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CSN West: Pulling a ‘Rabbit’ Out of the Hat
By Kent Schmidt, CSN West Columnist
Admit it, you thought you were seeing an upset in Missoula for the second time in three years. You thought the game was over when the top-seeded Montana Grizzlies trailed South Dakota State 41-14 early in the third quarter, and later 48-21 midway through the third quarter.
I was thinking what might be the travel plans next weekend for the South Dakota State versus the Eastern Washington-Stephen F. Austin winner.
My attention switched to the Eagles-Lumberjacks game to see who SDSU would be playing at that point, keeping the Griz-Jackrabbit contest going in the background basically to see what the final spread might be.
I did, however, focus back into the Montana-SDSU game when Montana started to crawl back late in the third quarter and early into the fourth quarter. What I saw was the best come-from-behind victory in my memory.
We all now know that Montana rallied to win 61-48, and that it will host Stephen F. Austin, who held off another Big Sky team from rallying from a large margin in the FCS quarterfinals. But it was one that not many will forget for a long time.
How did Montana come back from so far down?
I believe the Griz gained momentum just after South Dakota State scored what would be its final points with just under six minutes to play in the third quarter when Marc Mariani returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards to bring Montana within 48-27.
What I didn’t think would happen was the Griz defense stepping up after being torched for 48 points (all, however, weren’t the defense’s fault as Montana’s offense surrendered four turnovers to set up 17 of those points). After giving up 249 yards to yield the 48 points, the Griz defense gave up only 75 yards and just two first downs in SDSU’s final five possessions. The Griz defense also garnered two interceptions in the game’s final 20 minutes.
But the Griz offense also turned things around in that span, too. They had drives of 79, 66, 52 and 41 yards all resulting in touchdowns in their final four offensive possessions. Quarterback Andrew Selle, who threw two interceptions and had a fumble in the first half, ended the game with 309 yards and three touchdowns— two to Mariani.
“As a quarterback you have to have the shortest memory of anybody,” Selle said. “As bad as the first half was, I knew I had to forget about it. I knew I had to come out and perform and put our team in a position to win.”
Mariani finished with 12 receptions for 171 yards, and he also had 218 yards on punt and kickoff returns.
“We pretty much did everything wrong we could in the first half,” Mariani said. “As an offense we turned the ball over, we had penalties, we put our defense in unreal situations. But the best part about today for me was the fact that you look into a guy’s eyes and you know that you’re fighting for 60 minutes no matter what the score is. It was unbelievable to be part of this win today.”
Runningback Chase Reynolds finished the game for Montana with three rushing touchdowns, but he was held to just 35 yards on the ground.
The final Griz touchdown came on a tipped pass by the defense’s Alex Shaw and returned 32 yards by Severin Campbell to seal the greatest football comeback in my recollection.
“I’m not the official historian, but that’s the greatest comeback and one of the greatest games in school history,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s just unbelievable.”
All told, the Griz and Jackrabbits each had four scoring drives starting in their own territory and three each beginning in the opposition’s. The difference was the Griz had two big plays for touchdowns (a kick return and an interception return) and SDSU had only one (a punt block return).
Was this the first time that Montana needed a big come-from-behind rally to defeat the Jackrabbits?
No, Montana hosted the then Division II SDSU team in 1993 and fell behind similarly to this game in the third quarter 38-7. Legendary Griz quarterback Dave Dickenson rallied Montana to a 52-48 victory that day. That year started the string of now 17 straight playoff appearances for Montana.
The Griz have never lost to SDSU, and now owns a 7-0 all-time record against the Jackrabbits.
As Division I members, SDSU is now 0-3 against Montana. SDSU lost 7-0 in 2005 and 36-7 in 2006.
Who is up next for Montana?
As mentioned, Montana will host Stephen F. Austin in a quarterfinal matchup. The Lumberjacks defeated Eastern Washington last week 44-33 despite committing four turnovers - their first FCS playoff victory since 1995.
SFA had an 11-point lead at halftime, and it exploded in the second half. Quarterback Jeremy Moses guided the Lumberjacks to back-to-back touchdowns to give SFA a commanding a 37-12 lead with just under six minutes remaining in the third quarter. The `Jacks pushed their advantage to 25 points before the Eagles mounted a rally late in the third quarter.
