EUGENE, Oregon — Oregon entered their matchup with Montana fresh off scoring 77 points the previous week in a win over Nevada.
The Ducks, the No. 15 team in the FBS, sports an offensive line with at least three future NFL players and perhaps as many as five. Oregon is led by senior quarterback Justin Herbert, a player in the running to be the No. 1 pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. And the Ducks play at Autzen Stadium, one of the hallowed venues in college football and arguably the most intimidating venue in the Pac 12.
Montana, the No. 20 team in the FCS, has a rich history that can measure up with any school in college football. But the Griz have not tasted glory in almost a decade, the last time UM claimed a Big Sky Conference championship.
Saturday in Eugene, Montana showed no fear against a team touted as one of the most talented in the country. The Griz held their own on the defensive line against that talented offensive front. Herbert threw five touchdowns but did not have a completion of over 21 yards. And the visitors never went away despite Oregon’s control of the entire contest as the home team emerged with a firm yet lackluster 35-3 victory in front of 49,098 here on Saturday night.
“Disappointed we didn’t come in here and get the win,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said after his team fell to 2-1 this season. “They have a really, really good football team. They were better on defense than I thought they were going to be. They have a really nice team. The quarterback is just terrific. We just didn’t have enough for them tonight.”
The Griz did not get on the board until there was 18 seconds to play in the third quarter. But Montana held Oregon’s offense in check after an opening drive in which the Ducks looked like they would easily cover the 36.5-point spread. After that, the Griz bucked down, forcing three Oregon punts and three other failed fourth down conversions.
“It was a fun atmosphere, a fun place to play in but we didn’t get it done,” UM senior linebacker Dante Olson said after a 14-tackle performance a few hours from his home town of Medford, Oregon. “We didn’t get done what we needed to get done and it showed up on the scoreboard. I’m disappointed about that.
Oregon’s first drive operated at a break-neck pace, ripping up the Autzen turf with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that lasted just three minutes. Herbert threw his first of three first-half touchdowns, a five-yard dart to tight end John Breeland. The drive was aided by a pass interference penalty on Montana cornerback Dareon Nash.
Montana’s first possession included a 26-yard completion from senior quarterback Dalton Sneed to junior wide receiver Akem that the senior quarterback made happen with his elusiveness. But Montana only managed three more first downs before halftime. Akem finished with six catches for 85 yards on a night where Sneed went 20-of-30 for 184 yards.
The Griz forced a 3-and-out on Oregon’s second possession but gave the ball right back with a three-and-out of their own. On Oregon’s third possession, Herbert threw a screen pass to C.J. Verdell. Montana sophomore safety Robby Hauck took out one of the Oregon lead blockers at his knees before Olson notched one of his 10 solo tackles. A 15-yard personal foul on Hauck followed the 18-yard gain and gave UO the ball at the UM 30 two plays into a drive that started at the Oregon 15.
Five plays later, Herbert motioned Darrian Felix out of the backfield and looked for the running back in the flat. The timing of Montana’s blitz was perfect but Herbert showed why he’s a projected first-round pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. He threw a perfect pass to Breeland for a 17-yard touchdown to give the hosts a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
“They got the one wheel route in the red-zone where we busted a coverage,, which was too bad,” Hauck said. “They got assisted by a couple of penalties.
“I don’t know. We played ok.”
Montana got two first downs on its third possession but the drive stalled out on the UO 40. Adam Wilson, who had three notable punts in the first half, pinned the home team at their own 5-yard line.
UM senior Jerry Louie-McGee had a 21-yard gain to the UO 33 but the Griz couldn’t get any closer on their final possession of the first half. UM senior Brandon Purdy had the distance on a 50-yard field goal attempt, which would’ve been a career long by three yards. But the kick sailed wide right.
Oregon took over on its own 33 with 50 seconds before halftime. Herbert completed 3-of-4 passes, a personal foul on Robby Hauck sped up Oregon’s march and the future pro showed why once again.
“We missed the field goal and that’s on me,” Bobby Hauck said. “We needed to get to the 30 really to kick that. That was the plan after the pre-game warm up and it was on the 37. That’s bad by me not going for it on fourth down.
