MISSOULA — The legend of former Montana quarterback Dave Dickenson can be traced back to when he led the Griz to a come-from-behind win over South Dakota State in the 1993 opener.
Dickenson helped the Griz erase a 38-7 deficit early in the third quarter on their way to a 52-48 win over the NCAA Division II team. They scored 45 points in the final 19 minutes and an NCAA-record 39 points in the fourth quarter.
Dickenson’s encore performance the next week of his sophomore season might have been equally important for the future of Dickenson and Montana despite being less celebrated and remembered 26 years later.
When the 2019 Griz travel to Oregon on Saturday, they'll revisit the site where Dickenson came off the bench and nearly rallied the 1993 team to an upset victory in a 35-30 loss to the favored Ducks of what was then the Pacific-10 Conference.
Despite the defeat, Dickenson’s performance catapulted the 2018 College Football Hall of Fame inductee into the spotlight of Griz football during a quarterback battle. His emergence in turn kickstarted a heightened era for Montana as a title contender on the national landscape, a level which the current team is trying to recapture after a decade of decline.
“The mystique of Dave Dickenson was born in that game against South Dakota State,” recounted former Montana receiver Scott Gurnsey, who caught the game-winning touchdown against the Jackrabbits. “The second game, that solidified the confidence and faith in Dave.
“Those two games really propelled that squad and started the roll that the Griz went on for the next 20 years.”
Dickenson was known as a winner before he came to Montana, leading Great Falls CMR to back-to-back undefeated state football titles. But the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder wasn’t highly recruited because of his short stature and slight build.
Heading into 1993, Montana was still trying to figure out who would be its quarterback. The decision was between Dickenson, a sophomore, and Bert Wilberger, a junior believed by some to be Brad Lebo’s heir apparent.
After strong spring and fall camps, Dickenson started the opener against South Dakota State, was pulled for Wilberger as planned and returned to guide the comeback. Despite that, Griz coach Don Read had chosen Wilberger, a former Oregon high school star, to start the second game even before the season opener.
Montana trailed Oregon 21-0 before Dickenson spelled Wilberger, who was 4 of 9 for 23 yards and ran four times for 29 yards in the first quarter. The Griz were down 28-3 before starting their comeback in front of a crowd of 33,183 fans at Autzen Stadium in Eugene.
“I remember when we were warming up on the field before the game that the coaches were on us to pay attention and don’t worry about the Ducks,” said Gurnsey, who’d finish with nine catches for 99 yards. “I remember I glanced at those guys and then looked at our guys with skinny calves and not as defined muscularly. The guys at Oregon look like Adonises and built like Greek gods. You could tell the difference in the speed and size.
“What you couldn’t measure with us was the size of our heart.”
Dickenson threw touchdown passes to Shalon Baker and Matt Wells, and he ran for another score as he guided the comeback bid. Oregon was about to put away the game but fumbled on the 2-yard line, and Dickenson’s 6-yard touchdown strike to Mike Erhardt capped a 13-play, 80-yard drive that trimmed the deficit to 35-30 with 1:55 to play.
The rally ended when the Griz failed to recover the onside kick.
“Anybody can catch lightning in a bottle, which Dave did the week before against South Dakota State,” Gurnsey said. “In that second game, for Dave to come off the bench and lead us to near victory, I think that just let the team know that no matter the circumstances, you always had a chance to win when Dave was the QB."
Dickenson threw for 324 yards and three touchdowns, but it was his scrambling of 77 yards and one score that flustered Oregon’s defense.
“Is that guy an escape artist? You must send him to school with Houdini,” Oregon coach Rich Brooks asked of Dickenson when shaking Read’s hand in the interview room after the game, according to the Sept. 12, 1993, edition of the Missoulian.
“He was the most elusive player I’ve played against,” Oregon linebacker David Massey added at the time.
“It was like he had eyes in the back of his head,” the Ducks' Ernest Jones agreed.
The question remains: Since Montana lost by only five points, what would've happened if Dickenson played the whole game?
But what might have happened beyond the game had Wilberger performed better than Dickenson, was subbed back in, as Dickenson did against South Dakota State, and played well enough for the quarterback battle to wage on?
"Truth be told, I think Bert could have started on most Big Sky teams in 1993 and 1994," Gurnsey said. "I think a team needs to have a clear-cut leader and somebody to follow. When you're going back and forth, there's going to be proponents for both guys, and that might have an effect and divide the team. It was a very good thing when Dave came through again."
Through two games in 1993, Dickenson played about six quarters, throwing for 725 yards and seven touchdowns while running for 48 net yards and three scores.
Later dubbed "Super Dave" and "The Legend of the Fall," Dickenson was named the starter for the rest of the season on the day after the game.
“Dave gives us an intelligent, talented, exciting quarterback,” Read was quoted as saying in the Sept. 13, 1993, edition of the Missoulian. “Bert will be an outstanding back-up quarterback, and he too is very capable and talented.”
Four years before the Oregon game, Montana football was on the rise when the Griz reached the national semifinals in 1989 under Read, who took over in 1986. However, they missed the playoffs the next three seasons.
That drought ended in 1993 with Dickenson running the shotgun offense. He threw for 3,640 yards with 32 touchdowns that year and added 338 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Griz won the Big Sky Conference title for the first time since 1982 and were outright champs for the first time since 1970. It was their first of 16 league titles over the next 19 seasons and their first of 17 consecutive playoff appearances.
The loss to Oregon was Montana’s lone defeat until the season ended with a 49-48 loss to Delaware in the opening round of the playoffs. The Ducks finished 5-6 but rebounded in 1994 to make the Rose Bowl.
When Dickenson went down late in the 1994 season, Wilberger carried the Griz as a senior but couldn’t get them past the semifinals. Dickenson returned for his senior year in 1995 and led Montana to the national championship, its first of two crowns and seven title-game appearances over the next 15 years.
“What Dickenson did in Autzen Stadium that Saturday in ’93 allowed Griz Nation to dream again and planted the seeds for not only the run to the national championship in 1995 but for a perennial place among the Division I-AA elite,” said former Missoulian sports reporter Kim Briggeman, who covered the Montana football beat at the time.
Dickenson threw for 13,486 yards and 116 touchdowns in the regular season and playoffs in three seasons. He won the Walter Payton Trophy in 1995 and was an All-American and Big Sky Conference offensive MVP three times each.
The Academic All-American went on to a 12-year playing career in the NFL and CFL, and is in his 11th season as a CFL coach. He won his first Grey Cup as a CFL coach in 2018.
The national prominence for Dickenson and Montana all started with the comeback win over South Dakota State — and the comeback bid against Oregon.
“If there’s any game that’s worthy of being called a moral victory,” Gurnsey said, “I guess it would be against Oregon.”