Dec. 12, 2009


By Glenn R. Junkert
Special to

MISSOULA, Mont. -- The thrilling semifinal match up between the decade’s two winningest FCS football programs was decided -- as often happens in championship football games -- by the team made the fewest mistakes.

In the end, the Montana Grizzlies emerged with a 24-17 last-second semifinal victory over the  Appalachian State Mountaineers, despite racking up 124 fewer yards than the potent Armanti Edwards-led Mountaineers, who tallied 497. Montana will play Villanova for the national championship at Salem, Va. next Saturday.

But the Mountaineers were set back 131 yards on 11 penalties, the last one a costly holding penalty on the Mountaineers’ final kickoff return of the game with 1 minute, 31 seconds remaining. That, said ASU coach Jerry Moore, was a critical statistic.

Montana had just pulled to a 24-17 lead on quarterback Andrew Selle’s 25-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Jabin Sambrano. Mountaineer Travaris Cadet returned the kickoff 24 yards to ASU’s 40-yard line. But an illegal blocking penalty moved the ball back to the ASU 25.

“The last thing we said in the huddle before the last kickoff was, ‘No penalties,’” said Moore. “The first thing we had was a holding penalty.”

“We’ve been in this situation before,” said Edwards. “But we just had a couple of missed opportunities.”

Montana coach Bobby Hauck laughed when asked what Montana’s defensive strategy was against the Mountaineers, who racked up 497 yards against the Grizzlies.

“Really worked, didn’t it?” he said.

But Hauck said three factors contributed to Montana’s win.

“Our third-down defense, our ability to run the ball, and the lack of penalties. Our discipline in not getting penalties,” said Hauck.

Montana was penalized just seven times for 51 yards.

Despite the penalty-caused setbacks, ASU quarterback Edwards guided the Mountaineers from the ASU 25 into Montana’s red zone over the final 1:23. Edwards completed five passes during the drive, one on fourth-and-10 to the Montana 14-yard line and another to running back Devon Moore, who was stopped just short of scoring at the 3-yard line by Montana defensive backs Shann Schillinger and Brandon Fisher with six seconds remaining.

Edwards’ next two passes were incomplete, the last pass bouncing off of wide receiver Brian Quick’s hands as time expired.

Hauck’s strategy was to “not pressure” Edwards, as Montana had done for nearly the entire game -- and instead defend receivers with the belief ASU would not attempt to run the ball with so little time on the clock.

“When you’re on the 2, you’re in a bit of a bind defensively,” said Hauck. “We really thought he (Edwards) would roll out. We chose not to pressure him.

“It ended up being  good call,” said Hauck.

His response?

“You end up going to the national championship on the last play of the game?” said Hauck. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

STAR POWER: Players and coaches from both teams heaped praise on two “players of the game” for their efforts: ASU’s Edwards, and Montana junior running back Chase Reynolds.

“Armanti’s a special player,” said Montana lineman Austin Mullins. “It’ll be fun to watch him play on Sundays. I mean, out of 497 yards, he was responsible for 400 of them.”

Hauck said, “Armanti’s the best quarterback I’ve seen at any level.”

Said ASU’s Moore, “You (media) have got to cover a lot of ball games before you see a guy like that.”

Reynolds, who rushed for 193 yards and broke his own Montana record for touchdowns scored in one season (22), was credited by ASU’s Moore as a running back with extraordinary field vision.

“Guys like that can hurt you,” said Moore. “He’s a guy that sees daylight and finds the creases. He runs hard, head down, finds the creases and takes them.”

ANOTHER CHANCE:  Montana will play in the FCS Championship Dec. 18, which, according to players, was the team’s plan all season. Selle’s Grizzlies lost to Richmond in last year’s title game.

“We went there last year,” he said, “And as soon as that game was over, we decided to get to work. Now we’ve got a second chance. Not many teams get a second chance.”

“We’re excited about this opportunity,” said Montana free safety Shann Schillinger.

A DECADE OF DOMINATION: Over the past decade, Montana and Appalachian State have a combined seven appearances in the FCS Championship.

Appalachian State won three straight titles from 2005-2007 while Montana won its second of two titles in 2001. That year the Grizzlies edged the Mountaineers 19-16 in on their way to a championship victory over Furman.

Montana made three other title-game appearances, finishing as the FCS Championship runner-up in 2000 (Georgia Southern), 2004 (James Madison) and 2008 (Richmond).

This year’s FCS playoffs are the sixth consecutive year that either Montana or Appalachian State has advanced to the FCS championship game.

The two teams have a combined record of 219 wins (UM 118-22, ASU 101-32), four national championships and seven title-game appearances.

A TALE OF TWO COACHES: In many respects, Moore and Hauck have little in common.

The elder Moore has been a head coach for 27 years and is 191-75 in his 21st year as the Mountaineers’ coach, making him the winningest coach in Southern Conference history. He is one of only four active NCAA Division I FCS head coaches with 200 career victories, good enough to rank him 23rd among all NCAA Division I coaches (FCS or FBS).

Moore this year was named Southern Conference Coach of the Year for the seventh time.

That’s the same number that Montana’s Hauck, aged 45, has been a head coach.  But the Montana coach, with a career 78-16 winning record (.830), has led his Grizzlies to at least a share of the Big Sky title in each of those seven years, and has been named Big Sky Coach of the Year three times, including recognition this year.

Similarities? The coaches have shaped their teams into the two most dominant FCS contenders over the past decade.

Moore has led his Mountaineers to three FCS titles (2005, 06, 07) while Hauck’s Grizzlies have placed second twice (2004, 08).

It will be Hauck’s Grizzlies who will make the seventh FCS title game appearance next week.

PACK ‘EM IN: Win or lose (win mostly) Montana fans have shown up in maroon & silver hordes at Washington Grizzly stadium over the past decade. Saturday’s near sellout was no exception: 24,207 fans braved a game-time temperature of 17 degrees, a brisk wind and a swirling snow storm.

Edwards said the snow was not a factor: “We knew it was going to be cold. We knew it was going to be snowing.”

ASU running back Devin Moore added,” “The weather was cold, but at the same time, you just can’t think about it.”

Montana’s players and coach Hauck said it was the loudest Montana crowd they’ve ever heard.

“I’ve never heard a crowd where the (stadium) was half full when we went out pre-game to do jumping jacks,” said Mullins. “it was absolutely amazing.”

“Montana’s fans were awesome,” said Hauck. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen something, a crowd like this.”

Montana’s quarterfinal attendance of 22,438 was a hefty 2,474 more than the combined attendance totals of the other five FCS quarterfinal and semifinal games (19,964).