BOZEMAN — The Montana Grizzlies never wavered in the face of the turmoil, hardship and difficulty they experienced on and off the field in 2012.
A year later, the Griz are back where they expect to be each season — playing their best football going full-speed ahead into the playoffs.
No. 5 Montana capped a resurgent regular season with a 28-14 victory over archrival and No. 13-ranked Montana State on Saturday in front of a record crowd of 21,527 at Bobcat Stadium. The win was UM’s 10th of the year, which is double its total from a season ago.
The Grizzlies’ defense continued its dominant November trend by keeping DeNarius McGhee, Cody Kirk and MSU’s offense out of the end zone through three quarters. And once it found its bearings on offense, Montana controlled the ball, converted key third-downs and finished drives with points.
After Robin Pflugrad was controversially fired as coach in the spring of 2012, Mick Delaney’s old-school, infectious, never-quit attitude started to permeate Montana’s program the minute he agreed to take the reins. It trickled down to the players, who bounced back off the mat following a turbulent 5-6 season a year ago.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this senior class, the way we all came together and led this group and turned it around,” said linebacker Brock Coyle. “Huge credit (goes) to our coaching staff.
“Coach Delaney … I couldn’t ask for a better head coach to finish my career. We all came together, we knew we were a good football team and we just had to keep grinding. We knew we were going to be special this year.”
With 12 tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles, Coyle, a Bozeman native, was special on his own. His second forced fumble was the defensive play of the day.
Trailing by a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Bobcats were driving, looking for the tying points. MSU running back Cody Kirk burst through a hole and cut to midfield for a 15-yard gain, but Coyle came from behind to knock the ball loose.
John Kanongata’a pounced on the loose ball, and Montana scored a touchdown four plays later on a 20-yard play-action pass from Jordan Johnson to Clay Pierson. Just like that it was a two-possession game.
Kirk’s eyes welled with tears throughout the postgame press conference. Rob Ash said Kirk, a Frenchtown native, has given more to MSU’s program than anyone else.
Kirk, who rarely fumbles, said he’ll never forget that play.
“In the second half we started going back to our bread and butter, which is power and counter,” he said. “That will be one of the worst plays of my career. That’s very depressing. I’m never going to forget that. That’s the worst.”
The Bobcats had the momentum in the first quarter. MSU’s defense stuffed the Grizzlies for four consecutive three-and-outs to start the game. The Cats took the lead the fourth time when Shawn Johnson returned the ensuing punt 82 yards for a touchdown.
It was Johnson’s third special teams TD of the season.
“A sensational play,” Ash said. “On Tuesday we put on the video board Corey Smith’s kickoff return for a touchdown (against Montana) in 2003. Shawn Johnson said he wanted to make a video moment like that and he did.”
But the Grizzlies eventually got going on offense, opting to use more read-option elements in the running game. And it worked.
The key drive came before halftime when Montana marched 89 yards on 15 plays while taking 6:36 off the clock. Along the way, the Griz converted three third downs and one fourth down. Johnson scrambled 15 yards up the sideline to move the chains on one occasion.
That drive ended with a 7-yard touchdown run by Jordan Canada, during which he stiff-armed MSU safety Rob Marshall to find the end zone with 1:10 remaining in the second.
Montana got the kickoff to start the third quarter and scored on that drive also — a nine-play, 71 yarder capped by a 3-yard TD run by Travon Van.
“I think it was big,” Jordan Johnson said. “To go into halftime 7-7 knowing you’re going to get the ball back was huge. I think that was one of the biggest parts of the game.”
“We got a little bit of rhythm and a little continuity going just prior to half,” Delaney said. “We got some chemistry going just putting together a nice drive. For us to be successful, our play-action pass game has to be good, and that’s not good if you can’t run the football. For the most part it was a matter of hanging in there.”
The Bobcats had a huge day on special teams, but it didn’t provide much of an edge. Aside from Johnson’s punt return, Brad Daly blocked a punt and Alex Singleton blocked a field goal, but MSU’s offense didn’t turn those into points.
Montana State’s only offensive touchdown came off a 1-yard run by Johnson with 6:02 remaining. But the Grizzlies answered on the ensuing drive with an 8-yard TD run by Canada. Johnson moved the chains on third down twice with clutch passes to receiver Jamaal Jones, a Washington transfer who finished with seven catches for 120 yards.
The loss ended the Bobcats’ season with a 7-5 record (and 5-3 in the league), well short of expectations after winning shares of three straight Big Sky Conference titles and three consecutive playoff berths.
It also ended the record-setting careers of McGhee, Kirk, Daly, and receiver Tanner Bleskin, as well as several other seniors.
The victory vaults the Grizzlies (10-2, 6-2) back into the postseason after missing out last year. They’ll learn their playoff standing when the Division I Football Championship bracket is announced Sunday morning on ESPNU (9:30 Mountain time).
“As far as our ultimate goal, to be playing at the beginning of January, we knew it all had to happen today,” said Griz defensive tackle Alex Bienemann. “We had to go through the Cats to get where we wanted to be. To come here and play the way we did, it’s awesome. And to see that (Great Divide) trophy on top of the o-linemen’s shoulders, it’s heaven man. It’s what it’s all about.”
NOTES: MSU CB Deonte Flowers had an interception return for a touchdown called back in the third quarter on a pass interference flag. … Montana stretched its streak of not allowing an offensive TD to nine quarters before Johnson scored in the fourth. … Bobcats WR Jon Ellis let a pass slip through his hands on a slant route in the third quarter. It looked like Ellis could have run for a touchdown had he held on. … UM now leads the all-time series with MSU 70-37-5. … It is the Bobcats’ first three-game losing streak since 2006.