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Grizzlies delivered on Hauck’s halftime message
When you’re trailing by four touchdowns — when the momentum has swept out of the stadium, when you’re staring down the barrel of an embarrassing playoff exit — what do you do?
If you’re most football teams, you pack up, crawl into a hole and start thinking about next year.
If you’re the Montana Grizzlies, you rally.
Then you finish off an inconceivable comeback.
It started with a simple halftime message from Montana coach Bobby Hauck to his players.
“We said, ‘Everybody hang on,’ ” Hauck told the media afterward. “ ‘If you don’t buy into it, stay in the locker room. But if you do, this is going to be the greatest comeback in school history. You’re about to witness it.’
“That’s what they did.”
Ultimately, the numbers on the scoreboard didn’t seem real. Montana 61, South Dakota State 48? Are you serious?
This first-round game between the Grizzlies and Jackrabbits was supposed to be a defensive battle, and a game decided on the ground in low-scoring fashion.
And it certainly wasn’t going to get out of hand in favor of either team.
But it did. Truth be told, the Grizzlies were bumbling, fumbling and stumbling their way to an early off-season.
It was over. Bottom line.
I’ll admit it. I resigned myself to the notion that South Dakota State was well on its way to an impressive blowout win.
I had half my game story written midway through the third quarter, for crying out loud.
You want an excerpt? Here you go:
“South Dakota State didn’t just win on Saturday, they put together one of the most dominant performances for a visiting team in the history of Washington-Grizzly Stadium,” I wrote.
“To Montana’s dismay, the Jackrabbits’ finest hour came in their first-ever Football Championship Subdivision playoff game.”
It was a classic “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment.
But that’s right about the time when I looked up and saw Marc Mariani field a third-quarter kickoff on his own 2-yard line, get a couple blocks and race 98 yards down the far sideline for a touchdown.
What unfolded next was jaw-dropping.
The Grizzlies added five more unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone.
The clincher was a 4-yard play-action throw from quarterback Andrew Selle to — you guessed it — Mariani with 1:08 remaining that gave Montana a 55-48 lead.
Add a 32-yard interception return by defensive end Severin Campbell on a batted ball at the line of scrimmage with 45 seconds left and you’ve got one of the wildest games in Griz annals.
Montana did the same thing to South Dakota State way back in the 1993 season opener at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Grizzlies trailed the Jackrabbits 37-7 in the third quarter that day, but roared back to score 39 points in the fourth quarter and eventually won 52-48.
But this was different. This was a do-or-die moment.
With their fans behind them, the Grizzlies accepted the circumstances, rose above impossibly dire straits and found a way to win, just as they always do.
In its first FCS playoff game, South Dakota State had the upset in hand but couldn’t hold on.
The Jacks went home wondering what might have been.
Montana, meanwhile, advances to host Stephen F. Austin — a 44-33 winner Saturday over Eastern Washington — in the quarterfinal round next week.
How hard will it be for the Griz to put this thriller behind them and gear up for what is sure to be another tough test?
“Not as hard as last week,” Hauck said, referencing his team’s 33-19 win over archrival Montana State last Saturday. “That’s such a huge game it’s hard to put in your rearview mirror. It really is.
“But this is expected. We march on. If you win you get to play some more, and that’s what we do.”
They way the Grizzlies won was far from expected. But they won nonetheless. Crazy comeback and all.
That’s the only thing that matters.
Greg Rachac, Billings Gazette