Montana’s unlikely — and unprecedented — 61-48 comeback victory over South Dakota State Saturday in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs had many ingredients.
There was Andrew Selle’s second-half resurgence at quarterback.
There were the four three-and-outs and five punts the Grizzlies’ defense forced in the second half.
There were Chase Reynolds’ three short-yardage touchdowns, the last of which tied the game in the fourth quarter.
But nothing swung the momentum in the Grizzlies’ favor quite like Marc Mariani’s 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown late in the third quarter that ignited a run of 40 unanswered points.
Montana (12-0) trailed by 27 points on two occasions in the third quarter.
Obviously, the Griz needed a spark. And who better to provide it than Mariani, the Grizzlies’ No. 1 playmaker?
“A game like that, we’re big into controlling every bit of it,” seventh-year Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “When it gets away from you the way it did you kind of lose control of it and you have to roll the dice.”
Part of the Grizzlies’ strategy was to put Mariani in the kick return game in the second half.
That in itself is not much of a gamble because Mariani is an unmatched weapon. But the Griz had to find a way to spring him. SDSU, after all, was giving Montana fits with its kick coverage.
“We dialed up a new play in our playbook that we hadn’t run in awhile,” Mariani said of the touchdown return. “We thought we could take advantage of some mismatches that they were throwing at us. Those guys in front of me cleared a hole. I’ve got to give the 10 guys in front of me credit. That thing opened wide. I just tried to hit the jets as much as I could.”
As for pure X’s and O’s, Hauck admitted later that he and the kick return team “drew it up in the dirt” on the sideline.
For the Griz, it couldn’t have worked any better.
“They executed it perfectly. It makes you wonder why we practice,” Hauck said. “It was like, ‘Alright here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to do this and this and this, you’re going to go here … ’and they blocked everybody. 100 yards later we were kind of back in the game. They still had (a big) lead, but that was certainly huge.”
From there, Mariani caught two more TDs from Selle, Reynolds did his thing twice from 1-yard out and defensive end Severin Campbell added insult to injury with a 32-yard interception return off a batted pass at the line of scrimmage, his second interception of the game.
Mariani’s 389 all-purpose yards (171 receiving, 218 return yards) on Saturday set a Griz single-game record. The previous record was held by Damon Boddie, who had 321 yards in 1994 against Idaho State.
Hauck said Sunday during his weekly television show that he was still trying to wrap his mind around everything that went on in the second half against South Dakota State.
He and his staff will need to put it behind them quickly, though, to prepare for Montana’s second-round opponent, Stephen F. Austin.
The Lumberjacks advanced to the quarterfinals with a 44-33 victory Saturday over Eastern Washington. The win upped SFA’s record to 10-2, just the school’s fourth double-digit win total in its history.
It also served as the Lumberjacks first playoff win since 1995.
Here are some other notable numbers concerning Stephen F. Austin, an offensive juggernaut and the champion of the Southland Conference:
• The Jacks lead the FCS in passing with an average of more than 353 yards per game and 44 touchdowns. The Lumberjacks rank second in the nation with an average of 484.7 yards of offense per game.
• Junior quarterback Jeremy Moses is the offensive catalyst. Moses has thrown for an FCS-best 3,920 yards and 40 touchdowns.
• Moses’ favorite target is receiver Duane Brooks, a former FBS dropdown from Central Michigan who has caught 109 passes — the second-best total in the nation — for 1,022 yards and six TDs.
• Despite playing in a pass-happy offense, running back Vincent Pervis has still managed to rush for 872 yards with an average of 6.0 per carry.
The CAA meets again
Colonial Athletic Association rivals Villanova (11-1) and New Hampshire (10-2) will meet Saturday at Villanova Stadium in Philadelphia in the quarterfinal round.
The game is a rematch of an Oct. 10 contest that New Hampshire won 28-24 at UNH’s Cowell Stadium. Two fourth quarter field goals by Tom Manning stood as the difference for New Hampshire.
It remains Villanova’s only loss of the year.
The CAA is familiar with rematches in the playoffs, especially in recent years.
James Madison and Villanova squared off in the quarterfinals last year, a game won by JMU. The Dukes went on to the semifinals but lost to Montana.
New Hampshire last played a league rival in the playoffs in 2006, losing the Massachusetts 24-17 in the quarterfinals.
UMass went on to beat Montana in the semifinals the following week.
The winner of the Villanova-New Hampshire game will advance to the semis to face either Southern Illinois or William & Mary.
Around the FCS
Appalachian State (10-2) and Richmond (11-1) will play Saturday night in one of the more anticipated quarterfinal games, a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal meeting Richmond won en route to its first national championship. It will also be the third straight playoff meeting between the Mountaineers and Spiders. … The other quarterfinal game pits Southern Illinois (11-1) and William & Mary (10-2). SIU is making its fifth quarterfinal appearance and its fourth since 2005. William & Mary’s last trip to the quarterfinals came in 2004.