SFA’s defense picked off Eagles’ quarterback Matt Nichols once. EWU missed a field goal, and it held the Eagles another time on downs to seal the victory in EWU’s last three possessions.
Montana will need to stop a potent offensive attack led by Moses. Stephen F. Austin leads FCS in passing (346.1) and scoring offense (37.2), and is third in total offense (477.6).
No matter how this upcoming game unfolds, Montana will claim my attention for the duration of the contest. After this victory over SDSU, I know not to underestimate the desire and drive of this Grizzlies team. I think this team has more than earned that after this triumph.
CSN WEST GAMES OF THE WEEK
As mentioned, Eastern Washington lost to Stephen F. Austin and the third Big Sky team in the Field of 16 in Weber State also fell in the first round in a rout to William & Mary 38-0.
The other Missouri Valley team in Southern Illinois was the only other “West” team to win in round one, besides Montana. SIU easily defeated Eastern Illinois 48-7.
Of the eight first-round playoff games nationwide, only one road team won, that was New Hampshire over McNeese State 49-13.
William & Mary (10-2) @ #3 Southern Illinois (11-1), 11 a.m. Central
This is the first meeting between these two teams, which is always a fun thing about the FCS playoffs to see these matchups of two of the nation’s top conferences in the Colonial and the Missouri Valley.
The Tribe bring in one of FCS’s premier defensive units, as they lead the country in rushing defense (50.3 ypg) and is second in total defense (230.3 ypg) and scoring defense (12.7 ppg). Additionally, W&M ranks fourth nationally in sacks per game (3.4) and eighth in tackles for a loss per game (8.0).
The Tribe on offense is not far behind with sophomore runningback Jonathan Grimes leading this side of the ball. He leads the CAA and ranks among the top 20 nationally in rushing (91.8 ypg) and all-purpose yards (144.4 ypg).
SIU is riding a current 11-game winning streak. The Salukis have been a part of the NCAA’s postseason action for seven straight years and have made eight appearances all-time. The 2009 season marks the fourth time in school history that SIU has received a seed in the playoffs (No. 1 in both 1983 and 2004; No. 4 in 2007). Including Saturday, SIU will have faced a CAA squad in each of its last three visits to the playoffs. In 2007, the Salukis defeated UMass in the quarterfinal round (34-27) before falling to Delaware (20-17). In 2008, SIU lost to New Hampshire, 29-20 in the first round. All-time, Southern Illinois enters Saturday’s game with a 1-3 mark against the CAA in the postseason.
Senior Saluki runningback Deji Karim leads the Saluki offense that is averaging 412.17 yards and 36.6 points/game. Karim is second in the nation with an average of 138.9 yards/game and points/game with an average of 10.0. As a team, SIU has a punishing rushing attack that has averaged more than 232 yards/game, but replacement freshman quarterback Paul McIntosh has the ability to put it in the air, when necessary, as he has been efficient in completing .686 of his passes (72-105) for 839 yards and eight TDs in his five games as the starter. McIntosh also has emerged as a key running threat. He has accounted for an additional six rushing TDs, running for a total of 525 yards on just 74 attempts.
The Salukis’ defense seems to have a nose for the football, as it has pulled down a national best 22 interceptions. The team has picked off at least one pass in 12 of its last 13 contests, led by juniors Mike McElroy and Korey Lindsey, who have six apiece. As a team, SIU has returned four picks for touchdowns this season. The squad yields 320.8 total yards/game, including just 15.3 pts/game.
The weather in Carbondale should not be a factor as it should be sunny and 44 degrees, which for a first weekend in December is about the best you can ask for in the Midwest.
I think this game will be a defensive struggle with points at a premium - given SIU’s record against CAA teams, including last year’s loss to open the playoffs to New Hampshire. I was impressed last week with W&M’s shutout over a high-powered offensive team in Weber State. But it is different when you travel halfway across the country. I think SIU will be able to eke out a close victory by causing turnovers. I like the Salukis by a late field goal to win it. SIU 16 W&M 14.
Stephen F. Austin (10-2) @ #1 Montana (12-0), Noon Mountain
This is a matchup of two conference champions. SFA tied McNeese State for the Southland Conference title, but it won the automatic bid by virtue of its victory over the Cowboys. Montana won the Big Sky title outright, and it also garnered an automatic bid to the playoffs.
