MISSOULA — A new coach. A surreal, smoky atmosphere. Game on national TV. The four-time defending champs and future No. 2 NFL draft pick in town. Two-touchdown underdogs. Outcome decided on a fourth-and-goal on the 1-yard line in the closing seconds.
That’s the stuff of Hollywood movies with Hollywood endings. Except that was real life.
It was Montana vs. North Dakota State. In front of a record crowd of 26,742 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium and an FCS Kickoff-record 981,000 TV viewers. And it ended with a 38-35 Grizzly victory on Aug. 29, 2015, in the UM debut for longtime Colorado Mines coach Bob Stitt against second-year NDSU coach Chris Kleiman and quarterback Carson Wentz.
So when the Griz lined up on fourth-and-goal, they were about to pull off an improbable victory in a game that was scheduled in 2009 when then-athletic director Jim O’Day came up with the idea of scheduling a home-and-home series with upper-echelon teams while he was on the FCS playoff selection committee.
Six years and three head coaches later, the game came to fruition. Here's an inside look at a day that could’ve been blown off course by smoky conditions from nearby wildfires that left a brown hue over Missoula and the taste of burnt cinders in the back of the throats of the Wa-Griz faithful.
Bob Stitt, then-UM head coach: “The smoke was at a dangerous level all week. You had to be careful with that because you’d get done with practice and felt like you smoked a pack of cigarettes. That was a distraction and there were rumors that they were going to possibly cancel the game. You just knew that given the history of football at Montana and how much our fans loved it, I think our stadium would have had to been on fire before they canceled the darn thing.”
Ben Roberts, then-UM receiver and a Sentinel grad: “If you remember how smoky it was even in the middle of the afternoon, it was almost like it was dark out. It was just a weird day. I do remember leading up to the game, two or three days before there were rumors that they were going to cancel it, but we knew that was probably not going to happen because of the magnitude of the game.”
Jim O’Day, former UM athletic director: “I knew that in our ticket sales that every year we’d play Griz-Cat, I could net about $1 million. I wanted to find another game on the opposite year that would net us $1 million. And we thought those would be some great games to get some national exposure for the subdivision.
“NDSU had great ambitions and made great investments in their programs. They were starting to put finances into their program, and you could tell they were heading the right direction.”
Chuck Maes, then-UM associate AD for events: “We brought in extra bleachers for that game from the soccer field. Those are bigger than the ones we have now (in the south end zone). We sold every ticket. There was literally not a seat left.”
Rob Luke, then-UM center: “I had a dream the night before that we were going to beat them by three touchdowns. I woke up with a bunch of confidence. Waking up every day, I liked the smoky smell coming in, in August. At the end of practice, you’d blow your nose and there’s a bunch of black marks and soot in your nose. Other than that, no problems with the smoke.”
Maes: “There was a lot of talk about people thinking we were going to cancel the game because of the smoke. For an early season game, it was crazy how much interest and how much attention it got. We were the only game in the country that week.”
Kent Haslam, UM athletic director: “We were far more concerned about the crowd. Our student-athletes are healthy. I had a lot of concern about all those people with varying levels of health out tailgating, climbing stairs. It was pretty hot, smoky. I remember a lot of people saying, ‘We’re going to be there. We don’t care.’ It was a marquee matchup. (Montana native) Brent Musburger, Maria Taylor, Jesse Palmer here. It was a magical moment, no doubt about it.”
Maes: “It was like having a playoff game the first game of the year.”
Stitt: “When we ran out, the noise, you could feel the noise on your body like you’re standing in front of a speaker. It was 26,000, but it felt like 126,000.”
Joey Counts, then UM-running back: “I remember walking down the tunnel before we ran out and just this feeling in the air like something special was supposed to happen that day. And with the smoke, it adds to the mystique.”
Luke: “Stitt didn’t give big hype speeches much, but, man, at halftime, I can’t remember his words, but he got us hyped up, he was excited. He’s said something like, ‘Let’s show them who Mo Town is,’ and everyone was going nuts. Out of the locker room, even more energy than during the first half.”
The Griz got an acrobatic touchdown catch from Roberts, who had been playing baseball at Washington State, but trailed 28-21 at the half. A Wentz fumble recovered by Kendrick Van Ackeren led to a field goal and a 35-31 deficit with 2:40 left. Montana forced a three-and-out, converted a fourth-and-10 on a 31-yard pass from Brady Gustafson to Reese Carlson, and faced a fourth-and-1 after two failed passes and one failed Counts hurdle from the 1-yard line.
Gustafson threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns in his first start, while Wentz threw for 198 yards, ran for 70 and had four total touchdowns. Whether the game would be remembered in Montana lore came down to one play, the 92nd offensive snap for UM.
The Griz took the field with a center and quarterback making their starting debuts, a running back who missed 2014 with injury, and defensive players Caleb Kidder and Mike Ralston, a tight end-turned-D-end, lined up at tight end and Jamal Wilson, a fullback-turned-D-lineman, and Jeremiah Kose, who had two ACL injuries, lined up as fullbacks in their jumbo package.
Counts: “We were on our last drive, and I wasn’t on the field yet. We were driving down, and Brady was making throws. You just knew something special was going to happen.”
Stitt: “Carson was the real deal. He was athletic, big fast, could make all the throws. Brady played awesome, threw for more yards than Carson. That was one of the best days for a quarterback that I’ve ever coached.”
