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Montana Grizzlies wake out of hibernation to roll over SEMO with second-half heroics

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Griz vs. SEMO 40.JPG

The Griz celebrate their victory during the FCS playoff football game between the Griz and Southeast Missouri State at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2022.

MISSOULA — The stadium was somber, the sidelines were quiet and the scoreboard was lopsided.

In the third quarter of Saturday's first round FCS playoff matchup between the Montana Grizzlies and the visiting Southeast Missouri State Redhawks, the team from down south led 24-3.

Then the unthinkable happened: the Griz pulled momentum out of thin air, ripping off 31 unanswered points.

What looked like it'd be an anticlimactic ending to a below-standard season turned into a 34-24 win. Hope was restored to Washington-Grizzly Stadium and the entire UM fan base.

With that, Montana survives and advances to next Saturday's second round of the FCS playoffs where it will play North Dakota State University.

"They're the gold standard, there's no other way to put it," Griz head coach Bobby Hauck said when looking ahead to next weekend. "We've been on a collision course towards this game and we've been wondering when we were going to get a chance to play, figured we would at some point, and it happens to be next weekend."

Flowers leads special teams surge

If it weren't for the Montana special teams units, the Griz would have never been afforded that opportunity.

But every time their backs are against the wall, wide receiver Malik Flowers delivers. Think back to this season's Weber State game where the offense struggled to move the ball under backup quarterback Kris Brown.

Flowers, on the kicker-return team, made a house call to cut the lead and light some sparks. Though the Griz lost that game, his touchdown return this time around led to a complete comeback effort.

Trailing 24-3 in the third quarter, Flowers returned a kickoff for a touchdown to make the score 24-10. It was the seventh of his career, tying the Big Sky all-time record with New Orleans Saint and former Weber State Wildcat Rashid Shaheed.

"What'd the tip sheet say, Malik?" Hauck asked of Flowers at the post-game presser. "'Every kick return is a potential record-setter, lets go.'"

From there, the remainder of the special teams units followed suit as a tangible shift in momentum took over the stadium.

Junior Bergen was next up, scoring with the punt-return team. He went 58 yards down the sideline untouched after fielding a punt that was kicked directly at him. 

The SEMO mistakes led to the game being knotted up at 24.

"We mishit the ball a couple times," SEMO head coach Tom Matukewicz said of his kicker and punter. ""On the kickoff, he totally mishit it. We have a freshman there and I know he did everything he could but he kicked it away from our coverage which wasn't great."

In contrast, Griz senior kicker Nico Ramos contributed significantly. He was 2 of 2 on field goal tries, giving the team its first lead of the game at 27-24 when he nailed a 32-yarder.

Johnson turns his night around

With special teams doing some heavy lifting, the offense chose to get involved and take some weight off their shoulders. This came after a horrid first half.

In the first quarter, Griz starting quarterback Lucas Johnson was rolling out on an option run where he fumbled the ball for the second time in as many weeks. It bounced into the hands of SEMO safety Lawrence Johnson, who returned it for a touchdown to commence the scoring. 

At halftime, the Griz offense had yet to find the end zone and Johnson was completing under 50 percent of his passes. Yet the post-game press conference started with this:

"Congratulations to Lucas on fighting back from what was an inauspicious start to playing great," Hauck said. 

He came out firing on all cylinders in the second half. The Griz signal-caller finished the game with over 300 yards passing (306) and two touchdown heaves, while rushing for another 29.

Keelan White and Cole Grossman were the beneficiaries of his turnaround, each recording a TD grab. 

"I probably couldn't have started any worse," Johnson said. "But not one guy on our team let me hold my head (down). They all said I was going to get it back, to keep going and keep grinding away ... this whole team was holding me up."

Johnson and Flowers, who also made his presence known on offense, connected for 108 yards through the air. It was Flowers' first career 100-yard receiving game in what was a busy night for his college-football resume.

"Me and Malik have a really good connection and I just think he was a really good mismatch today," Johnson said. "He was bringing down the balls that I was putting up. He did a good job today."

Dominant second-half defense

Milestones weren't just recorded in special teams and offense. In fact, arguably the biggest of them all came on the defensive side of the ball.

Senior safety Robby Hauck had 15 tackles to lead the team, and that total was good enough to break the Big Sky all-time tackles record. He passed EWU's Ronnie Hamlin who had 437.

He found out about it at basically the same time as everyone else.

"(I found out when) The announcers in the stadium announced it," Robby said. "I was dealing with my chin getting split open, so I didn't really have much of an opportunity to celebrate or anything ... it's great though."

When the Griz faithful that made it to the Thanksgiving weekend game heard that message, it led to an eruption, and soon after, a Garrett Graves game-ending interception. 

Forcing SEMO QB Patrick DeLaurent out of the pocket, his throw floated for too long on its way down where Graves jumped the pass. It completed a stretch of roughly 25-straight minutes where the defense held the Redhawks scoreless.

Though it finished with just one sack, the Griz defense had seven more quarterback hurries. It often sent the house with its blitz packages, keeping DeLaurent on the move.

With a foot injury, he was in his first game back after missing the previous two and was often forced to throw off the injured foot. 

"They (Griz defensive line) do a lot of things so you have to be really good post-snap, identity coverages behind it and a lot of that is on the O-Line really," DeLaurent said. "With all the stunts up front. It's difficult to do."

Scoring summary

First quarter

Both sides got off to slow offensive starts, but Montana's was worse. Quarterback Lucas Johnson fumbled deep in Griz territory and it was scooped and scored by Lawrence Johnson of SEMO. 

With both sides floundering on offense, that was the only score of the quarter.

Second quarter

SEMO would score again with a 35-yard field goal from DC Pippin to start the second quarter. Montana's kicker Nico Ramos would soon answer with a 35-yarder of his own.

The Redhawks got the last laugh of the quarter, though, when OVC Offensive Player of the Year Geno Hess score on a one-yard run to make it 17-3 at halftime.

Third quarter

It was more of the same to start, as SEMO opened with a 7-minute drive that resulted in a Geno Hess TD run. But from there, the tides turned.

Trailing by three scores, the Griz scored on a kickoff return (Flowers), punt return (Bergen) and passing connection (Johnson to White). The teams entered the final frame tied at 24. 

Fourth quarter

Nico Ramos came through with another field goal, this one a 32-yarder and it gave the Griz their first lead of the game. It would eventually prove to be the winning score as SEMO never lit up the scoreboard again.

The Griz would add another TD for good measure from Johnson to Grossman, and win 34-24.

Lucas Semb is the Griz football beat writer for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Semb or email him at lucas.semb@406mtsports.com.

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