MACOMB, Ill. — The Montana Grizzlies won last week's turnover battle against Drake, 5-1.
This week, No. 15 Montana lost the turnover battle by another decisive margin — 4 to 1 — in an upset loss on the road against Western Illinois, 31-27.
"It ultimately comes down to us turning the ball over," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said about the loss. "We can't do that. Specifically on the road, but to do that is what costs you games."
Hauck said last week after the Drake game, "Statistics I'm not overly into, but that one I am and that one counts."
Fourteen of the Leathernecks' 31 points came off turnovers.
Montana's first turnover came on the Grizzlies' first drive. Junior tight end Colin Bingham caught what would have been a first down reception on third-and-2, but took a massive hit and dropped the ball. Western Illinois' Quentin Moon forced and recovered the fumble. The Leathernecks scored a touchdown on the next play.
Late in the second quarter, Sneed was picked off by Eric Carrera. On the same play, Griz wide receiver Jerry Louie-McGee forced a fumble, but Western Illinois recovered it. The half ended during Western Illinois' drive.
With less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Sneed found Louie-McGee for what would have been a first down reception, but Louie-McGee coughed up the ball. The Leathernecks scored their go-ahead touchdown after the fumble.
Carrera picked off Sneed again as time ticked down for Montana.
Montana had another fumble too, by sophomore wide receiver Samori Toure, in the second quarter, but he recovered it.
Montana's lone gained turnover came in the third quarter when linebacker Dante Olson picked off Western quarterback Sean McGuire. That interception set up Tim Semenza's 31-yard field goal.
Redshirt freshman return specialist Malik Flowers scored his first career kick return touchdown on Saturday, running in the ball from 95 yards out.
The last time Montana had a kick return touchdown was in 2013 when Ellis Henderson ran a kickoff back for a 98-yard score.
"Any time you score on a kickoff return it's a big play. A lot of people go years without doing that," Hauck said of Flowers' return. "We kinda thought we'd have a shot with that play and that call and the guys blocked it well and he finished it. Good play by those guys. Certainly, it got us back. That was a huge play in the game when you talk about being down 14 and then being right back into it in the blink of an eye."
Flowers finished the game with 138 kickoff return yards.
The Grizzlies were leading 21-17 at the start of the fourth quarter and the offense was on the move.
Montana started its drive in the third quarter at its own 45-yard line and drove all the way down to the Western Illinois' 6-yard line.
On fourth-and-1, Montana decided to go for it. Sneed handed the ball off to redshirt freshman running back Adam Eastwood who ran up the middle for no gain.
"We knew we were going to go for it on fourth down and we didn't get it," Hauck said after the game on his mindset on going for it. "Basically, I thought we would need more than those three points to win the game and that was right in hindsight."
Montana has converted just one of its five fourth downs so far this season and went 0-for-2 against Western Illinois.
True freshman wide receiver Gabe Sulser — who hasn't been dressed out for either one of Montana's first two games — made the trip to Western Illinois. He saw significant time in the game behind Louie-McGee, but did not record any statistics.
Four redshirt freshmen started on offense and defense: Eastwood, offensive lineman Colton Keintz, safety Robby Hauck and defensive end RJ Nelson.
Ten other freshmen, including Sulser, suited up on Saturday: safety Michael McGinnis, Flowers, linebacker Michael Matthews, true freshman offensive lineman Sean Anderson, wide receiver Mitch Roberts, tight end Matt Rensvold, tight end Bryson Deming, defensive end Braydon Deming and true freshman defensive tackle Eli Alford.
A HOT ONE
Saturday's game was likely the hottest game the Grizzlies will play this season — and certain to be the most humid.
It was 87 degrees at kickoff, but felt like 90 degrees.
Most everyone in attendance — media members and coaches included — were soaked in sweat by the game's end.
"This is a tough trip," Hauck said. "The travel here is hard. The conditions today were tough from a heat and humidity standpoint. Being down 14 to nothing about a minute into the game, I thought our guys were pretty dialed in and fighting their way back in and actually being in control of that thing was impressive too. I just wish we would have hung on."
Montana (2-1) returns to Missoula next week to kick off its conference slate. The Grizzlies host Sacramento State (2-1) in the Dave Dickenson Hall of Fame game. Kickoff inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium is slated for 1 p.m.
Western Illinois (1-2) hosts Youngstown State (1-2) to start its conference slate next week.