VERMILION, S.D. — To call a season opener a “must-win” would typically be an exaggeration for a game in August.
Just ask the nine Big Sky Conference teams who played an FBS opponent during Week 1.
But Montana’s game against South Dakota, picked sixth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, might as well have been of the must-win magnitude compared to a typical opener.
If the Griz had lost, and especially if they lost big, the narrative of their season would’ve shifted for the worse with an already difficult schedule on tap.
They would’ve then had a must-win game in Week 2 against North Alabama, which knocked off Western Illinois, or they’d be staring down a potential 0-3 start with a trip to nationally-ranked FBS Oregon in Week 3. Then it’s games against sneaky-talented Monmouth and defending Big Sky co-champ UC Davis while playing the league’s toughest schedule.
Instead, Montana carved up South Dakota for a 31-17 win, a score coach Bobby Hauck felt wasn’t indicative of the “beatdown” he twice called it. It was an encouraging performance in some senses but also one that left key questions lingering.
The win wasn’t a characteristic “statement win,” but that doesn’t diminish the victory’s importance in the moment and potential impact come November. It could go a long way for the Griz, as long as South Dakota doesn’t collapse, should they end up as the projected playoff bubble team they’re widely considered to be.
“It’s one (win),” Hauck said. “They’re hard to get. Winning is very, very difficult. Winning’s hard. Losing’s easy — all you got to do is give in. Certainly we don’t have a bunch of give-in on our team.
“We’re 1-0, and that’s right where we wanted to be after Week 1. You got to win the week, and we did.”
The Griz learned last year that a big season-opening win — 26-23 over Northern Iowa — might not mean much at the end of the season if they don’t take care of business the rest of the way. They lost four fourth-quarter leads and dropped three games by four or fewer points.
The Grizzlies’ blown leads, fumble troubles and offensive line struggles coalesced against the Cats. They were less than 1 yard away from a potential playoff berth when running back Adam Eastwood fumbled on the goal line as their season came to an unceremonious close.
Back on the field, Montana got rid of some of the pent-up frustration from that loss. As for what a road win to start the season does for the team’s confidence, Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed said: “It puts it through the roof. I think we’re just more so happy to get out here and finally play someone other than ourselves.
“We had a bad taste in our mouth the last nine months, and we’ve really been itching to get out here. It feels good to get out here and get a win, especially on the road.”
Montana’s deep and diverse wide receivers showed what they’re capable of as Sneed threw for a career-high 430 yards by mixing long passes with his prevalent short and intermediate throws.
The defense came up big in the fourth quarter, pitching a shutout for just the second time in 12 games since Hauck returned last season. The Griz forced two turnovers on downs — an Alex Gubner tackle and a Robby Hauck pass breakup — and had an interception by Justin Calhoun.
“I mean, shoot, any time you can win, especially on the road, is big,” Robby Hauck said. “Still think we’re a pretty young team, so hopefully we have some momentum going into next week. Winning on the road’s awesome. It’s almost better than winning at home. It’s big.”
Mistakes are sure to be around for every team in Week 1 games, and the young Griz acknowledged they have much room to improve. Fixing those mistakes coming off a win is better than having to do it after a loss.
Montana was called for seven penalties totaling 75 yards. Sneed was picked off twice, including once in the end zone. The Griz fumbled once, although they recovered the ball, as the running game was largely non-existent.
Montana had a missed field goal by Brandon Purdy and dropped passes by wide-open players. The Griz also took a knee in the red zone to run out the clock in the closing minutes, leaving more points on the field.
“We left a lot of stuff out there,” wide receiver Samori Toure said. “We just got to put in more work. We got to fix what we did wrong. I think we’ll only get better from here.”