MOSCOW, Idaho — Montana looked like it might be in a for a long night defensively when it allowed Idaho to march for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game Saturday.
It was the fourth time in seven games the Griz allowed a touchdown on the game’s first drive, and they had gone 1-2 in the first three of those games. They evened that mark at 2-2 as they allowed just one other score behind a dominant defensive outing that was reminiscent of how they looked to start the season before they were decimated by injuries.
“It shows the resilience of the guys on our team, the no-quit factor in everyone and the standard that we set once you step foot on the field for the Montana Grizzlies,” Griz junior linebacker Pat O’Connell said after the Griz rolled to a 34-14 win over Idaho at the Kibbie Dome.
“I think everyone embraces that, and you can truly see it, especially with some of the younger guys stepping up and performing and doing what they’re taught to do. They really embrace that role.”
Part of the reason for Montana’s rebound was O’Connell’s resurgence. The Kalispell Glacier grad had 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks after being limited to a total of two each over the prior three games, knocking him off his perch as the FCS leader in tackles for loss and sacks per game.
O’Connell’s 14 tackles for loss are the most for UM in a single season since James Banks and Tucker Schye each had 15.5 in 2017. His 9.5 sacks are the most since Tyrone Holmes had 18 in 2015. He still has at least four more games to add to his totals.
As a team, the Griz tied their season high with six sacks and had their second most tackles for loss with 12. Senior linebacker Jace Lewis added two TFLs and eight others had at least half a TFL, including Joe Babros and DeAri Todd, who had gone through recent injuries.
The outings came as the Griz rotated players at all three levels of the defense with seemingly more regularity than earlier this season. Lewis collected a season-high 13 tackles, junior Marcus Welnel had six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, and sophomore Braxton Hill added three tackles and a sack.
Senior safety Gavin Robertson had five tackles as he made his first start since Sept. 11, while sophomore safety TraJon Cotton got his first start. Sophomores Nash Fouch and Garrett Graves both came off the bench after being regular starters recently. At cornerback, sophomore Corbin Walker got the start, while junior Justin Ford rotated in.
“That was a big factor,” O’Connell said. “There’s been some games where a lot of guys are playing a lot of snaps. We like to keep the legs fresh, and you see guys making more plays because of that.”
The Griz held Idaho to 242 yards, including just 180 after allowing 62, all on runs, on the opening drive. Of those 180 yards, 86 came on a garbage-time touchdown drive, meaning UM held the Vandals to 94 total yards on 13 other drives.
The Griz gave up just 16 first downs, nearly half of the 30 they surrendered to Sacramento State last week. They got off the field by limiting Idaho to 3 of 14 (21.4%) on third downs after allowing a 60% conversion rate the prior week.
“Obviously there was some stuff that we did wrong on that first possession, but we figured it out on the sideline, we got that stuff fixed,” O’Connell said. “Then you saw the rest. We dictated the rest of the game. Biggest thing was first downs, I think, not letting them get 5, 6 yards on first down, and then we had third and longs to bring some pressure and stuff like that.”
Idaho was still in the game down just 20-7 at the half, but the defense held the Vandals to four punts and one interception over the first five drives as the offense pushed the lead to 34-7. Omar Hicks Onu had a pick-6, but it was called back for a penalty during the return after the interception.
Down to its third- and fourth-string QBs, Idaho went more with dual-threat Gevani McCoy instead of run-first Zach Borisch as the game progressed. McCoy was 8 of 18 passing for 123 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, and ran 15 times for 14 yards. Borisch rushed 14 times for 44 yards while completing one pass for 22 yards.
“In that first half, we obviously didn’t have too many plays, so it didn’t feel like a complete first half,” O’Connell said. “We wanted to come back out here and really dominate the second half. The key word was dominate. I think that we really did that.”
Ford, a junior cornerback and Louisville transfer, intercepted a pass for the fifth consecutive game.
“Justin has done a good job the last few weeks,” Hauck said. “I don’t think he’s even scratched the surface of what he can be.”
When Ford carded an interception for the third consecutive week, he became the first Griz to do that since Trumaine Johnson in 2010. No player had four in a row through 1994, the farthest back UM’s online records go.
Ford’s five interceptions are UM’s most since 2014, when Matt Hermanson had six in 14 games.
“He’s a really hard worker,” O’Connell said. “He likes to be perfect in his craft. And you see that on the field. He brings the juice. He brings the energy every day. Five in a row in five games, it’s like unheard of. It’s like Trevon Diggs in the NFL (with seven interceptions in the first six games). He’s doing the same thing, so who knows?”
Montana won its seventh consecutive game against Idaho and its 11th in the past 13 games.
The Griz still trail 30-55-2 in the series that dates back to 1903. They moved to 13-29-2 in road games in the series by winning their fourth consecutive game in Moscow.
“Any time you can win, it’s great,” Hauck said. “It takes a lot of hard work to get them. It takes even more to win on the road, I think. Particularly in this place, the history of this rivalry has been way lopsided in Idaho’s favor, particularly in this venue. So, we’ve kind of got that ship righted.”
UM has outscored Idaho 122-58 in the three games since the series resumed in 2018. The teams had last played in 2003 before that.
“It’s good to see our guys with the Little Brown Stein,” Hauck said. “They carry it around like it’s the Super Bowl trophy. It’s awesome.”
Montana senior wide receiver Sammy Akem caught seven passes, giving him 168 for his career, the seventh most in UM history. He passed Etu Molden, Marc Mariani, Jeremy Watkins and Scott Gurnsey on Saturday. Akem also hauled in 72 receiving yards, giving him 2,369 for his career, putting him 10th in UM history. He passed Molden and Joe Douglass. He was already tied for fifth in school history with 25 touchdown catches.
Montana junior safety Robby Hauck corralled eight tackles, giving him 303 for his career, the 11th most in UM history. He passed Jake Trammell on Saturday. He's just the 12th player in school history to reach 300 tackles.