Montana rallies for big road win over Idaho State, 39-31
The Montana Grizzlies showed resilience on both sides of the football on Saturday afternoon, rallying for a 39-31 victory over Idaho State. The win improves Montana’s record to 4-2 (2-1 Big Sky) and gives the Grizzlies back-to-back road victories for the first time since 2015.
"I'm so proud of this team," head coach Bob Stitt said. "This is going to be big for our football program. We talk about this process. Now they're starting to see how good we can be, how special this football team is."
The Bengals scored with 7:48 remaining in the third quarter to take their largest lead of the game, at 28-19. From that point forward, however, the defense buckled down and the offense got hot. Idaho State would not score again until the final 80 seconds of the contest – connecting on a field goal. Meanwhile, Montana's offense scored on four consecutive possessions to not only regain the lead, but pad it to two possessions.
The offense was key down the stretch, but the rally started with a big play from the defense, when Randy Rodriguez recovered a fumble that was forced by Korey Alexander. One play later, Montana was in the end zone, with Gresch Jensen finding Justin Calhoun for a 35-yard strike.
It didn't take long for the Griz to score again. On the first play of its next offensive possession, Jensen hit Samori Toure for 71 yards. Toure caught the ball near midfield, but cut to the inside and through a pair of defenders before finally being caught at the four-yard line. One play later, Jensen found Samuel Akem in the end zone for a four-yard touchdown, cutting Montana's deficit to just two, 28-26.
After allowing ISU to convert three first downs, the defense buckled down and forced the Bengals to turn the ball over on downs, setting up another quick touchdown for Montana. This time, the Griz used just 1:36 off the clock, with Alijah Lee reaching the end zone after a 46-yard pickup from Jensen to Calhoun to begin the drive.
In a matter of 10 offensive plays, the Griz had accumulated 175 yards and scored three times – turning a two-possession deficit into a lead.
"They had a perfect first half and we didn't have a great first half," Stitt said. "We went in at halftime and I said, 'Listen, if you don't have to come behind you can't have a great comeback.' I think that really sunk in that this is the next step for us. Last week it was getting a road win, now it was a come-from-behind win on the road. We're growing every single week."
The best was yet to come for both sides, however. Leading by four, 32-28, ISU drove into Montana territory and was well within field-goal range, reaching the UM 14-yard line. On 3rd-and-5, though, Shayne Cochran found an opening on the line and hit ISU quarterback Tanner Gueller hard as he was throwing, resulting in a forced fumble and a 22-yard loss. It pushed the Bengals out of field-goal range and forced them to punt.
Montana's offense responded with a fourth-consecutive touchdown drive. A long play was again part of it – a 41-yard completion to Akem – but the biggest play might have been the one before it. Facing 4th-and-1 from its own 29-yard line, Montana went for it. Originally looking to hand the ball off, Jensen instead kept the ball and rushed for a 10-yard gain. Six plays later, he threw a six-yard pass to Josh Horner to pad the Grizzlies' lead to 39-28. ISU was called for pass interference on the play, but Horner made a nice catch around the defender.
"Gresch is one of those guys that's got a sixth sense," Stitt said of the fourth-down conversion. "He pulled it, and that was as big time as I've seen in a long time."
Jensen finished the game 23-of-35 for 360 yards and four touchdowns, to go along with zero interceptions. He threw several deep balls, converting five passes of 30-plus yards.
"We knew we could go after them deep," Stitt said. "Gresch did a nice job of working in the pocket. He kept things alive. He either bought time to throw the ball or he stepped up and ran with it. That's something that you can't really coach. It's really something you're born with."
Eight different Grizzlies receivers caught multiple passes, and three had 70-plus receiving yards. Jeremy Calhoun was the leading rusher, at 90 yards on 15 attempts (6.0 average).
Montana held a 13-7 lead early after back-to-back touchdown drives in the first half. The Grizzlies got on the board when Jensen rolled to his right and found Makena Sims. The second score came on a broken play, when Jensen elected to keep the ball and ran it into the end zone.
After back-to-back road wins in league play, Montana returns home to face preseason favorite North Dakota next Saturday, Oct. 14, for the Grizzlies' homecoming game. Tickets are still available.
"They stick together like no team I've ever coached or been around," Stitt said of his team. "Nothing phases them. We're going to prepare the exact same way we always do. It's going to be great to be home with all of our fans."