MISSOULA, Montana — The Griz and the Vandals have been battling for the Little Brown Stein since 1903. Idaho is the only Big Sky Conference team, current or former, with an all-time winning record against Montana.
So the last two years have been particularly vindicating for a Montana team that did not take the lure of FBS promises and potential when the Vandals bailed on the Big Sky in 1996.
Idaho bailed the year after Montana captured its first Division I-AA national title. But success at the “top level” of college football almost totally eluded the Vandals. Meanwhile, UM forged a run that was unprecedented until North Dakota State’s utter domination over the last nine seasons.
Even with Idaho playing a level up, the Griz and the Vandals engaged in the Battle for the Little Brown Stein, extending a rivalry that began in 1903. Idaho beat the eventual national-champion Griz 55-43 during that 1995 season and beat the Griz 33-30 in 1999. Between 2000 and 2003, Montana won four straight against UI, culminating in a 41-28 victory in 2003, Bobby Hauck’s first season of his first tenure at the helm at UM.
Idaho refused to play the Griz for the next 15 years. And when UI rejoined the league last season, Montana took great pleasure in blasting Idaho in the Kibbie Dome, 46-27.
In Idaho’s first trip to Washington-Grizzly Stadium since that 2003 game in which Kyle Samson ran the veer option to lead UM to victory, Montana again gleefully beat a Vandal squad more intent on talking trash than executing with discipline in the second half.
The Griz turned the ball over three times in the first quarter, leading to the surprise insertion of senior Dalton Sneed at quarterback. The All-American candidate has missed the last two games because of an ankle injury but junior Cam Humphrey has been more than servicebable in leading the Griz to consecutive wins.
With the Griz trailing 10-0, Sneed entered the action and shredded the Vandals. And a Griz defensive front suddenly swimming in depth constantly, relentlessly pressured UI senior quarterback Mason Petrino, turning the turnover tables in the host’s favor.
By the time Petrino turned the ball over for the fourth time Saturday afternoon, Montana was in full control on the way to a 42-17 victory in front of a surprisingly sparse crowd of 22,333.
“This game has been played 86 times since 1903. I don’t know if Montana has beaten Idaho like we have the last two years ever” Hauck said after his 94th win at Montana. “That’s a credit to our kids, our team and our assistant coaches. That Idaho team was ready to go. They are well-coached, they are tough, they are physical.”
The win moves Montana to 5-1 in Big Sky Conference play, 8-2 overall, likely securing a spot in the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2015. The victory also sets up a showdown with No. 3 Weber State next week.
The Wildcats survived for a 30-27 win over North Dakota on Saturday to move to 6-0 in league play, 8-2 overall. The winner of next week’s showdown will have an inside track at the league’s automatic bid and a playoff seed.
“That was a good, hard-fought win, a team win,” Hauck said. “We were in bad shape in the first quarter but the defense held the rope, keeping us in it. We were struggling on offense. With the three turnovers in the first quarter, we were lucky we weren’t down 28-0 or something. After we got that fixed, played really well in all three phases.
The loss drops Idaho to 2-4 in the program’s second year since returning to the Big Sky, 4-6 overall. UI is 4-1 at home, 0-5 on the road. The defeat officially eliminates Idaho from playoff contention.
“There’s a lot of things that happened but at the end of the day, they out played us and they out-hit us,” UI head coach Paul Petrino said. “That’s usually who is going to win: the team that hits the most and the team that plays the hardest. I got out-coached, we got out-played. That’s the bottom line.”
Humphrey, a former transfer from Boise State by way of Saddleback College, threw an interception on his second attempt of the game. But the Griz defense stiffened right away.
Montana’s unyielding pass rush featuring an array of contributors began brutalizing Idaho quarterback Mason Petrino right away. A Petrino intentional grounding penalty in the redzone forced a 30-yard Cade Coffey field goal. The first frame closed with UI ahead 3-0.
On the ensuing drive, Montana marched inside the Idaho 5-yard line with a methodical, 15-play drive. But Tyrese Dedmon smacked UM sophomore running back Marcus Knight and forced a fumble for the second turnover in the first quarter.
Idaho wasted away the ensuing possession, leading to a Vandal punt returned 39-yards by Griz senior Jerry Louie-McGee into Idaho territory. Two players later, Dedmon intercepted Humphrey on a heave toward the goal line to Sammy Akem.
UI took over possession 97 yards from the end-zone and executed a 97-yard drive. Petrino sparked he drive with an 11-yard scamper, then hit unstoppable senior receiver Jeff Cotton for 38 of his 98 first-half receiving yards. Two more completions to Cotton pushed UI into the red-zone. Petrino hit Connor Whitney for a 12-yard touchdown to put the visitors up 10-0 with 11 minutes left in the first half.
Cotton nor Idaho starting running back Aundre Carter played in the second half.
“We executed really well on that drive, did a lot of things, ran the ball, passed, a lot to Jeff Cotton so obviously, not having him in the second half hurt,” Paul Petrino said.
