One yard away from the end zone, with the entire state looking on and a chance to rewrite the narrative of their season, the Montana Grizzlies couldn’t escape the problems that have tortured them all fall.
Adam Eastwood, just seconds after his apparent go-ahead touchdown was called dead due to a perfectly-timed timeout by Montana State head coach Jeff Choate, was popped at the 1-yard line by Bobcats defensive lineman Tucker Yates and fumbled. Montana State recovered the ball with 10 seconds left in the game, handing the Bobcats a third-straight Brawl of the Wild win by the thinnest of margins, 29-25.
“There are lots of ways to lose a game. That one is particularly gut-wrenching,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said following his third loss in eight games against Montana State. “To feel like you have it in your grasp a few times on the day and then not come out with it…good job by [Montana State] sticking with it and finding a way to get the W, and shame on us for not winning it.”
The last play was a witches’ brew of all the things that have cost Montana games this season.
The Griz haven’t been able to convert short yardage situations on third or fourth downs all season long. Senior Alijah Lee got stuffed on fourth-and-1 to kickstart the UC Davis comeback in a game UM gave up 46 unanswered points, and it’s been a big reason why the Griz haven’t been able to hold leads a collection of first-half leads in Hauck’s first season back at the helm in nearly a decade.
Saturday, the Griz swelled its lead to 22-0 in the first half. But, as they have since the first game of the season, when they gave up 23 second-half points to Northern Iowa and barely held on to a 26-point lead, Montana could not hold after halftime.
The Bobcats ended up outscoring UM 22-3 in the fourth quarter, the fourth time this season that Montana has been outscored by double digits in the fourth quarter alone.
Montana had a 10-point lead and the ball with under seven minutes left, but MSU senior linebacker Grant Collins smacked UM quarterback Dalton Sneed, forcing a fumble that gave the ball back to the ‘Cats on a play that withstood several minutes of review. The most detrimental of UM’s 15 fumbles this season would soon be out done.
Turnovers were Montana’s downfall all season. The Griz finished the season minus-12 in turnover margin in their five losses, losing every game in which they had a negative turnover margin. Montana suffered through its first three-game losing streak since 1992 in October because of four turnovers in each of the losses. UM ends the season on its first three-game home losing streak since Washington-Grizzly Stadium opened in 1986.
All season, prognosticators have been guessing that Montana’s season would come down to the Montana State game. It did. And as the Bobcats made their comeback, Montana’s season came down to the final play of the game.
Down 29-25, Sneed led Montana to the MSU 20, then inside the 10, then, with 14 seconds left, to the 1, setting up a one-play, pass-fail test for Montana’s season.
Get into the end zone, and all the flaws and bad losses of Hauck’s first season of his second tenure at Montana would be papered over. Snapping a two-game losing streak against the Cats and clinching a likely first playoff berth in three years? Forget the last-second loss to Portland State, the blowout loss at North Dakota, the collapse against UC Davis — Hauck’s first season back would be called a success.
But, of course, they didn’t, and now the losses and the bad history made — the first three-game losing streak for the Griz in decades, giving up 36 points to Davis in the fourth quarter, several of the worst losses of Hauck’s Montana career, a three-year absence from the playoffs — are how this season will be judged.
Like so many other games this season, if one thing had gone their way down the stretch, it might have been a different story for Montana. Choate’s timeout and Eastwood’s final fumble were crucial, but the other possible turning points included Sneed’s fumble with six minutes left and a missed 40-yard field goal by Tim Semenza at the end of Montana’s first drive of the second half.
“There were a couple big plays that we didn’t make,” Hauck said. “I thought our missed field goal was a big play, that changes things a little bit. … Not getting points in some of those instances probably cost us the game.”
With a 22-15 lead, the Griz converted a third-and-8, third-and-17 and third-and-19, all on the same drive thanks to some courageous throws by Sneed and some highlight-reel catches by sophomore Sammy Akem, yet the Griz caame away with just three points on a 34-yarder by Semenza.
And that’s just for the offense. The defense let Montana State score with 23 seconds left in the first half, giving the Bobcats a little bit of hope before the break, and then couldn’t get a stop as Montana State roared back.
That led to the deciding play, with a chance to still salvage the season — but Montana could not convert.
The loss will usher in a long and depressing offseason in Missoula, as Hauck tries to figure out solutions to the problems that stalked them all season long and ultimately sunk them, just one yard from success.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.