Luke: “Reese caught it on fourth down, I grew up playing football with Reese, and he always got screwed over with refs saying he was out of bounds or the ball hit the ground. He finally got his redemption.”
Jamal Wilson, then-UM D-lineman: “The stop on defense before that touchdown drive was the most impactful because we at least gave our offense a shot.”
Stitt: “Last play, they called timeout, and I’m like listen, ‘Let’s flip the formation and run the exact same play to the other side to give them a different look.’ I remember seeing the look on Caleb’s face. He said, ‘You want us to change and run it to the other side?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘OK, we’ll run it the same way.’ He said, ‘Just call the same play and we’ll get it in.’ I’ll never forget the look on his face because we practiced it a lot of times and only the one way.”
Counts: “That’s why you’re a Grizzly. You’re there to make big-time plays. That’s not a place where you hope you make the big-time plays. If you go to Montana, you’re expected to step up in those moments and make those plays.”
Luke: “That O-line was stoked, we’re like, we’re running this thing and we’re going in. Called it and away we went.”
Wilson: “It was one of those moments where it was like, ‘This is where we make our mark.’ If we want to be the physical team, we’ve got to come right at them. It was one of those macho moments.”
Counts: “My ankle was killing me, but we had taped it so tight midway through the game that I couldn’t feel it anymore. I couldn’t move it at all. It was like running on a peg leg. But that wasn’t on my mind. The only thing on my mind was I’m scoring a touchdown.
“It was like a blackout. I can visualize it in my head, the cut left, but I don’t remember from the time I got the ball to getting in the end zone.”
Roberts: “Once he ran it in, an absolute massive eruption. Complete chaos. It’s just the most insane atmosphere you can imagine.”
Stitt: “When he scored, that feeling, you can’t put a price tag on it.”
Wilson: “It brought tears to my eyes to see him score in that moment because he had been working so hard trying to get himself back onto the field and him being able to do that was emotional in that sense.”
Counts: “This was my first game back, and I had this weird feeling in my heart that this game was going to come down to me. I was coming off a Lisfranc injury and even being on the field was a blessing. It was like a Cinderella story for me to get back into football.”
Luke: “He scores, and I’m face to face with David Reese, our tackle. He was yelling something at me, and I can’t hear him. I’ve been to concerts, games, Seahawks games, and I’ve never heard anything like that in my entire life. It was like an eardrum explosion.”
Wilson: “Everybody gave it their all not just that day but the weeks leading up to it. We had a bad taste in our mouth with having a coaching change happen. (Mick) Delaney was well loved as a coach across the locker room. A lot of us felt like we did that for Delaney more than anything.”
A final kickoff erased the remaining two seconds. Celebration ensued. It was just the fourth loss for the Bison in 62 games. They’ve lost just four games since then in 74 games. Montana remains the last team to beat NDSU in a non-conference regular-season game.
The Bison went on to win the 2015 national championship and ended the 2010 decade with eight national titles, nine conference crowns and six FBS victories.
The Griz lost their next two games and ended that 2015 season with a 37-6 blowout loss to NDSU in a playoff rematch. Stitt was fired after ending the 2017 season with a 21-14 career record and back-to-back losses to in-state rival Montana State. Bobby Hauck was brought back to UM and led the Griz to a 2019 playoff win, the first for the program since 2015.
The honeymoon ended quick for Stitt, but he gave Griz Nation a game to remember.
Stitt: “I created a monster the first game. Everybody was basically saying there’s nothing wrong with this team, let’s buy our plane tickets to Frisco. Had we lost that game, it would have kept the expectations realistic. Winning that one really set the bar high.
“After that, we took heat as coaches because we weren’t winning every game. It’s not that easy. I don’t regret it because that game was such a great experience. I wouldn’t have traded that game for a new contract. That was awesome. You just don’t get to experience things like that in your life very often, if at all.”
Wilson: “I wish we could’ve turned that energy and execution into a more fulfilling season, but it doesn’t take away from the moment. I know a lot of people in the Griz world will remember that. I think there’s going to be a lot of big games moving forward with the new generations of Griz. They’re going to beat a lot of teams. I think it’s a small part in a giant Griz legacy.”
Luke: “It’s definitely one for the books. It’s a game that’s going to last for the guys that were there for the rest of their lives. You can’t make that stuff up, man. It was awesome.”
Maes: “Over the course of 37 years (at UM), there’s a lot of crazy things that have happened. The ones that jump out at you are the ones you didn’t expect. This one here, we didn’t know whether we could win that game. It wasn’t expected. It’s one of the more fun games that I remember, especially that early in the season.”
Haslam: “I think it did a lot for FCS football. I think we showcased what the atmosphere here is all about. Just a magical place to watch a football game, and the whole country is aware of that.
“We had an ESPN game before that. We’ve had numerous great games here, but that was one I think you point to, to say that’s a really special place to watch a football game in a really special community, that it’s just a great college town with great college football atmosphere. I think it just cements that and proves it’s not just these one offs, it’s a lasting place. It was really neat.”
Stitt: “I think people are going to talk about it for long time. It’s going to be in the conversation as possibly the greatest game ever played in that stadium. Everything aligned perfectly with zero week, having Brent Musburger there, playing the national champions, playing a future Super Bowl champ. I don’t know if the stars are ever going to align like that.”
O’Day: “It was one of those magical nights in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.”