MISSOULA — Wheezing on life support as Cal Poly lined up for a dagger field goal, Montana hit a switch and promptly flipped its desperate situation.
In an instant, 57 minutes of frustration were forgotten. The 10th-ranked Griz rallied in dramatic fashion to knot the score late in the fourth quarter, then used the weight of their momentum to break the Mustangs in a 21-14 overtime thriller Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The unlikely comeback, which materialized in front of a frenzied crowd of 25,913 and knocked Cal Poly from the ranks of the Big Sky Conference football unbeatens, will go down as one for ages.
“I had a lot of old-timers after the game today say that is in the top two comebacks in Grizzly history,” gushed Montana coach Mick Delaney. “The other one was South Dakota State my second year here in ’09 I believe in the playoffs.
“Then this one, just incredible ... This game here, it’s unreal. I can’t fathom yet how much this means to these young men and to our program.”
The play that changed everything came with 2:22 left in the final frame and Cal Poly leading, 14-7. The Mustangs lined up to kick a 26-yard field goal that would effectively ice the game when Missoula product Jordan Tripp imposed his will. He darted around the right side of the Cal Poly line to block the ball back into the face of place-kicker Bobby Zalud.
“They were on the (right) hash, which was away from my block, and I told coach, ‘I can block this,’” Tripp related. “The tribute really goes to (UM defensive tackle) Alex Bienemann, who just caved that edge down. Our D-end and D-tackle just flat collapsed it and I was able to jump over top of it and get the block.”
Was Delaney concerned when Cal Poly went into field goal formation? Let’s just say the veteran skipper has been in the game long enough to realize the odds of blocking a short field are about the same as blocking an extra point.
“That should be automatic to cinch the game,” he offered. “We could not have beat them if they kicked that field goal.”
Tripp’s block gave Montana (3-1 conference, 6-1 overall) possession at its 12-yard line with 2:17 to go. There was still plenty of work to do, and judging by the way the Griz struggled to move the ball all day against Cal Poly’s quick defense, the situation still seemed desperate.
“I still felt like we were in control of the game, even when the field goal got blocked,” said Mustangs coach Tim Walsh, whose squad fell to 2-1 conference, 3-4 overall. “Give them credit. They had to go 88 yards and they got it done.”
Patience proved to be the key in Montana’s game-tying drive. Griz QB dinked and dunked his way down the field, completing eight passes of 15 yards or less.
A pass interference call against Cal Poly senior cornerback Bijon Samoodi gave Montana first and goal at the Mustangs’ 2-yard line. After three incompletions, Johnson found tight end Clay Pierson wide open across the middle for a TD with 12 ticks left in regulation.
“Before that snap even happened I didn’t think I was going to get the ball,” Pierson said, “because a guy came over and manned up on me.
“But after that he disappeared and it was open. I was kind of happy it came to me.”
Cal Poly won the coin toss prior to overtime and elected to play on defense first. The tired Mustangs offered little resistance as Johnson threw a 23-yard touchdown toss to Ellis Henderson on second down. The sophomore wideout snared the ball near the 5-yard line and dragged senior defensive back Vante Smith-Jackson to the right pylon where he struck paydirt.
The Mustangs weren’t nearly as sharp in their overtime possession. First running back Kristaan Ivory was dropped for a three-yard loss by linebacker John Kanongata’a, then Ivory was stopped after a three-yard gain back to the 25-yard line on a pass from sophomore signal caller Dano Graves.
Graves dropped back to pass on third down and lofted the ball down the middle of the field toward the end zone. There Montana senior linebacker Brock Coyle was waiting to make a leaping interception, ending the game.
“That last play was because of the first two before,” Coyle said. “The first play JP (Kanongata’a) had that great tackle and moved them back even more. Then we had another great play so we just knew what they were going to do.
“I just dropped and saw the ball up in the air and went up and got it.”
Bedlam ensued as Coyle was piled on by his excited teammates.
“I thought I was going to die man,” Coyle said with a grin. “Every time I’m yelling to get off, air is just going out of my lungs.
“It was great. That’s why you play the game to be with your teammates and just have a great team win.”
Delaney couldn’t resist chiming in.
“Thank God I’m so slow I couldn’t get down there,” he joked. “I would have been there right with him and I wouldn’t be here probably.”
The finish made up for an otherwise underwhelming performance by the Grizzlies. Cal Poly finished with a 403-315 edge in total yards, a 308-73 edge in rushing yards and possessed the ball about 13 minutes longer than Montana.
The Mustangs used their run-heavy triple option to sustain two long scoring drives in building a 14-7 halftime lead. They possessed the ball more than seven minutes longer than the Griz.
Montana used a blocked punt by Herbert Gamboa to set up its only touchdown of the first half. The Griz took over at the Cal Poly 29-yard line and, after steadily moving forward on run plays and converting on 4th-and-1 from the Mustangs’ 7, scored on a Jordan Canada 5-yard run up the middle.
Freshman Ben Worst added the point after to make it 7-0 with 5:38 left in the first half. But Cal Poly responded with a 9-play, 69-yard drive capped by Akaninyene Umoh’s 6-yard TD burst late in the first period.
The Griz struggled to sustain drives in the second period. Three times Johnson had passes broken up at the line of scrimmage by 6-foot-3 senior defensive end Andrez Alacaraz.
Cal Poly took over at its 29-yard line midway through the second frame and put together another 9-play, 71-yard scoring drive. This time the Mustangs used quick-hitting runs to catch the Griz defense off guard until Graves hit Umoh for a 19-yard pass, giving his team a first down at the Montana 4-yard line. Umoh then scored on a 4-yard run and Zalud added the extra point to give the visitors a 14-7 lead.
Cal Poly piled up 247 yards in the first half, 185 coming via the run. Montana managed 78 total yards and Johnson was 4 for 12 passing with one interception - his first of the season.
“I told our team before the game the team that plays best for the longest period of time will win the game,” Walsh said. “We outplayed them for a long period of time and it’s unfortunate.
“It’s tough to look at your team and say you lost there because physically, I don’t think so. But we made some mistakes that cost us and it’s unfortunate. To win that game for 57 or 58 minutes, it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
NOTES: Saturday marked Montana’s first OT game in 10 years ... The crowd was the seventh-largest in school history ... Tripp’s fumble recovery in the second half was the ninth of his career, tying him for the school record with former linebacker Mike Rankin, who had nine from 1986-89 ... Griz free safety Matt Hermanson had a game and career-high 18 tackles. Kanonagta’a had 16 tackles and a forced fumble, while Coyle had 12 stops ... Griz RB Travon Van left the game with a leg injury and he went to the hospital for x-rays. Griz reserve wideouts Taylor Walcott and Mitch Saylor sat out the game with injuries along with starting nosetackle Tonga Takai.