Montana Idaho 2003 newspaper cover

The Sept. 28, 2003, cover of the Missoulian showcases Montana's 41-28 win over Idaho in which the Griz deployed the triple option with true freshman quarterback Kyle Samson.

MISSOULA — Montana most likely won’t catch Idaho off guard this Saturday, no matter whether it starts Dalton Sneed or Cam Humphrey at quarterback.

The Griz did surprise the then-FBS Vandals the last time they hosted them in 2003, running to victory with a two-quarterback system highlighted by a 5-foot-8, 165-pound true freshman operating the option offense.

It’s a game that’s still remembered fondly 16 years later, including by Montana coach Bobby Hauck, who was in the first season of his first stint coaching the Griz that year.

“It was one of the more fun days ever in terms of for me coaching,” Hauck said in 2018 ahead of the renewal of the rivalry with Idaho.

The strategy of going with the option was a calculated gamble for Hauck, who’s back at Montana in his second stint leading the program. The Griz were without their top two quarterbacks and had the luxury of a bye week to make the change to a run-oriented attack.

Montana went on to post a 41-28 win, running the ball 56 times for 344 yards and five touchdowns, all still the third most by a Hauck-coached Griz team.

“I think it’s one of the best coaching jobs we ever did — and we lost one conference game in our last four seasons together there,” said Ty Gregorak, who was coaching Montana’s secondary at the time.

Secret ops

Montana came into the 2003 season having moved on from graduated quarterback John Edwards.

Junior Craig Ochs went down with an ankle injury in the fall, and fellow junior Jeff Disney suffered his own ankle injury the game before Montana’s contest against Idaho on Sept. 27. That left redshirt freshman Justin Hartman and true freshman Kyle Samson, neither of whom had thrown a pass in college.

Hauck, just three games into his tenure at Montana, decided the Griz would run the option with Samson, burning his redshirt. Samson was recruited to play wide receiver but ran the option in high school while playing for his dad, Mark Samson, who learned the craft from his father-in-law, Bob Petrino Sr.

“Coach Hauck called me into his office that Monday and said we’re going to pull your redshirt and run some option,” recalled Samson, now the Montana Tech offensive coordinator, the nephew of Idaho head coach Paul Petrino and the cousin of Idaho quarterback Mason Petrino.

“We had to be quiet about what we were doing that week because it was a whole different offense that we hadn’t shown before. Coach did let me call my mom and dad so they could come to the game. They were probably the only people outside our team who knew.”

Deciding to run the option with a true freshman was one thing. Implementing it was another for the offense run by coordinator Rob Phenicie, who was brought in to lead a pass-heavy attack.

The coaching staff reviewed film of Washington quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo running the option from Hauck’s time as an assistant coach for the Huskies. They also brought in Grizzly Hall of Famer Hal Sherbeck, a native of Big Sandy, Montana, who had coached for over 30 years at Fullerton Junior College in California.

“He helped us learn it and talked about it as far as where guys are, where the reads are, how teams could possibly adjust to it,” said Justin Green, then a Grizzly running back and now Montana’s running backs coach.

The team closed practice that week to prepare its secret weapon and wouldn’t even allow boosters to watch, the Missoulian reported at the time. Hauck denied the possibility of running the option, telling the Missoulian at the time that “we don’t have any expertise in that area.”

The secrecy continued when the offense went to work inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium after regular practice was finished at the Riverbowl.

“I remember it was almost a secret practice with that package,” said Dane Oliver, then a senior wide receiver and now the Missoula Sentinel football head coach. “It was literally an extra period when everybody else went in. Even among the team, it was its own little secret ops.

“It even had its own coded language — using geography terms to design which way the play was going.”

End of the line

Montana was playing Idaho for the final time, at least for the time being, when the teams’ five-year contract ended in 2003.

The Vandals, coached by Tom Cable, had left the Big Sky after 1995 and made their way to the FBS. In 2004, new NCAA rules required FBS teams to play at least five home games against FBS opponents, limiting the opportunity for Montana to play a road game there, the Missoulian reported.

The winner would be keeping possession of the Little Brown Stein for the near future. Montana had won three consecutive games and would win it for a fourth consecutive time in 2003, marking just the second time the Griz won four times in a row in the series since they started playing each other in 1903.

“As a newbie to the squad, we looked at it more as an opportunity to go win,” Green said. “It was a big game because we knew at the time it was the last time we were going to play Idaho.”

Under Hauck, Montana had lost to then-Division II North Dakota State two games earlier in his home debut. The Bison used a fake field goal touchdown pass with 2:13 to play to cap a rally from a 24-2 deficit for a 25-24 win. It was Montana’s first loss to a Division II team since 1987, and it came in front of a then-record stadium crowd.

“For us, it was a bad taste in our mouth as far as the way we lost,” Green said. “As I learned quickly, there’s not many games you lose in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. So, that meant something to our team, and I was quickly able to see that.”

Before the Idaho game, Montana honored Griz Hall of Fame inductees Doug Betters, Kirk Scrafford, Mike Tilleman and Guy Bingham, the father of current Montana tight end Colin Bingham. Each of them rode in a convertible circling the field.

