MISSOULA, Montana — Sammy Akem could not believe his eyes.
North Alabama punted it to him again.
“I was like, ‘Really?! They are kicking to him again? Come on now,” Akem said with a effervescent grin on his face. “The first couple, it was like, ‘He might get one.’ Then he got one. And I was like, ‘You are silly, North Alabama.”
Despite two slicing, dicing, crowd-igniting, score-sparking returns in the game’s first 42 minutes, North Alabama head coach Chris Willis opted to punt right at Jerry Louie-McGee once again Saturday night. With the crowd of more than 24,000 chanting “Jerry! Jerry!” in unison, the man nicknamed “Mr. Electricity” sent a jolt through Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the nitro boost late in the third quarter the Griz needed to speed away from UNA in a 61-17 victory.
“I told him it’s been two long years!,” Akem, a junior wide receiver at UM, said following Wednesday’s practice. “If anybody has been to a Griz game, everybody knows the best thing about going to a Griz game is seeing Jerry Louie-McGee run a punt return back. Seeing him do that again, it was just great. We all LOVED it.”
Louie-McGee had returns of 29 and 31 yards earlier in the game, the first giving Montana a short field that aided a touchdown drive, the second which resulted in a Brandon Purdy field goal. Louie-McGee’s 74-yard return for a touchdown with three minutes to play in the third frame sent the home crowd into a frenzy while bringing jubilation to the Griz sideline.
“I thought he was going to get the first or second one, get some space and he had two really nice returns in the first half,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “The guys on that team really believe in him.. They work hard for him. Our mantra on that team is ‘Hard work equals real estate’ and we had a lot of real estate tonight.”
The Coeur d’Alene, Idaho product finished the game with 150 punt return yards. He earned Big Sky Conference Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time in his career. The punt return touchdown is the third of Louie-McGee’s career, tying him with Marc Mariani (2006-2009) and Levander Segars (2001-2004) for the most in UM history.
“On my touchdown, the return team, I didn’t even get touched,” Louie-McGee said. “I have to give all the credit to those guys for going out there and blocking their tails off. All I had to do was catch the ball, find space and get in the end-zone.”
The shifty, lightning-quick 5-foot-9, 165-pound senior currently leads the Big Sky leader punt return yards with a two-game total of 156 yards, also the second-best total so far this season in FCS. His 150 yards in a single game is the best in the FCS by nearly 40 yards.
“On my touchdown, the return team, I didn’t even get touched,” Louie-McGee said on Saturday night. “I have to give all the credit to those guys for going out there and blocking their tails off. All I had to do was catch the ball, find space and get in the end-zone.”
Even after all those fire works in the first half, Willis and punter Joe Gurley continued to punt to Louie-McGee. Gurley averaged 48 yards per punt but Louie-McGee owned the night.
“Hat’s off to that returner,” Willis said. “We know he’s a good one. I thought on the touchdown 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.”
The punt return is Louie-McGee’s first since late in the 2017 season. That 48-yard return against Northern Arizona was crucial in UM’s 19-17 victory.
Louie-McGee’s first punt return score came against Northern Iowa during his redshirt freshman season in 2016. That 81-yard rip earned him league weekly award honors and began the constant, enthusiastic chants that accompany every Griz punt return at Wash-Griz ever since.
“It’s unreal,” Louie-McGee said when asked what it’s like to hear the chants spurring him on. “When you are out there, I stay focused, watch the ball but it’s pretty humbling and it’s a blessing that it’s possible. I appreciate the fans and all that energy.”
Louie-McGee averaged 19.3 yards per punt return as a freshman, his best single-season average of his career so far. As teams have focused on kicking away from him, he’s still found a way to have six returns of 40-plus yards before this season, including his 48-yard touchdown in 2017. All told, Louie-McGee has scored 12 touchdowns in his Griz career.
Saturday against UNA, Louie-McGee also caught three passes on UM’s opening drive of the second half, part of a six-play, 65-yard march capped by a Marcus Knight touchdown to open the second half. Knight’s second of three touchdowns gave Montana a 23-16 lead.
Louie-McGee finished the game with seven catches for 78 yards. He now has 190 catches in his unforgettable career that began as a walk-on. Saturday, the kid who grew up in Worley, Idaho outside of Coeur d’Alene passed Matt Wells into second place on Montana’s career catches list.
With three more catches, Louie-McGee will pass Raul Pacheco, an All-Big Sky performer for Montana who caught 192 passes for 2,547 yards between 1995 and 1998.
“We don’t worry too much about that,” Hauck said of the record. “That’s really, that would be, and actually somebody told him that this weekend, but I would actually be surprised if he knew that was the case. We are worried about one stat: getting to 1-0 in any given week.”
Louie-McGee will likely break Pacheco’s record in Montana’s game at No. 15 Oregon on Saturday. Following last week’s win, that was the farthest thing from his mind.
“I don’t care about any record, especially during the game,” Louie-McGee said. “All I care about is getting the win and playing hard and going play by play. If it happens, when it happens, I’ll appreciate it but I’m just playing snap by snap.”