Montana defensive lineman Alex Gubner nearly sacked Herbert, but the 6-foot-6, 237-pounder shrugged off the 285-pound redshirt freshman, rolled to his right and fired a rope to Johnny Johnson III for an 18-yard touchdown that gave the hosts a three-score lead at the break.
“Then we had them in our grasp for a 12-yard loss with 10 seconds left and we lose our guy in man coverage,” Hauck said. “Instead of being 14-0 at half, it’s 21-0 and we are up against it a little more. I would’ve felt better about things if we were down the 14.
Herbert completed his first 10 passes and 16-of-21 for 189 yards in the first half as UO notched 18 first downs and gained 277 yards. Montana managed 95 total yards, 13 rushing yards and four first downs in the first half.
Herbert finished 30-of-42 for 316 yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s a great kid first of all,” Hauck said. “He is just awesome and he’s gotta have something good about him. His dad (Mark Herbert) went to Montana for a couple of years. Mark was at Montana when we were there. I think he was a sophomore when I was a freshman. He’s a good player. I had high regard for him before the game and I think he’s a smooth operator.”
On Montana’s first possession of the second half, the Griz managed two first downs on Sneed throws to Akem. But on the third attempt of the drive by UM’s quarterback to his 6-foot-4 target, Akem lost his footing and UO corner Mikael Wright made a quick break on the football, snaring an interception, Sneed’s third pick this year.
Oregon capitalized with an eight-play drive that included four runs and four passes, capped by an outside screen pass from Herbert to Johnson for a one-yard touchdown in which Johnson literally walked three steps into the end-zone to give UO a four-touchdown lead.
“They covered us and they played the run game really well,” Hauck said. “We knew the nose (Jordon Scott) was good. I thought their other defensive linemen played the run a little better than I thought they would. They have good players.”
The Griz failed to move the sticks, leading to UM’s fifth punt of the game. For the first time Saturday, senior Adam Wilson didn’t strike the ball well, giving UO the ball near midfield. Travis Dye ripped off a 23-yard run, UO’s longest of the night to that point, but the Griz defense stiffened, forcing the Ducks to try a fourth down and four from the UM 25 that UO did not convert.
“They are a good team, explosive offense but you can’t be happy with a loss,” Olson said.
Montana’s next possession moved into Oregon territory on a 30-yard reception by Louie-McGee that etched him in the Montana record book. The grab was the senior’s third of the night and the 193rd of his career, making him UM’s all-time leader in career receptions. He passes Raul Pacheco, a standout at Montana between 1995 and 1998.
Louie-McGee caught three more passes on the possession, including a screen turned into a hook-and-ladder that was stopped just short of a first down. The Griz settled for a 23-yard field goal by Purdy to cut the lead to 28-3 with 18 seconds left in the third quarter.
Herbert put the game away by orchestrating an 8-play, 85-yard drive that lasted just short of three minutes. Oregon’s longest touchdown drive among its first five lasted four minutes, four seconds. UO’s fifth touchdown drive was aided by a Montana pass interference penalty and capped by a 10-yard touchdown catch by Jaylon Redd, Herbert’s fifth scoring strike of the night.
The rest of the game was a scoreless stalemate. Montana put its defensive backups in one possession before Oregon did. The Ducks threw two times in three plays despite the 32-point lead. Both passes were incomplete. The Ducks went 3-and-out.
When Oregon’s reserves came in on offense, the Ducks finally broke a big play. UO had just two plays of over 20 yards prior, including a 23-yard spurt by Travis Dye, who rushed 17 times for 107 yards. On Oregon’s last offensive possession, Sean Dollars broke a 63-yard run up the Duck sideline but UM sophomore Michael McGinnis chased him down from behind to prevent a score and help Montana cover the spread.
“I thought we played hard but we gave up too much,” Hauck said. “We gave up that 60-yard run there at the end because our freshmen can’t do their assignments right. But for the most part, when our non-freshmen were in, we were pretty assignment conscious. We were really good in the run game and I thought we covered them fairly well.”
The Griz earned $650,000 for the game, the highest pay check in the FCS other than Idaho’s $1.4 million earned at Penn State, a game scheduled when the Vandals were still in the FCS. Montana returns home next week to host Monmouth in its final non-conference tune-up before Big Sky play.
“We need to get better,” Hauck said. “We lost. We came here to win and we didn’t do it.”