Montana dominates North Dakota 41-17 for Homecoming victory

Montana put up 604 yards of offense against North Dakota, out-gaining the Fighting Hawks by 261 yards. (GoGriz.com)

No. 24 Montana extended its win streak to three games on Saturday afternoon, defeating North Dakota in dominant fashion, 41-17. The homecoming win improves the Grizzlies to 5-2 (3-1 Big Sky).

“It’s nice to be home,” head coach Bob Stitt said. “The crowd was great and the kids gave us great effort for the seventh week in a row. Our guys went out and took it.”

The Griz defense started off extremely strong, forcing North Dakota into three-and-out punts on each of the Fighting Hawks’ first five possessions.

Montana jumped out to a 7-0 advantage and never trailed, but was hindered by three turnovers on its first four offensive possessions. From that point forward, however, Gresch Jensen and the offense found its rhythm, scoring on five of its next six possessions to open up a 31-point advantage.

“When I saw our defense play in the first series, there was no question we were going to win the ballgame,” Stitt said. “I’m very proud of how our defense came out against a team that was bound and determined to run the ball, and they had a hard time doing it.”

The defense forced seven punts – all on three-and-outs – and four turnovers – two on downs, plus an interception and a forced fumble. Montana put up 604 yards of offense, out-gaining the Fighting Hawks by 261 yards. The Grizzlies had 28 first downs to North Dakota’s 12, including a dozen before UND got its first – in the second quarter. In Montana’s six games against FCS opponents this year, the offense is averaging 44.5 points per game.

Jensen finished the day with a career-high 423 passing yards, throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for another. Junior Keenan Curran had five catches for 152 yards, including two scores. Fellow wide receivers Samori Toure had four catches for 72 yards and a touchdown, while Jerry Louie-McGee had three catches for 92 yards.

Sophomore safety Josh Sandry had the interception and was in on a strip sack that gave Montana the ball at its own 18-yard line. He returned his interception 74 yards, setting up a Griz field goal. Sandry also had seven tackles, while junior linebacker Josh Buss had a team-most 14, teaming up with Sandry on the strip sack.

“It was a fun day to be a defensive player,” Sandry said. “Coach (Jason) Semore got us in the right preparation. Everyone did their job and executed and played fast. It was a great day.”

UND scored twice on long plays – a 56-yard rush on 3rd-and-1 late in the third quarter and a 62-yard touchdown pass in the closing minutes of the game. But Montana had several explosive plays, as well.

The Grizzlies got on the board midway through the first quarter when Jensen hit Toure on a slant, with the wide receiver then cutting outside and down the edge of the sideline for a 31-yard score. Montana took a 17-3 lead in the second quarter with a 55-yard touchdown catch by Curran.

Montana got the ball first in the second half and scored twice within 221 seconds. Curran had two catches for 52 yards on the first drive, setting up an Alijah Lee touchdown run, and after a three-and-out by the defense, the offense needed just two plays to score again. Louie-McGee raced down the sideline for a 64-yard catch and run, setting up a Jensen keep from the 15.

Curran scored his second touchdown – a 29-yard reception on an over-the-shoulder fade pass – to cap an 85-yard drive in the fourth quarter. On that drive, Toure also had a 33-yard catch.

“Every game I’m starting to get a little more comfortable and confident,” Jensen said. “I felt good out there. It helps when you have so many weapons. My focus was to just dump it off and let the athletes make plays.”

Kicker Brandon Purdy connected on a pair of field goals for the Grizzlies and is now 8-for-10 on the year.

Several reserves got playing experience in the fourth quarter, including backup quarterback Caleb Hill, who completed 2-of-3 passes for 19 yards.

Since its loss to No. 11 Eastern Washington (now No. 10) on Sept. 23, Montana won back-to-back road games prior to Saturday’s win over the defending Big Sky champions, a team that was picked to repeat before being hit by a rash of injuries.

The Grizzlies have a bye next weekend before traveling to Weber State on Oct. 28.