MISSOULA — Just four weeks after celebrating one of the program’s biggest wins, Montana football coach Bob Stitt and his team took the field Saturday facing a have-to-have it game. A pair of tough losses and a 1-2 record entering Big Sky Conference action will do that.
Playing like its back was against the wall, Montana rode a dominant defensive effort and a balanced offense to a 23-14 victory over Northern Arizona on Homecoming at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Montana (2-2, 1-0 BSC) had dropped its last two, to Cal Poly and Liberty, with an off week in between, and it was starting to make the team’s season-opening victory over North Dakota State feel like a long, long time ago.
“In our minds it was definitely a must-win game today, because we feel like we have what it takes to be a championship football team. We had to get off on the right foot and get on top so we could start feeling good about ourselves again,” said Stitt.
Montana, which outgained Northern Arizona 355-19 in the first half, built a 16-0 halftime lead, then watched as the Lumberjacks pulled within 16-14 on a pair of scoring passes less than a minute apart midway through the third quarter.
With the game hanging in the balance in the fourth, the Grizzlies put together an 11-play scoring drive that finally put the game out of reach. “After the last few weeks and the feeling we had with losing, this is awesome,” said Stitt.
Montana wasted little time jumping all over Northern Arizona, on both sides of the ball. John Nguyen’s 22-yard scoring run — one play after Chad Chalich, getting his first start at quarterback as a Grizzly, hit Jamaal Jones for 56 yards — put the Grizzlies up 7-0 just 70 seconds in.
That run covered more yardage than the Lumberjacks would generate the entire half.
And yet Montana could only build a 16-0 lead by the break, three times settling for Daniel Sullivan field goals after driving within 10 yards of the end zone. But for 30 minutes it didn’t matter, because Montana’s defense was absolutely monstrous.
The Grizzlies had nine of their 11 sacks for the game in the first half, three coming from Tyrone Holmes, and held the Lumberjacks to 19 yards on 26 plays, 11 on the ground, eight through the air.
“The first 30 minutes were excellent,” said UM defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, whose unit gave up game-opening touchdown drives to both North Dakota State and Liberty. “All week we talked about getting a fast start. We needed to be sharper and more disciplined this week, and I thought we were.”
After Nguyen’s scoring run, Montana got the ball right back when Eric Johnson forced a fumble on the kickoff return and Tucker Schye recovered at the NAU 27. The drive would stall at the 10, and a Sullivan 27-yard field goal gave Montana a 10-0 lead before NAU had run an offensive play.
Montana had a 17-play, 74-yard drive that made it 13-0 early in the second quarter and faced 4th-and-goal from the NAU 4-yard line on its next possession. The Grizzlies lined up to go for it, but a false start penalty changed those plans and brought on the field goal unit.
Sullivan’s 27-yarder made it 16-0, and a halftime lead that could have been safely out of reach still felt tenuous.
Northern Arizona (2-2, 0-1 BSC) wasn’t going to be held down the entire game, and the Lumberjacks opened the second half by marching right down the field. But Case Cookus’s pass into the end zone from the 15 was broken up by Kendrick Van Ackeren and intercepted by Yamen Sanders.
Montana did little to extend its lead, and Northern Arizona took advantage. The Lumberjacks scored twice in 59 seconds midway through the third quarter to close their deficit to 16-14 and get things more tense than any of the 26,136 inside the stadium could have imagined at halftime.
Cookus hit Emmanuel Butler for a 57-yard strike down the left sideline to make it 16-7, and after a Chalich interception, Montana’s only turnover of the game, Cookus hit Butler for a 34-yard score.
“We gave up a couple of big plays, which has kind of been our Achilles, but we’re playing very aggressively on the perimeter, so you’re going to get some of that,” said Gregorak.
“They were getting us in some unbalanced formations and making us check out of different things. It was a great halftime adjustment by them. But we came up big when we needed to.”
Given two more possessions to take the lead, Northern Arizona was unable to do so. The Lumberjacks turned the ball over on downs in Montana territory when Cookus’s intended receiver slipped and fell, and NAU was forced to punt the ball away midway through the fourth quarter.
And so began the drive of the game for Montana. The Grizzlies went 61 yards in 11 plays, with the insurance touchdown coming on a bubble screen from Chalich to Chase Naccarato in the left flat. Naccaroto scored from three yards out to cap the game’s scoring.
Seven of the plays on the decisive drive and 45 of the yards came on rushes by Nguyen and Treshawn Favors.
“Our O-line did a wonderful job on that drive,” said Stitt. “They were getting after it, and that allowed John to one-cut it. He wasn’t juking. He put one foot in the ground and got vertical. Our O-line needs to be commended for that.”
The final drive was a microcosm of Stitt’s play-calling for the game, which resulted in 45 passes and 44 rushes. Nguyen ran for 71 yards, Chalich finished 29-of-45 for 279 yards. He also rushed for 40.
“Chad did a nice job,” said Stitt. “We put a game plan together that suited him a little bit better, and he did a wonderful job. He did nothing to hurt us, he only did things to help us, and that was the big thing. He didn’t try to do too much. He just went out and ran the offense.”
Jones had seven receptions for 113 yards, his third time in four games this season with at least 100 receiving yards, and Ellis Henderson caught six balls for 95 yards.
Jeremiah Kose had a team-high 12 tackles, Holmes finished with 11, which included five sacks and two other tackles for loss.
Montana will play at UC Davis (0-4, 0-1 BSC) next Saturday at 2 p.m. (MT). The Aggies, who have given up 136 points through their first four games, lost their Big Sky opener Saturday, 31-24 at North Dakota.
— Montana Sports Information