SEATTLE — Montana linebacker Marcus Welnel was mobbed by teammates near his sideline as he picked off Washington quarterback Dylan Morris in the final minute Saturday at Husky Stadium.
It was the Grizzlies’ third interception of the day, and it sealed the upset of the young season on any level of college football. It was a shocker that not many expected for the 22.5-point underdogs who were paid $675,000 to come on the road for the expected lopsided loss.
Montana, the ninth-ranked challenger from the FCS, had been hanging with Washington, a Pac-12 power ranked No. 20 in the FBS, throughout the day. It was the Grizzlies’ defense that was the story as they shut down the Huskies for most of the 60 minutes in a 13-7 win.
It marked just the fifth time since the FCS was created in 1978 that an FCS team beat a ranked FBS team, the first being Appalachian State over No. 5 Michigan in 2007. FCS teams had been 4-358 against ranked FBS foes entering the game.
"This isn’t Bemidji State now. This is the Washington Huskies. Ok, uncommon. This is App State over Michigan. Make no mistake on that," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said.
The thing about Appalachian State, though, is they were the back-to-back FCS champs when they faced Michigan and went on to win their third straight title, so they were a known quantity. UM is a historically succesful FCS program but won the its last FCS title in 2001 and was last in the title game in 2009, and UW coach Jimmy Lake didn't seem to give the Griz much thought, mentioning them once during his 25-minute weekly press conference on Monday.
Unlike Appalachian State's win over Michigan, which produced offensive and special teams highlights galore, Montana's win over Washington was highlighted by a defensive beatdown. In fact, the Grizzlies' defense looked good enough against UW to possibly carry them to a national title.
That defense had enough depth to give UW everything it could handle. The defensive front, which Hauck believes is two players deep at all three positions, handled the physical presence of UW’s offensive line, which has four All-Pac-12 starters and two future NFL first-round draft picks.
Montana flustered Washington to the tune of eight tackles for loss, with three by linebacker Patrick O'Connell and two by linebacker Jace Lewis. Three of those TFLs were sacks, an uncommon occurrence for the Huskies, who gave up just one sack in four Pac-12 games last season, and that came when their quarterback ran out of bounds.
"It’d be hard to say anybody in our defense didn’t play pretty dang well when you took the No. 20 team in the country and held them to seven on their home field," Hauck said as the Griz snapped a six-game losing streak against FBS teams, picking up their first such win since 2003 against Idaho.
The defense came to play and limited UW to 65 rushing yards on 27 carries. They held redshirt freshman quarterback Dylan Morris to 27-of-46 passing for 226 yards and three interceptions.
That performance helped lead Montana to its first win over Washington since 1920, also the year after a global pandemic. The Griz improved to 2-17-1 all-time against UW, which is expected to compete for the Pac-12 title and a berth in the College Football Playoff this year.
"This is going to sting," UW coach Jimmy Lake said. "This is going to sting all of us. You can feel it in that locker room. ... This is extremely disappointing."
Simply put, the Griz were confident on defense, didn’t flinch and rallied to the ball. Big Sky and FCS offenses better have taken notice.
“Griz D looking real stingy,” former Montana All-American wide receiver Samori Toure, who grad transferred to Nebraska, tweeted during the second quarter. He added two emojis that could be interpreted as “don’t sleep on the Griz defense.”
UM’s game at UW was one of the final FCS-vs-FBS games of Week 1, which saw six FCS teams beat FBS foes. South Dakota State blasted Colorado State, Eastern Washington beat UNLV in overtime, UC Davis rallied in the fourth quarter to upset Tulsa, Holy Cross topped UConn and East Tennessee State downed Vanderbilt.
Montana State nearly upset Wyoming before giving up the winning score in the final minute. Even UM’s Week 2 opponent, Western Illinois, which was picked last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, hung tight with MAC favorite Ball State.