A stagnant Griz offense led Hauck to inserted Sneed in the game. And the tables turned instantly.
“Dalton wanted to play a week ago and we didn’t think he was ready,” Hauck said. “He didn’t practice on Monday or Tuesday. We just felt like it was Cam’s game to start. Cam has played well. We were very confident in him. But we did have a plan to play Dalton today and we knew he was going to play today.”
A season after throwing for 220 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 129 yards and a touchdown, Sneed couldn’t run like he did last fall. But he still diced Idaho’s physical, aggressive defense. Sneed completed 17-of-27 passes for 241 yards and a touchdown.
“We thought (Sneed) would play,” Petrino said. “I thought there was a couple of key plays – we had a third down and we didn’t cover the back. I thought that was a big turning point in the game that first drive he was in.”
On his first possession in the game, Sneed led a seven-play, 80-yard drive that included a 16-yard completion to true freshman running back Nick Ostmo on a third down and a 28-yard completion to sophomore Mitch Roberts after the Missoula Sentinel product entered the game in place of Akem, who did not play the last 35 minutes of the game due to injury.
Ostmo’s first career touchdown from seven yards out got the Griz on the board, trailing 10-7.
The Griz kept heating up Petrino and stuffing the Idaho offense, helping the Griz take over with one minute, 49 seconds left in the first half. Sneed hit Samori Toure for a 31-yard gain to spark the drive, then found an unguarded Toure in the middle of the field for a 44-yard touchdown to give Montana a lead it would not relinquish.
“That wasn’t really me. Anybody in here could’ve thrown that ball,” Sneed said about his 16th touchdown pass of this season. “The coaches dialed that one up. Samori sold the route and the coach dialed that one up.”
“No better feeling than playing football….Sitting out really makes you appreciate the love for the game when you can’t go out there. I have such great teammates and coaches around me. It’s a whole team sport and a whole team game.”
Toure finished with nine catches for 129 yards, adding to his impressive all-league resume.
“He’s made plays all season,” Sneed said. “All you have to do is put the ball in the air and because that guy is going to make plays. When he constantly does that week in and week out, he is going to get the ball a lot more.”
The first of two sacks by redshirt freshman Milton Mamula, one of five sacks on the day foe the Griz, led to a Petrino fumble that sophomore Patrick O’Connell recovered. Eight plays later, Ostmo scored his second touchdown of the day and of his career.
Montana forced a turnover on the next Idaho possession when a blitzing Jace Lewis tipped a Petrino pass at the line of scrimmage that settled into defensive end Joe Babros’ hands for an interception.
“Petrino scrambles out there like a madman and we were chasing him down a lot but we brought it together, talked about it and decided to get after him,” UM sophomore edge rusher Patrick O’Connell said. “We were able to get him down.
“When the quarterback is scrambling back there that long, we were putting the pressure on and there wasn’t a lot of places he can go. The constant pressure was huge for our defense.”
A six-play, 21-yard drive capped by the first of three Knight rushing touchdowns put UM up 28-10. From there, Montana pile drived the visitors.
Petrino hit Cutrell Haywood for an 11-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 28-17 early in the fourth quarter, but the Vandals never got any closer. The Griz answered that touchdown with a 75-yard drive that ended in Knight’s second touchown of the day.
Petrino’s third turnover came when senior captain Jesse Sims smashed the UI quarterback, forcing a fumble that Dante Olson recovered. Montana turned that turnover into a 42-yard drive capped by the team’s fifth rushing touchdown including the three by Knight, giving the former junior college transfer 17 touchdowns this season.
“That was a challenge that got put on us the very beginning of training season,” UM senior center Cy Sirmon said. “The offensive line has to control the line of scrimmage. You have to work really hard to do that. I trust these guys with my life because they bring it every single day. It’s awesome to be able to muscle it in like that.”
Idaho’s final possession of the day when Petrino endured another hard hit that sent an underthrown pass right into the hands of UM sophomore safety Nash Fouch.
Idaho’s struggles were best encompassed by the fact that Dedmon etched a Big Sky Player of the Week in the first 20 minutes and got ejected for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties by the second half. Idaho committed 14 penalties, the most by a Griz opponent.
“We pride ourselves on playing a good, clean, hard game,” Hauck said. “Our guys are versed on the rules and we try to do a good job with that.”
Now Montana’s attention turns to a showdown with Weber State. The Wildcats won at Washington-Grizzly Stadium for the first time since 1987 in 2015, 24-21 in overtime. WSU beat UM 41-27 in Ogden, Utah in 2017, the last matchup between the charter Big Sky schools.
“It’s a whole team thing,” Sirmon said. “We are taught to be mentally and physically tough. We practice like that through the entire off-season. Football is a game of adversity. We get put in adverse situations all the time and you have to keep pounding.
“I’m really proud of our guys. We have been doing that all year.”
\Photos by Blake Hempstead – for Skyline Sports. All Rights Reserved.