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Grizzlies fire away
There’s a first time for everything, as the Montana Grizzlies proved time and again Saturday in their college football opener Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
At least a dozen Grizzlies registered career firsts as UM overwhelmed outmanned Western State College (Colo.) 73-2 before 25,563 fans — the third-best crowd in stadium history.
Perhaps the most important milestone was established by Robin Pflugrad, a veteran of 30 years of college football, who rode an incredible defensive effort to an historic triumph in his first game as a head coach.
It was the fifth-highest scoring UM game since the Grizzlies beat Weber State 81-22 in 1999, and it was the fourth-highest point total in school history.
“It was very enjoyable,” admitted Pflugrad, who has coached at several major-college programs across the West, and is in his second stint with the UM program.
“You never know if you’ve dotted all your I’s and crossed all your T’s … you want to do all the right things (to prepare for the first game), and your assistants are on task. You know there will be things happen that you never rehearse, and that was true today.”
One thing that happened that nobody could have rehearsed was a lightning scare that caused the game to be suspended with 5:30 left in the second quarter. UM was leading 42-2 at the time, and both teams were sent to the locker rooms until the weather system moved out of the area.
“No question, that’s the first time it’s happened to me,” said Pflugrad. “But Coach (Mike) Breske said he went through one when he was at the University of Wyoming, and it lasted 3 1-2 hours before the game restarted. Thankfully, ours wasn’t so long.”
The delay Saturday was just over an hour, and officials restarted the game with the second-half kickoff, meaning the game was shortened by five minutes, 30 seconds.
Among the other “firsts” recorded Saturday were these:
# UM returned four interceptions for touchdowns, setting a new school and Big Sky Conference record. Linebacker Jordan Tripp, safety Erik Stoll and cornerbacke Trumaine Johnson returned pick-sixes on consecutive possessions in the first quarter to put UM ahead 28-2. Mountaineer starting quarterback Miles Gorham threw all three interceptions, and he was benched for the rest of the contest.
# Young UM receivers Greg Hardy and Bryce Carver caught their first passes as Grizzlies, and both athletes found the end zone. Carver, a sophomore from Dillon, found it twice, catching TD passes of 12 and 28 yards from backup quarterback Justin Roper.
# Versatile UM senior Jeff Larson threw his first career touchdown pass, hitting Hardy on a 23-yard toss early in the second quarter. Larson, the former Cut Bank All-State quarterback who now plays wide receiver, took a lateral pass from Andrew Selle and connected with the wide-open Hardy, a 6-5, 245-pounder from Fairview.
That play was no accident, said Pflugrad, who coached wide receivers a year ago and was determined to get Larson a chance to throw a scoring aerial.
“We have a couple trick plays with Larson,” said Pflugrad. “We had one last year and never got to it. I did say to Larson this week about Thursday, we’re going to throw it, and looked at me like, ‘you guys told me that last year.’ We put it in our opening script. He threw a great pass, just like we rehearsed it in fall camp.”
The Grizzlies didn’t have a great day offensively, piling up only 365 yards from scrimmage, although quarterbacks Selle and Roper combined for 228 yards and five TDs. Star running back Chase Reynolds had 40 yards in limited duty, and third-stringer Gerald Kemp — a converted quarterback — led all rushers with 70 yards in 10 attempts.
It didn’t matter because UM’s defense forced five turnovers and held the Division II Mountaineers to 94 yards, or a miniscule 1.6 yards per play.
“We sort of expected their defense to be good, but they were on us the whole game,” said WSC running back Germaine Daniels, who was held to 19 yards in 18 carries. “They did not bring pressure like that last year (38-0 loss here). They came with a lot more blitzing schemes.”
Grizzly fans were a little concerned going into the game about the kick-return teams, since All-American Marc Mariani has taken his considerable talents to the NFL. But after watching sophomore Peter Nguyen gain 149 yards on six punt returns, plus 56 yards on his only kickoff return, the worries are probably over.
Nguyen set up three easy TDs with his swift returns, and he had one 57-yarder called back because of a clipping penalty.
“I had a fun time today, said the 182-pound Nguyen, also a backup running back. “The blocking was drawn up well. When we watched film our special teams coach called for middle returns, and we had great calls.”
Pflugrad said “We didn’t have a lot of sustained drives on offense, which was a disappointment. However, we didn’t need to because of our punt-return and kick-return teams. Peter was a key to that all afternoon. I’m sure he’s going to get teased by the guys because the punter tackled him (last return). That happened to Mariani a couple times last year as well, so in that regard, Peter is in great company.”
Montana, ranked No. 2 in the first Football Championship Subdivision poll, plays at fellow FCS school Cal Poly next Saturday night.
By George Geise, Great Falls Tribune