Montana certainly looked like it could add its name to the list as its players ran to the tunnel at the half, being greeted by loud cheers from a large contingent of Griz fans in the crowd of 64,053 people. Those cheers grew louder in volume and a chant of "Montana-Grizzlies" broke out and overtook the boos from stunned Washington fans in the second half as UM was on its way to making the Big Sky the first FCS conference since 2009 to beat three FBS teams in the same week.
“We played with a lot of passion and fire,” Hauck said during his halftime radio interview. “The best team on this field is the Montana Grizzlies.”
Senior quarterback Cam Humphrey of nearby Issaquah overcame a slow start in the first half to finish 12-of-23 passing for 105 yards. He ran six times for 14 yards to boost a running game that was missing All-American Marcus Knight and Nick Ostmo. Xavier Harris aided the ground game by rushing 15 times for 70 yards, and Isiah Childs carried the ball nine times for 39 yards.
The Griz didn’t convert their first third down until 13:22 remained in the game as they went three-and-out on seven of nine drives and finished 2 of 13 on third downs and 0 of 1 on fourth downs. Humphrey did have some passing and rushing gains negated as UM was called for seven penalties for 81 yards, including five offensive penalties for 51 yards.
The difference between FBS and FCS teams is the number of scholarships they can give out, and that typically shows through as a game wears on because of the differences in depth. That wasn’t the case for Montana, and Hauck’s raving about his team’s depth all offseason proved to be true.
The Griz defense hunkered down after giving up a touchdown on the opening drive of the game as UW methodically drove 78 yards on nine plays, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Morris. The Huskies had 36 rushing yards on that drive but just 29 the rest of the game.
UW was missing three of its top four wide receivers, and the other one, Ja'Lynn Polk, left after the first drive and didn't return.
"We just did our thing," Hauck said. "Our thing’s being physical, play fast, tackle. And that’s what we did all night."
Montana extended its streak of not being shut out to 408 games, the fourth longest current streak in all of college football, by scoring on its first drive. Harris showcased his vision and speed to break off a 37-yard run that helped set up a 26-yard field goal by Kevin Macias.
Montana forced a turnover on downs on the next drive, during which Welnel had a sack and a tackle for loss. The Griz went for it on fourth down, but Childs was stopped in the backfield for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1 at the UM 46-yard line.
The Griz defense continued to stand tall. They held Washington to a 50-yard field goal attempt, missed wide right by Peyton Henry. Gavin Robertson, an Auburn native who began career in the Pac-12 at Arizona, picked off Morris in the second quarter on a tipped pass. He added a second interception on a tipped pass in the final minute of the third quarter.
On the ensuing drive, Montana had its biggest pass play by yardage on a 21-yard catch by Mitch Roberts. Humphrey then hit Harris for 12 yards on a swing pass for the first third-down conversion, he found Malik Flowers for 14 and hit Cole Grossman for 11. On the next play, Humphrey faked a handoff and dove into the end zone for a 4-yard score to put UM up 10-7 with 10:35 to play.
Montana’s score was its first offensive touchdown against a Power Five team in the last three games after not getting one against UW in 2017 and Oregon in 2019. UM pushed its lead to 13-7 when Macias kicked a 22-yard field goal with 2:54 to play. The Griz passed up a fourth-down shot at the end zone from the 4-yard line because Hauck didn't like the conversion percentage, although he would've gone from it if they were inside the 2-yard line.
UM forced a turnover on downs with 93 seconds left, and UW used its timeouts to stop the clock. Macias missed short on a 50-yard field goal that would've sealed the win. Hauck went for the field goal because he thought Macias would make it.
The miss gave UW good field position instead of potentially being pinned deep by a punt. UW looked like it could steal the win in the final minute, like Wyoming did against Montana State, when it converted a fourth-and-10 on a 25-yard catch by Cade Otton to the UM 43-yard line with 41 seconds left.
"Golly, we made it hard on ourselves," Hauck said.
But the defense rose up one final time with Welnel intercepting a pass at the UM 31-yard line with 31 seconds left.
"It was big time," Robertson said of that moment. "I almost cried."
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.