MISSOULA — From the coaching staff to the starting quarterback, the Montana Grizzlies had a markedly different look Saturday afternoon.
Yet the result remained the same.
After an offseason of confusion and upheaval, the Grizzlies erased doubts and eased fears with a convincing 35-24 victory over South Dakota to open the 2012 season. On the field, Montana looked virtually identical to the team that won 11 games and made a run to the semifinal round of the FCS playoffs last December.
It was exactly what the doctor ordered for new head coach Mick Delaney, his staff and their players.
“The first win is very gratifying,” said Delaney, who won his first game as a head coach since he last held that role at UM-Western way back in 1992. “But man, I’m just so proud of these kids and these coaches.”
The game also marked the return of former Griz coach Joe Glenn, a well-respected mentor who helmed Montana from 2000-02. Glenn went 39-6 in three years here -- a winnning percentage of .867 — and guided UM to a national championship triumph in ’01.
Glenn knows first-hand how quickly the momentum can swing in favor of Montana on its home field. But this time he was the victim.
Don’t let the 11-point margin of victory fool you: Montana dominated throughout. Under new coordinator Timm Rosenbach, the Grizzlies took 98 offensive snaps, achieved a school-record 34 first downs and piled up 315 rushing yards on the legs of running backs Dan Moore, Peter Nguyen and freshman quarterback Trent McKinney. They held possession for nearly 36 minutes.
Defensively, led by first-year coordinator Ty Gregorak, Montana limited South Dakota to just nine first downs and an average of 2.3 rushing yards on 26 attempts.
McKinney was also highly effective throwing the ball. In his first-ever start, McKinney completed a staggering 81 percent of his passes (26 of 32) with a pair of touchdowns while utilizing an array of bubble screens and swing passes on the perimeter.
“The first two plays, I was nervous,” said McKinney, who came to UM last year from Mililani, Hawaii. “But once I threw the screen pass to Pete (Nguyen) everything kind of blanked out and the crowd kind of went away.
“It was just more about getting the play(s) and running the offense.”
McKinney took the quarterback reins in fall camp from Jordan Johnson. Johnson would have been Montana’s starter again this season but was charged with a felony count of sexual assault without consent at the end of July and was suspended from the team.
Johnson’s plight was just one issue the Grizzlies faced during a rough offseason. Head coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day were fired in March under scrutiny of their handling of off-the-field issues.
But Saturday’s game served as evidence that, for one week at least, all is well on the field at Montana.
“Adversity is what you make of it,” Delaney said. “I feel as bad as anybody does about coach Pflugrad and Mr. O’Day, but that happened. And we were charged with moving forward and to do what we could possibly do.
“And I think this is the first step. Our kids have resolve and a little bit of a chip on their shoulder to prove that they’re going to do things the right way and still win football games.”
The victory didn’t come without a fight. UM came out of the locker room at halftime sluggish, and made several key mistakes that led to a fast eight-point deficit.
The Griz had to punt on their first possession after Jordan Canada misplayed the ball on the opening kickoff of the third quarter and it went out of bounds. Their defense was then hit with an 80-yard touchdown pass from Josh Vander Maten to Terrance Terry. That was immediately followed by a 50-yard interception return by South Dakota safety Charlie Goro when a McKinney pass slipped through the hands of intended receiver Chase Naccarato.
But Montana regrouped and got back in the game with a little trickery: a 39-yard TD pass from tight end Greg Hardy to Bryce Carver that pulled the Grizzlies within two points. Two subsequent South Dakota turnovers — an interception by linebacker John Kanongata’a and a fumble recovery by tackle Tonga Takai — led to touchdown runs by Moore and Nguyen, and UM was back in command.
“We had some momentum going,” said Glenn after coaching his first game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium since a 45-14 first-round playoff win over Northwestern State on Nov. 30, 2002. “We fought to stay in it. The statistics will show you that we were overwhelmed, but we had a chance as late as near the end of the third quarter to get a win.
“But I give the Griz a lot of credit. They made the plays when they had to.”
McKinney’s touchdowns came on quick passes outside. The first was a 4-yarder to Billings Senior product Sam Gratton and the other was an 18-yarder to Cam Warren, who made a fine juke move to avoid the defense and race into the end zone.
The Grizzlies’ next game is a Week 2 showdown with perennial power Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. It will be the first-ever regular-season meeting between the two winningest programs in the FCS in the last 10 seasons.
NOTES: The Grizzlies owned the time of possession in the second half, 21:31 to 8:29. … First-year Griz punter Stephen Shaw averaged 58.5 yards on two punts. … Terry led all receivers with 109 yards. … Moore and Nguyen combined for 346 all-purpose yards. UM had 568 total offensive yards. … A new rule that forces a player that loses his helmet to sit out the next play was prominent. The rule was enforced four times, three of them against South Dakota.