Nov. 28, 2009


Courtesy of Montana

The Montana Grizzlies looked nothing like the top-seeded team in the nation for most of the first three quarters against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits Saturday in Missoula, Mont.

They looked every bit the part in the final 21 minutes of the game though, when the Griz scored 40 unanswered points to post a 61-48 victory in a Football Championship Subdivision first round playoff game. The comeback is Montana’s biggest in playoff history.

The Grizzlies found themselves down 27 points with 5:40 to go in the third quarter. Marc Mariani returned the ensuing kickoff 98-yards for a touchdown, tied for the third-longest kickoff return in school history. The extra point was no good, but the comeback was on.

The Griz defense forced a punt, and the Griz drove 79 yards in 3:05 to score when Mariani caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Selle to narrow the gap to 48-34 with 14:56 left in the fourth. Mariani had a key 38-yard catch to the SDSU 31-yard line in the drive to set up the score.

Montana followed that up with two Chase Reynolds 1-yard touchdown runs on drives of 66 and 52 yards to tie the game with 4:11 left.

The defense served up another three-and-out, and the offense again answered the call, moving 41 yards down the field on the shell-shocked Jack defense to score the go-ahead touchdown, a 4-yard Selle-to-Mariani strike.

The Griz defense was dominant in the fourth quarter, and sealed the win a pair of timely interceptions. The first came when Alex Shaw deflected a Thomas O’Brien pass that Severin Campbell picked off at the SDSU 32 and took to the house. The extra point was blocked by Skyler Luxa, but 61-48 wound up holding up as the final score when Trumaine Johnson picked off an O’Brien desperation pass in the end zone.

The Lumberjacks were 0-for-3 on third down in the final period, and managed just five first downs.

SDSU won the rushing battle, 126 yards to just 40 for UM, but Montana had a 351 passing yards to SDSU’s 198, giving Montana the advantage in total offense, 391-324.

Selle finished the game 27-43 for 309 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, and Justin Roper was 6-12 for 42 yards. Mariani had 12 catches for 171 yards and two scores, and added a kickoff return touchdown and 218 return yards. Chase Reynolds was held to just 35 yards on 14 carries, but managed three touchdowns. Campbell had two interceptions, including one for a score. Shann Schillinger had a game-high 14 tackles.

O’Brien threw 14-27 for 198 yards and three scores, but also gave up three picks. Kyle Minett led the game with 137 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and Colin Cochart caught three touchdown passes for the Jackrabbits.

South Dakota State struck first in the game, putting together a 7-play, 67-yard drive ended in an O’Brien 7-yard touchdown pass to Cochart to give the Jackrabbits a 7-0 lead with 6:57 to go in the first quarter.

On Montana’s first play from scrimmage following the Jackrabbit touchdown, Reynolds fumbled at the end of a 3-yard run, and SDSU’s Isaiah Jackson recovered at the UM 11. The recovery set up the Jacks’ second score, as two plays later O’Brien again found Cochart in the end zone from 8 yards out to push the SDSU lead to 14-0.

The Jack lead expanded to 17-0 early in the second quarter when SDSU converted a 14-play drive into a 34-yard Kyle Harris field goal. The scoring drive took 6:31 off the clock.

Montana’s fortunes seemed to further dim when on third-and-7 Selle’s pass was picked off at the SDSU 17 and returned 16 yards by Cole Brodie. However, two plays later Jace Palmer deflected an O’Brien pass and the deflection was corralled by Severin Campbell. The Griz defensive end returned the pick 16 yards to the SDSU 18. The Griz jumped on the opportunity; Selle found Marc Mariani for 17 yards, and two plays later Chase Reynolds scored on a 1-yard run.

Montana’s defense forced another turnover right after the touchdown. Jace Palmer forced a fumble on a sack of O’Brien, and Alex Shaw recovered for the Griz at the SDSU 25. Again, the Griz struck quickly, with Selle lofting a 25-yard touchdown pass over the Jack defense to Tyler Palmer on the first play of the drive. UM narrowed the gap to 17-14 with 6:47 remaining in the half.

The rest of the first half was all Jackrabbits.

Cole Brody returned the Montana kickoff to near midfield, and it took the Jack offense just 2:37 to cover the short field. O’Brien found Cochart from 5 yards out at the end of the 6-play drive, giving SDSU a 10-point lead with 4:02 left in the half.

On the next Montana possession, Selle was picked off on third down, appearing to throw the ball right to defender Conrad Kjerstad. Kjerstad returned the pick 31 yards before being caught by Chris Dyk at the UM 2. Kyle Minett scored from 1 yard out two plays later, and SDSU led 31-14.

Montana took possession again, and the horror show continued. Selle fumbled while being sacked by Tony Thompson with 2:21 to go, and Thompson recovered at the UM 25. When Harris’ 39-yard field goal split the uprights with 1:17 to go, Montana was left with a 20-point deficit at the half.

Montana was dominated statistically in the first half. SDSU held a 19:43-10:17 time of possession lead, and held Montana to 0 net rushing yards, setting up a 196-95 difference in total offense.

The second half didn’t start any better for the Griz than the first ended. SDSU forced Montana to punt from its own 24, and the Sean Wren punt was blocked and recovered by Corey Jeske in the end zone for South Dakota State’s first punt block for a TD since 1993. The touchdown gave the Jackrabbits their largest lead of the game, 41-14, with 11:15 to go in the third quarter.

Montana’s offense finally came to life following the blocked punt. Montana needed a 12-yard Selle-to-Mariani pass on fourth-and-8 to keep the 12-play, 62-yard drive going, and resulted in a 2-yard Thomas Brooks-Fletcher TD run to make the score 41-21. The drive was the first of seven straight touchdown drives for Montana

The Jacks had an answer, however, putting together their own scoring drive. O’Brien found Glen Fox for a 61-yard gain to the UM 4, and Kyle Minett finished off the 3-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run, again pushing the lead to 27 before the comeback began.

The Grizzlies (12-0) next face Stephen F. Austin, a 44-33 winner over Eastern Washington in the first round. The game will be played next Saturday in Missoula, Mont.