Washington-Grizzly Stadium is the venue of SFA’s last playoff game before the 2009 season. The Lumberjacks advanced to the semifinals of the 1995 playoffs, but they lost to eventual national champion Grizzlies that season 70-14.
The two teams also played a home-and-home series in 1997 and 1998 with Montana winning both of these contests; 1998: UM 49, at SFA 42; 1997: at UM 24, SFA 10.
This game is a matchup of the top two scoring teams this year in FCS. SFA is averaging 37.7 points/game, while Montana is scoring 36.7 points/game.
In the two teams’ only common opponent, both teams have played Eastern Washington. UM beat EWU 41-34 on Oct. 17 in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. SFA beat EWU 44-33 last week in the first round in Nacogdoches.
The Lumberjacks top defensive stopper is DE Tim Knicky, who is a candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award. He has 12.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Overall, SFA has yielded 20.5 points per game and 335.7 yards per game.
The Grizzlies’ defense has been similar with 339.7 yards per game and 20.4 points per game. Montana’s defense allowed at least 300 yards passing five times this season, but it has gone five straight games without allowing more than 243 passing yards.
Stephen F. Austin leads the nation in passing offense at 353.3 yards per game. Montana’s offense has been more balanced with 255.2 yards through the air per game and 152.4 on the ground.
SFA’s top passing combination is quarterback Jeremy Moses to wideout Duane Brooks. Brooks has 110 catches for 1,022 yards and six touchdowns. He is the first SLC receiver in history with at least 100 catches in a season. Moses has completed 68.4 percent of his passes, and he has thrown for 3,920 yards with 40 touchdowns and 17 interceptions this season.
Passing, however, might be at a premium Saturday as the weather forecast is calling for snow showers and a high in Missoula of 26 degrees.
Montana is 9-0 all-time in quarterfinal games at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The Grizzlies own an 11-0 record at home against Southland opponents with an average margin of victory of 31.2 points. Montana is 11-2 overall against the Southland Conference in the playoffs, with both losses coming on the road at McNeese State (1997 and 2002).
Given all of these stats, the past Southland teams have struggled coming to Missoula, and I don’t think this will change. I like Montana by two touchdowns. Montana 38 SFA 24.
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CSN WEST NEWS & NOTES
- Youngstown State coach Jon Heacock has stepped down. Heacock guided the Penguins to a 60-44 record during his tenure, which was highlighted by a trip to the FCS playoff semifinals in 2006. A national search to replace him has begun.
- North Dakota trailed most of the game against Central Arkansas in a DI transitional battle, but a 34-yard field goal by Brandon Hellevang gave the Fighting Sioux a 17-16 advantage in the fourth quarter. The Bears lined up for the potential game-winning field goal with 17 seconds left, but the kick was blocked by UND’s Broc Bellmore to preserve the triumph for the Sioux.
-Stacy Adams stepped down as head football coach at Valparaiso. In five seasons, Adams led the Crusaders to a 15-40 record. His team went 1-10 this season, including an 0-8 mark in the Pioneer Conference.
-The three finalists for the Walter Payton Award are Appalachian State QB Armanti Edwards, Elon wide receiver Terrell Hudgins, and Southern Illinois running back Deji Karim. Karim is the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s offensive player of the year. After sitting out the 2008 season with a knee injury he led the FCS in rushing this year with 1,667 yards.
- Finishing fourth in the Payton voting was Eastern Washington quarterback Matt Nichols, who became the Big Sky’s all-time leading passer last Saturday in the Eagles’ playoff loss to Stephen F. Austin. Nichols completed a school-record 43 passes on a school-record 76 attempts for a career-high 461 yards. Nichols finished his career with 12,616 career passing yards and 13,308 yards of total offense – both all-time league records.
-Weber State’s Tim Toone caught six passes for 46 yards in the 38-0 loss to William & Mary, to tie the school record for career receptions and finish tied for eighth in league history. Trevor Shaw also caught 206 passes for Weber State from 1989-93. Toone finished his career fourth in league history with 3,602 receiving yards.
-Eastern Washington linebacker J.C. Sherritt, a candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award, was credited with 16 tackles in the playoff loss to Stephen F. Austin. Sherritt continues to lead the nation in tackles per game with 14.2.
-Montana’s attendance of 19,197 for the South Dakota State playoff game was the highest among the eight first-round games. Appalachian State was second with 12,116 in their hosting of South Carolina State.