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The 63-scholarship Griz were soon cruising to a blowout victory over the 85-scholarship Vandals.

“We thought they were awfully good,” Hauck said. “We were kind of trying to figure out who we were. I thought we were solid. Then we did not have a quarterback. That’s not real comforting. Didn’t know how it was going to go. Obviously, it went well.”

Best option

Montana continued its secret ploy throughout pregame warmups. Disney and Ochs both ran through quarterback drills, and Samson warmed up at wide receiver on the 65-degree, sunny day in front of a then-stadium record crowd of 23,679.

As kickoff neared, Montana was about to debut the bold strategy of mixing the triple option run out of the I-formation by Samson with a mix of passing from Hartman. Hauck seemed to have some nerves about the plan when talking with his wife over morning coffee the day of the game.

“I said, ‘They’re going to think I’m pretty smart here in about eight hours or they’re going to think I’m the dumbest guy in Montana,’” Hauck recalled.

Montana scored five rushing touchdowns and started off on the right foot before Samson even took the field to run the option. Wide receiver Jefferson Heidelberger took a handoff from Hartman on the first offensive snap and ran for an 80-yard touchdown on a fly sweep. It would be Montana's only run longer than 19 yards.

Late in the first quarter, Samson came in wearing jersey No. 85 as he took the football field for the first time since leading Helena Capital to the Class AA state title 10 months earlier. Samson ran behind an offensive line towering over him that cloaked his movement in the backfield.

“We had a bunch of talent around us and a great O-line and some really good running backs and receivers,” Samson said. “I knew I didn’t have to go out there and win the game by myself. We just had to go out there and take care of the football.”

JR Waller scored on a 2-yard run set up by a 52-yard punt return by Levander Segars as Montana built a 17-9 halftime lead.

The Griz extended the lead when Hartman ran in a 7-yard touchdown after Idaho fumbled on its first possession of the second half. The Vandals fumbled on the next drive, and the Griz turned it into a 6-yard touchdown run by Lex Hilliard two plays after Oliver, the holder, ran a successful fake field goal for a first down.

"I don’t know if Idaho figured it out," Green said of the triple option. "I’m pretty sure it got them to a base (defense) because it was something they hadn’t seen. As far as looking confused or anything, it’s not like we lined up in terribly odd formations."

Montana got up 31-9 before Idaho backup quarterback Brian Lindgren came on strong in the third quarter. He threw for 200 yards and two touchdowns and got the Vandals within 31-21.

“We were playing really well, but they ran a snake route with two receivers running verticals and they’d cross about 15 to 20 yards down the field, and they hit us a couple times,” Gregorak recalled. “I remember Bobby just laced into us on the sideline and grabbed a board, drew up the route, and I’m like, ‘Coach, we know what the route is. We just have to defend it better.’ I remember he was so hot, and I’m pretty sure he chucked the whiteboard.”

The Griz got 48 of their 92 passing yards on a third-and-12 pass from Hartman to Jon Talmage to set up a field goal that extended Montana’s lead to 34-21. They completed just 7 of 14 passes, with Hartman going 7 of 12 and Samson finishing 0 of 2 with an interception.

Green, a first-year transfer at the time, scored Montana's final touchdown. He ran for a team-best 122 yards on option pitches and was one of nine Griz who carried the ball at least once.

“That was a fun day for us and just rewarding,” Hauck said. “When you do things (where) you’re willing to risk a lot and you get the reward, it’s fun.”

'Whatever it takes'

Montana kept the Samson-led option in its repertoire throughout the rest of the season. When Ochs returned, opposing teams were forced to prepare for the pass and the option.

“People probably thought coach Hauck was crazy putting me in there as a true freshman,” Samson said. “He had the confidence to do it, and I’ll be always indebted to him for that.

“I think that’s what makes him a great coach is he instills confidence in his players. Everything he had said to me, he instilled the confidence in me to be successful. I think coach, he’ll always adapt to his personnel and scheme to do whatever it takes to get a win.”

Hauck’s adaptability is still remembered by Oliver.

“It was quite a coaching move to install the option, mid-line, veer,” Oliver said. “I think it kind of gave us a boost. We didn’t really have a QB with any experience, so it’s like coach Hauck is going to find a way to lead us no matter what the situation is.

“It gave us a jump in energy like, ‘Hey, we’re going to find a way to win games,’ which we always did. Montana at that time, you just found a way. That was the first year under coach Hauck where it was just another way to get it done.”

Added Green: “I think when you’re dealing with a coach Hauck team, you’re willing to do whatever it takes to win.”

The Griz won eight games in a nine-game stretch in 2003 and finished the season with a 9-4 record. They won the Big Sky championship and made a playoff appearance for the first of seven consecutive seasons under Hauck, who led the Griz to three national title games.

“We set a tone within the program that it didn’t matter how we won,” Hauck said. “We were going to do whatever we could to win a game, and it didn’t really matter how. We just wanted to win.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.