BOZEMAN — Montana picked up right where it left off in last year’s Brawl of the Wild, fumbling on its first snap of the game on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
This time, the guy who fumbled the ball was wide receiver Samori Toure, not running back Adam Eastwood. The guy who recovered the fumble, though, was the same person: Montana State defensive lineman Derek Marks.
The hard hit by safety Jahque Alleyne to force the fumble set a tone that carried on throughout the day: Montana State was going to be the aggressor against a Griz team that handled a physical Weber State team just one week earlier.
“That's soul-taking stuff right there,” Montana State safety Brayden Konkol said. “That set the tone. First, that kickoff, I think at the 13-yard line. Then our defense goes out there and 'Que does that, man, that's just, that was awesome. Was a big-time play.”
Montana State converted the turnover into a touchdown, which started a stretch of five consecutive scoring drives given up by third-ranked Montana, which trailed by 24 points on two occasions in the first half against the eighth-ranked Cats.
The Griz couldn’t pull off the comeback despite being a second-half team, trailing by a season-high 34 points and getting steamrolled in a 48-14 defeat.
The loss cost Montana its first Big Sky title since 2009. The Griz now limp into the playoffs with a record of 9-3 overall and 6-2 in the Big Sky and will find out if they’re still a seed or have to play in the first round when the bracket is revealed at 10:30 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
“Good day for them. Bad day for us certainly,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “They beat us in all three phases. They played really well. They gave us some stuff we didn’t expect and capitalized on it. We did not play well in any of the three parts of the game. It’s a bad day to do that. Certainly, this is a game that has (importance). It’s important to us as well.”
Montana has gotten out of the gates slow on occasions this season, but Saturday was quite the inauspicious start. The Griz trailed 17-0 before they picked up their first, first down and trailed 24-0 before finding the end zone.
The day started off bad when Malik Flowers took the opening kickoff out of the end zone for just 14 yards. The Griz were then called for a delay of game before their first snap. On the next play, Toure took a pass out wide right at the line of scrimmage, ran forward, was hit by Alleyne and fumbled the ball, which Marks jumped on at the Grizzlies’ 18-yard line.
“Just jump on the ball and get the ball back for our offense,” Marks said of what he was thinking. “Looking back, it’s kind of funny, last play last year, a fumble recovery. The first play this year, same thing. It was fun.”
The Cats fumbled the ball twice on their next five plays, but they recovered it each time. The Griz tried to hold them to a field goal but gave up an 8-yard rushing touchdown to wide receiver Kevin Kassis on a reverse run.
Montana then went three-and-out, and the Cats responded with a 25-yard field goal by Tristan Bailey. Another three-and-out by Montana led to an 18-yard rushing touchdown by Logan Jones, which put the Griz down 17-0 with 3:56 left in the first quarter.
The 17 points were the most Montana had allowed in a first quarter. If that was because the moment was too big being a rivalry game, Hauck didn’t think it affected the veteran players.
“There were a lot of guys in marquee roles playing a lot of plays that had never played in it,” Hauck said of the younger players. “I would say that when some of that happened, they didn’t respond particularly well. Again, that ultimately comes back on me not having them ready to do it.”
Montana responded with its best drive to that point, moving into Cats territory before turning the ball over on downs. Montana State made the Griz pay, scoring on a 29-yard jet sweep touchdown run by wide receiver Tyrone Marshall to make it a 24-0 deficit for Montana.
“The fumble on the first play there, and then we kind of got them stopped and then they got us on the reverse to score the touchdown when we kind of had them potentially stopped, and we didn’t, if you hold them to three there,” Hauck said.
“So, we got down, and that kind of got us out of our plan a little bit, which would involve running it a little bit more than we ended up doing. Had some good runs that got called back. That didn’t help. The game didn’t play out in our favor in any form or fashion. Part of that’s us not doing a good job. Part of that’s them doing a really good job.”
The Griz went to the air to try to get back in the game, throwing the ball 34 times compared to 24 runs. Dalton Sneed completed 20 of 34 passes for 195 yards, but didn’t throw a touchdown, was picked off once and was sacked six times. Montana had just 46 rushing yards on 24 carries, an average of 1.9 per carry, with only one run over 10 yards.
Montana has been a second-half team this season, and Hauck was confident his team could come back from a 34-14 halftime deficit that included touchdown runs of 2 and 7 yards by Marcus Knight. Montana State knew it couldn’t let up after it erased a 22-0 deficit last year to win the stunner in Missoula.
"Last year, we played over our head. We weren’t a very good football team," Hauck said of the 29-25 loss in Missoula. "Should have won that one last year going away. Didn’t. But today, we got our tailed kicked."
The Griz couldn’t get anything going offensively, managing just 241 yards of total offense and getting shut out in the second half for the first time all season. The defense allowed Montana State to rush for 382 yards and six touchdowns.
“You see the reaction at the end of the game here in the stadium,” Hauck said about Montana State fans storming the field. “I mean, this game’s everything to them. Their sole focus is to beat us. Maybe we need to start doing that ourselves. So, maybe that’s where I’m failing.”