All the flaws that lurked around the edges of Montana football’s 2-0 start to the 2018 season suddenly burst into the spotlight Saturday as the Griz blew a 10-point lead late and lost 31-27 to Western Illinois.
There was the complete inability to run the ball. After taking a 27-17 lead on Sammy Akem’s second touchdown catch of the game with 11:19 left, the Griz couldn’t grind clock, picking up just one first down the rest of the way. Montana running backs had their best day of the season, but still only managed 60 yards on 18 carries, an average of 3.3 per touch.
There was the troubling propensity to give up special teams touchdowns. Western Illinois dynamo Steve McShane jumpstarted the Leatherneck comeback with a 58-yard punt return score with 5:38 left to cut the Montana lead to 27-24. It was the second time Montana had surrendered a score on special teams in two weeks, after Drake’s fake punt last week.
There were some new problems that came up as well.
Following McShane’s punt return, Jerry Louie-McGee fumbled on Montana’s first play from scrimmage, giving Western the ball back at the Griz 43. It was the third fumble of the game for Montana, two of which the Leathernecks recovered and turned into touchdowns.
Lastly, WIU quarterback Sean McGuire capped the comeback after JLM’s fumble by continuing to shred the UM secondary, going 5-for-6 for 43 yards and the game-winning touchdown to McShane. It capped a 360-yard, three-touchdown day for McGuire that had the Montana secondary looking like the liability it was projected to be before the season and not the strength it had been through two games.
Following McGuire’s final touchdown throw to McShane, the Griz had one more chance to come back with 2:39 left, but Dalton Sneed’s desperation throw on 4th-and-13 was intercepted by Eric Carrera, allowing the Leathernecks to run out the clock.
It was a brutal loss for a Grizzlies team that had started the season 2-0 and dominated the proceedings Saturday for a solid 50-minute stretch in the middle of the game.
Unfortunately, 50 minutes isn’t a full game, and the beginning and end of Saturday’s game were killers for Montana, which was down 14-0 not even three minutes into the contest.
Western Illinois received the kickoff and didn’t waste any time, with McGuire hitting John Brunner for a 71-yard touchdown on the Leathernecks’ second play from scrimmage.
Colin Bingham fumbled on Montana’s third play, and McGuire hit Brunner again on the very next play for a 37-yard score and a 14-0 lead not even two and a half minutes into the game.
Brunner finished with seven catches for 180 yards — half of his quarterback McGuire’s passing output on the day.
Montana didn’t fold, though, and Malik Flowers ended a crazy opening sequence by taking the ensuing kickoff back 95 yards for a Griz touchdown.
The redshirt freshman had shown his speed with a couple big returns earlier in the season, and hit a crease up the left side for a nearly untouched scoring return on this one.
The scoring pace slowed down a little after that, but not much.
The Griz actually took an 18-14 lead by the end of the first quarter on a 36-yard field goal by Tim Semenza and a 4-yard touchdown catch by Akem.
Akem’s touchdown was followed by a swinging gate trick play two-point conversion to long snapper Michael O’Donoghue.
Sam Crosa hit a field goal for Western early in the second quarter to make it 18-17, but that remained the score into halftime.
Both offenses slowed down in the second half, and it looked like Montana had done enough for the win when Semenza hit a 31-yarder after a Dante Olson interception in the third.
They failed to extend the lead early in the fourth when Adam Eastwood was stoned on a fourth-and-1 from the WIU 6, but Sneed hit Akem again for a 3-yard score on their next drive.
Akem finished with seven catches for 64 yards and the two scores.
Semenza hooked the extra point wide to keep the score at 27-17, but it didn’t look like it would matter — until McShane’s punt return and the subsequent opening of the floodgates.
Sneed finished 24-for-41 for 229 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for Montana. He also led the Griz with 42 net rushing yards on 15 carries.
Robby Hauck and Olson each had 11 tackles to lead Montana.
McShane had 77 yards receiving and 18 rushing for Western Illinois, which got its first win of the season.
Zach Glisan had 15 total tackles and Quentin Moon 14 for the Leathernecks.
Montana will jump right into Big Sky Conference play next week with a 1 p.m. game against Sacramento State at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.