CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — The Montana Grizzlies were supposed to be the second-half team.
Throughout the course of the 2009 season, Montana’s players and coaches always seemed to make the proper adjustments against opponents — whether in-game or at halftime — to win.
But Villanova executed a great second half plan to turn the tables on the Griz Friday night at a soggy Finley Stadium on the way to a 23-21 victory.
As a result, the Wildcats took home their first Football Championship Subdivision title, a fitting tribute to coach Andy Talley’s 25-year tenure at the suburban Philadelphia school.
With the chance to finish as the program’s only unbeaten team, the top-seeded Grizzlies came away empty handed for the second straight season.
“I’ve said that I enjoy this team an awful lot,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said afterward. “It’s very disappointing to come down here and not get to 15-0. We had a chance to be 15-0 and be perfect on the season and we didn’t get it done.
“Ultimately, that’s my fault.”
Montana is now 0-3 in championship games in Hauck’s seven-year tenure, and you can chalk this one up to halftime adjustments.
Griz receiver Marc Mariani dominated the first half, catching nine passes for 178 yards and a touchdown as Montana took a 14-3 lead.
He was on a record-setting pace for both catches and yards.
But Mariani was shut out in the second half as Villanova switched up its coverage and found a way to flood the pocket more effectively.
Montana quarterback Andrew Selle, who was unable to target Mariani even once in the second half, said the Grizzlies didn’t do much to shift their offensive fortunes as the Wildcats’ defense gained momentum.
“Not a whole lot changed,” said Selle, who played a fantastic game, completing 27 of 35 passes for 351 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. “We didn’t really change anything in our game plan. We would get something going, get down the field and then we’d just halt.”
The Grizzlies converted 3 of 6 third down plays in the first half but managed to convert only 1 of 4 tries in the second half.
Running back Chase Reynolds had 34 yards rushing on four attempts in the first quarter, an average of 8.4 yards per rush.
But he finished the game with 64 yards on just 15 carries as Montana went to the air.
The Grizzlies’ plan was to throw the ball early and often.
“It’s what they were doing with their pressure and their structure,” Hauck said of ‘Nova’s defense. “Everything they did for the most part tonight, in particularly early on, was geared to stop the run. That’s why we threw it like we did throughout the game. We threw it a bunch, maybe a higher percentage” than usual.
“We pride ourselves on being able to throw it and run it. We want to run the ball. It’s what we do. But at the same time we’re not going to beat our heads against the wall if it’s not going to be productive.”
The day before the game Hauck laid out his three keys to victory.
First, the quarterback had to play well. Whichever guy played better would probably win, he said. Second, the team that won the field position battle would likely come out on top.
And third, whoever ran the ball and stopped it more effectively would have a decided leg up.
Selle’s numbers were better than those of Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney, but the Wildcats’ offense executed better in the second half.
On the flip side, one factor to the game was the Wildcats’ ability to hand the Griz a crucial three-and-out at the outset of the third quarter.
Montana usually makes the most of those second-half drives.
As far as Hauck’s other keys were concerned, Villanova was able to win the field position battle because they were able to win the fight on the ground.
Led by Whitney and Matt Szczur, the Wildcats rushed for 351 yards while averaging 6.9 yards per rush with their deceptive read-option game.
Talley, who said he received a few encouraging text messages from Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright before kickoff, joked about finally winning a championship in the aftermath.
“Winning it all for someone like me who is sort of toward the end of his career, you don’t get a chance to come through this very often,” said the 66-year-old coach.
“We were talking to some of my friends from the NCAA and we were talking about some type of heart test that I had before I came down here. They said, ‘Jeez. That was dangerous.’ I said, ‘Well, if I died here winning the national championship, that would be a pretty good death. That’s as good as you could get. So I’m OK with it.’ Does that tell you how much this means to me?”
The game meant a lot to Montana, as well.
But the Grizzlies had no reason to joke when all was said and done.
In the final analysis, it came down to which team made the proper second-half fixes.
“They obviously made some good halftime adjustments. I think that our offense didn’t make enough plays today,” Mariani said.
Mariani later added: “We wrote a different ending. But this stuff happens sometimes.”