kind of what we expected them to do and it was kind of what we expected them to look like. But seeing their personnel playing with it, that’s the part that is the scariest.
“A great win not only for Coach Stitt and the University of Montana, but a great win for the Big Sky to be honest. Like we all say, it’s what happens the next week after a big win that’s important to all of us.”
Stitt, who spent 15 seasons at Mines before getting his first Division I head coaching job at age 51, said he let the upset victory sink in until Monday before his attention turned to Cal Poly.
“I think too many coaches in this profession, they win games and they don’t enjoy it,” Stitt said. “They just keep grinding and throw the next team on. You have to stop and smell the roses once in awhile. Very few guys who are coaching do enjoy the game. They are miserable. I’m going to enjoy something like that. You don’t get them that often. So when you do, you absolutely take advantage of it.”
Gustafson’s two most explosive weapons had big days against NDSU. Senior captain wide receiver Jamaal Jones had eight catches for 119 yards and a touchdown. Gustafson hit junior Ellis Henderson seven times for 133 yards, including a 62-yard touchdown. Jones’ catch with less than 15 seconds to play got Montana down to the two-yard-line. Joey Counts’ two-yard touchdown sealed the win with two seconds to play.
“I thought what everyone else thought: what an amazing game,” said Cal Poly senior Karlton Dennis, a cornerback who is sure to be tested right out of the gates on Saturday night. “I was on the edge of my seat. It was an exciting game and I almost didn’t think Montana was going to pull it out but I’m glad they did. That’s a great game for the league and I’m happy they won because it only makes this game bigger for us.”
Cal Poly is searching for its second straight victory over the Grizzlies. In their last trip to Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the Mustangs fell in heartbreaking fashion, losing on an interception in overtime, 21-14. Brown and the Cal Poly fearsome triple option offense come to Missoula fully loaded. For Montana, avoiding an emotional letdown a week after one of the biggest regular-season victories in program history will be the key.
“You always have to worry about a let down after a huge game but you have to talk about it and talk about discipline and focus,” Stitt said. “We’ve been talking about it since we got here. I think that was a lot of the reasons we were able to hang in there and win the ball game on Saturday. We are just going to chip away at this thing, keep our heads down, roll up our sleeves and then on Friday, hopefully the team realizes we have a game on Saturday.”
Last season, Cal Poly seemed to be in the driver’s seat to earn its second Big Sky title in three years. The Mustangs, who joined the Big Sky in 2012, beat Montana (41-21) and Montana State (35-27) in back-to-back weeks only to lose two games straight down the stretch and miss the FCS playoffs.
“The last time I was there, we lost in overtime and it was heart breaking,” Dennis said. “The atmosphere in Missoula is like nowhere else and it gets you ready for the season. It’s a good place to get your feet wet. All our guys are itching to get up there. There’s already been one great game played up there. We are expecting the same amount of fans, the same intensity and the same energy. We are ready to embrace it.
“They have a chip on their shoulders because we took them out last year at our place so now we have to raise the stakes even more.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.