Turnovers had been Montana’s Achilles heel in its previous four losses of the 2018 season, and in the biggest game of the year it was once again a fumble that cost the Griz a chance at victory over Montana State and a chance at the playoffs.
With UM trailing 29-25 with 14 seconds to play and driving at the Bobcat one-yard line, MSU’s Tucker Yates knocked the ball loose on UM’s would-be game-winning touchdown run, and the Bobcats recovered the fumble to escape Washington-Grizzly Stadium with a Brawl of the Wild win.
“There are lots of ways to lose a game, that one is particularly gut-wrenching – to feel like you have in your grasp a few times in the day and to not come out with it. So good job by them sticking with it and finding a way to get the W, and shame on us for not winning it,” said Montana head coach Bobby Hauck.
Playing for its senior class, a chance at a playoff berth, and motivated by a record crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium (26,508), Montana played a near-perfect first half on Saturday, and led its rival 22-7 at the intermission.
But 22 points on the backs of big offensive plays, key defensive stops in the fourth quarter and 265 yards of total offense by quarterback Troy Anderson gave the Cats momentum in the second half. A 13-yard TD from Logan Jones then gave MSU the lead with 2:19 to play.
Montana would not go quietly, however, as one of the nation’s top return specialists Malik Flowers took the ensuing kickoff back 47 yards to mid-field, and the Griz looked to be in prime position to complete the two-minute drill.
Seven plays later, freshman running back Adam Eastwood broke through nearly untouched to the end zone from one yard out, but the play was ruled dead after Montana State head coach Jeff Choate called timeout right before the snap.
Following the timeout, Hauck and the Grizzlies went back to the same well, but the outcome was vastly different this time, with Yates forcing the ball out of Eastwood’s hands, and the stealing victory from the jaws of defeat for MSU.
“We ran it like four times and were getting about an average of seven on it,” said Hauck. “It’s generally a pretty safe play.”
The loss ends Montana’s season at 6-5 and 4-4 in Big Sky Conference play, and keeps the Great Divide Trophy in Bozeman for the third-straight season.
In the first half, the Grizzlies received the ball first and wasted no time, scoring six plays and 2 minutes, 29 seconds later on a fly sweep to Gabe Sulser from the 1-yard line. Early in the second quarter, the Grizzlies found the end zone once again, this time with Eastwood rushing up the gut from one yard out.
The biggest play on offense, though, was Montana’s third score. After the defense forced a three-and-out, Montana took over from the 39-yard line, and on the second play, quarterback Dalton Sneed beautifully placed a ball to wide receiver Samuel Akem, who secured it while falling out of the end zone.
Everything seemed to be working for the Grizzlies, so for good measure, Montana went for two and was successful, with defender Reid Miller rushing up the middle.
Akem was once again fantastic for the Griz, leading all receivers with a career-high 147 yards. It was the fifth-straight game with a touchdown catch for the sophomore from Oklahoma, and his 13th TD grab of the year. Senior Keenan Curran also totaled over 100 yards off of eight catches.
As good as UM’s offense was in the first half, the defense was perhaps even better. The Bobcats had seven drives before the break. Five ended in punts, while the first was a turnover on downs after unsuccessfully converting on 4th-and-1 and four of the drives lasted four plays or fewer.
Montana State didn’t put points on the board until 23 seconds remained in the half, taking advantage of a personal-foul penalty called against the Griz that led to an Anderson run from three yards out.
Montana’s Eric Williams also had a booming punt in the first half that pinned the Bobcats inside the 1-yard line, nearly recording a safety. Later in the half, he had a career-long 61-yard punt.
Defensive star Dante Olson led all tacklers in the game with an incredible 18 stops, the fifth time this season the junior has put in 15 or more stops.
In the second half, however, it was MSU’s defense that set the tone, sacking Sneed three times and flushing him from the pocket several more as the Bobcat D-line pressured the junior. Despite that, he still threw for 354 yards off 22-24 passing and remained interception-free.
Despite the loss, Hauck remains positive for the future as his first season back at UM comes to a close.
“We have the temperament, we’ve established that, changed the culture in our program. We’ll recruit and keep coaching, and I think we have the chance to be a pretty good football team in a few years,” said Hauck.
Eleven seniors played their final game in maroon and silver against MSU, with some battling through dark days in the early part of their careers, and Hauck saluted them for their efforts following the game as well.
“I really respect and appreciate our seniors because the day we walked in the door, we told them things were going to change, and they didn’t do anything but ask for more,” said Hauck.
“I think that just their tenor in the last 11 months has maybe put us a year ahead.”