The fortunes of the Montana football team didn’t change in the blink of an eye on Saturday afternoon at Hanson Field in Macomb, Ill., but it was close: It all happened in the (approximately) eight seconds it took Steve McShane to escape the Grizzlies’ punt-coverage unit and score the touchdown that turned what felt like a certain Montana victory into a 31-27 win for Western Illinois.
After trailing 14-0 just over two minutes into the game, the Grizzlies slowly took control over the next 50 minutes and built a 27-17 advantage that they took into the back half of the fourth quarter.
But a three-and-out deep in their own end led to the punt and ensuing return that changed everything.
McShane fielded the ball on his own 42 and despite being pinned against the sideline, somehow slithered through the entire coverage unit to score his team’s first touchdown in forever and pump new life into a Leatherneck sideline that had moments before appeared defeated.
“We were in control of the dang thing right up until the end, so letting it slip away is pretty disheartening,” said coach Bobby Hauck.
“We had pretty good coverage on it. We were there. We had probably at least five guys put a glove on him, and we had him pinned to the short side. We should have gotten him down, and we didn’t.”
But Montana still held a 27-24 lead and had an offense that was enjoying its best rushing game of the season. The Grizzlies were still in control, until another miscue gave Western Illinois the opening it needed to finish off the late rally.
On Montana’s first play of the possession that would answer McShane’s return for a touchdown, Dalton Sneed connected with Jerry Louie-McGee, who fumbled, giving the Leathernecks the ball at the Montana 43.
Six plays later they were in the end zone, with Sean McGuire getting the ball to — who else? — McShane for an 11-yard catch-and-run.
And just like that, it was 31-27.
“Obviously turning the ball over when we’re still in control, up three, was a bad play by us,” said Hauck. “You can’t go on the road and turn the ball over. It basically comes down to that.”
Facing a 4th-and-13 on what would be its final chance, Montana threw an up-for-grabs interception. Western Illinois got the first down it needed on the game’s final drive and was able to run out the clock.
“That was a game we could have won but didn’t. That’s bad on us, good on Western Illinois,” said Hauck.
“I told them (in the locker room) everyone had to own up to the mistakes they made, starting with the head coach. We need to get better this week. We’ll come back around. We’ve got resilient guys.”
That it was a game Montana gained control of would have come as a surprise to anyone watching the opening minutes.
McGuire connected with John Brunner for a 71-yard scoring play 42 seconds into the game. After a Montana fumble, the pair connected again, this time from 37 yards out.
It was 14-0 with only 133 seconds elapsed from the clock.
That the play happened less than three minutes in gave it a distant feel by game’s end, but it was Malik Flowers’ 95-yard kickoff return after it was 14-0 that signaled Montana didn’t make the long trip just to look up at the 14-point deficit, shrug and accept that the day would be a loss.
That’s what Montana got with Hauck’s return, because if a 48-21 deficit in an FCS playoff game against South Dakota State in his final season in his first go-round on the Griz sideline wasn’t going to faze his team, certainly a 14-0 hole wasn’t going to have it scrambling.
Instead Montana dug in and fought back and stayed the course.
A field goal made it 14-10, and Sneed hit Samuel Akem for a four-yard touchdown before the quarter was over. With the two-point conversion, Montana led 18-14 at the first break.
Montana led 18-17 at the half and went up 21-17 midway through the third quarter on a Tim Semenza field goal. The Grizzlies finally gained some separation when Sneed connected with Akem again midway through the fourth to make it 27-17.
And that felt like it would be enough, especially considering Western Illinois had been held to just 46 yards of offense on its first five possessions of the second half. They were going nowhere as the Grizzlies got pressure on McGuire time and time again.
It’s why McShane’s punt return for a touchdown was so disheartening. The Leathernecks were showing no signs they were going to get it done otherwise, not against a defense that had started imposing its will.
“I told them (in the locker room) that I was proud of them, being down 14 about a minute into the game in these (hot) conditions,” said Hauck.
“We’re hard on our guys. We demand a lot of them. They answered the bell today. After the first minute (Western Illinois) didn’t do much. Our defense rose up and really put a shutdown on them until the end. We just didn’t complete the game, which is very frustrating.”
Montana will take a 2-1 nonconference record into the start of its Big Sky Conference schedule, which begins next Saturday with a home game against Sacramento State.
The Hornets also are 2-1. After dismantling St. Francis 55-7 in their opener, they had a good showing in a 28-14 road loss at San Diego State. They won a nonconference game at Northern Colorado on Saturday, 28-25.
The teams will kick off at 1 p.m. at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on a day that Dave Dickenson will be honored for being accepted into the College Football Hall of Fame.