The Montana Grizzlies moved to 3-1 on the season and got their Big Sky Conference slate off on the right foot as UM battled back and forth with Sacramento State before holding the Hornets to just six second-half points to come away with a 41-34 victory in Missoula on Saturday.
Coming into the game, Montana had accumulated just over 320 yards rushing on the season. The Grizzlies more than doubled that number against the Hornets, exploding for 351 rushing yards and amassing 585 yards of total offense to bounce back from a 28-24 halftime deficit.
“That was probably one of the funnest games I’ve ever played in,” said senior linebacker Josh Buss. “The environment, and two teams going at it for four quarters straight. It was back and forth the whole game, so give credit to them, they’re a good team and it was a fun day.”
After just missing out on the national Top-25 going into week four, Sacramento State came to Missoula a vastly different team that the one that UM trounced 68-7 in 2016. They looked the part too, with a balanced 510 yards of total offense.
“Sac State is the best team we’ve played this year and I don’t think it’s close. They’re well coached, they’re veteran, they’re talented, so, great job by them,” said UM head coach Bobby Hauck. “It was a great game in Grizzly stadium today.”
It was fitting that on the day Montana celebrated legendary Grizzly legend Dave Dickenson that a quarterback would steal the show.
Dalton Sneed was part of four touchdown drives, throwing for the go-ahead score on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter, but more impressive, rushing for a trio of scores.
In the end, his 206 rushing yards were the most ever by a Montana quarterback, and the eighth-most in a game in school history – regardless of position. Following the game, however, he was quick to deflect the kudos.
“I don’t want to take any credit for that because every person in this room could have run through the holes we ran through today,” said Sneed at the post-game press conference. “It shows the growth of a young offensive line that has progressively gotten better week in and week out.”
Tied 31-31 for most of the third quarter, the Grizzlies took the lead for good early in the fourth when Sneed engineered a nine-play, 63-yard scoring drive.
While it was his legs that provided excitement throughout the day, on this particular drive, it was Sneed’s arm. He passed for three first downs, and facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, found Matt Rensvold for the tight end’s first collegiate score. Sneed looked right and waited for the defense to help in that direction, before finding the Polson native wide open.
The Grizzlies played from behind initially, thanks to a couple long scoring plays by the Hornets. Just four plays into the game, Sacramento State was on the board after a 59-yard run from dynamic back Elijah Dotson, who finished with 234 yards rushing on the day, forcing UM to make halftime adjustments to stop him.
“That’s the best running back we’ve seen. If you get out of place on that stretch play, he’s going to find it. They hurt us with it the first half, so we got some of that ironed out at halftime,” said Hauck.
Montana countered, though, with a 53-yard end-around run three plays later by true freshman Gabe Sulser, last year’s Gatorade Montana High School Player of the Year at Billings Senior. The play was his first collegiate touch of the ball.
“It’s pretty cool, every time you touch the ball you score. That’s neat. We’ll expect that next week and give it to him five times,” Hauck joked.
“Gabe’s a kid that’s got some explosive ability. It showed, obviously, on that play. When you give him that much space, he’s got a chance to finish in the end zone, and he did,” he added.
“There’ll be a lot more of those I think before he’s done here.”
After the Hornets scored again, Montana countered on the very next play, rushing 75 yards into the end zone. Sneed faked a pitch to his right, then found a hole up the middle. He scored in the same fashion late in the third quarter for his third rushing score.
His second, though, might have been the most exciting. On third down from the 12-yard line, just before halftime, Sneed was pressured, ran up the middle, and just before crossing the line of scrimmage faked a pass to the left. The defense jumped, while Sneed held onto the ball and walked into the end zone untouched.
Previously, Sacramento State had scored back-to-back touchdowns, again on long plays – a 66-yard rush from Dotson and a 77-yard reception from Jaelin Ratliff, after he was nearly tripped up at midfield.
The Grizzlies trailed 28-24 at halftime, but took the lead just 3 minutes, 15 seconds into the second half when Sneed faked a toss and ran it up the gut for his third score. He iced the game late in the fourth quarter, breaking free for a 50-yard gain to the 2-yard line. That set up Tim Semenza’s second field goal of the day.
Aside from the big plays, Montana’s defense was nails, especially at key times. The Grizzlies held Sacramento State to 3-of-12 on third down, forcing multiple second-half false-start penalties – one which required the Hornets to go for a field goal instead of fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
“When they got the 10-point lead, we were up against it,” said Hauck. “I’m starting to like this team’s resilience, and their ability to fight back and never give in. That was awesome.”
Montana totaled 585 yards of offense. In addition to rushing for 206 yards, Sneed passed for 234 yards. Jerry Louie-McGee had six catches for 91 yards. On the ground, Adam Eastwood had 18 carries for 72 yards. Montana rushed for 351 yards on the afternoon, more than the last three games combined (332).
The win improves the Grizzlies to 3-1 overall, including 1-0 in Big Sky play. The victory was the 200th all-time win in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Montana honored its history with throwback copper and gold uniforms. After the first quarter, former Grizzly “Super Dave” Dickenson was recognized on the field. The All-American who led Montana to a 1995 national championship will be inducted into the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame in December.
The Grizzlies return to the road next week as Big Sky play continues at Cal Poly on Sept. 29 in San Louis Obispo.