MISSOULA — When Montana beat Northern Iowa in the 2011 FCS playoff quarterfinals, the Griz made it to at least the semifinals for the seventh time in 12 years.
They haven’t gotten back to the semis in the decade since. Their last official trip there came in 2009 because the 2011 postseason run was vacated due to NCAA infractions.
In fact, the Griz have made it to the quarterfinals only twice since that 2011 run that ended in the semifinals. The first of those was a 17-10 loss at Weber State in the 2019 quarterfinals.
Their second trip will come this week when sixth-seeded Montana travels to third-seeded James Madison for a 5 p.m. MT kickoff Friday at Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Getting a win will be the next step in coach Bobby Hauck’s “Return To Dominance,” which he’s preached since he was hired in December 2017.
“We do expect to be there,” Hauck said of being one of the final eight teams still playing at this point in the season. “I think trying to get from our first season to our third season, I think the expectation in the locker room is there rather than, ‘What’s this guy talking about?’ I think that’s the expectation of our players, which is where it matters.”
Not counting the vacated 2011 postseason, this is Montana’s 25th playoff appearance, which is an FCS record, since its first trip in 1982. The Griz have made it to the quarterfinals 13 times, the semifinals 10 times, the championship game seven times and won titles in 1995 and 2001.
They’ve gone 34-22 in their postseason berths, dominating at home with a 31-7 record. The road hasn’t been as kind as they’re 2-11 in true road games and 1-4 at neutral sites.
If the Griz want to make it back to the title tilt, they’re going to have to beat JMU on the road and then most likely beat second-seeded North Dakota State on the road. The Griz are up for whatever challenge is put in front of them.
“I think the expectation level has grown,” Hauck said. “They’re not hoping that we win. They know we’re going to win. They know the mechanism for it and how we do it. That leads to us being a hard team to beat.”
How they got here
Montana ended up with the No. 6 seed in the playoffs despite finishing the season ranked No. 5 in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25.
The Griz went 9-2 in the regular season, but it looked like they might be in peril of missing the playoffs when they started conference play 1-2 and lost their starting quarterback. They rallied for four consecutive wins to guarantee a playoff spot, won a fifth straight game to earn a playoff seed and then opened the postseason by winning their sixth game in a row.
“I think that it goes back to our players and their preparation,” Hauck said. “I think everybody’s focused in on preparing for the game and trying to play their best. I just think that that’s been tremendous.”
The Griz opened the year by scoring a 13-7 win over Washington, which was ranked No. 20 in the FBS at the time. They then closed the regular season with a 29-10 win over Montana State, which was ranked No. 3 in the FCS, got the No. 8 seed in the playoffs and is in the quarterfinals.
The win over MSU was the Grizzlies’ only victory against a team with a winning record until they avenged their 34-28 regular-season loss to Eastern Washington by beating the Eagles, 57-41, in the second round of the playoffs. The only other team to beat them, fourth-seeded Sacramento State, was eliminated by South Dakota State in the second round.
“That’s the reason why we’re here, we’re here to win,” junior linebacker Pat O’Connell said. “When you drop a game, the only thing you can do is go back to work and put your head down and get the guys rallied. I think we’ve done a really good job of that.”
Montana’s defense and special teams have carried the team. The Griz lead the FCS in defensive touchdowns (six) and net punting (44.02 yards), they’re second in turnovers gained (28) and punt return defense (2.61 yards per return), and they’re third in tackles for loss per game (8.5), rushing yards allowed per game (75.3 yards) and passes intercepted (18).
It was a special teams play that maybe saved the season when junior linebacker Marcus Welnel blocked a field goal against Southern Utah in the closing minutes to help the Griz escape with a 20-19 win on Oct. 30. Quarterback Cam Humphrey made his first start since an injury the next week, and the Griz offense has started to pick up a bit with the return of the poised senior.
“It comes from the preparation and the work that we put in during the week,” O’Connell said of the 6-0 run. “I’d have to say that a lot of it comes from (the coaches) getting us ready, but then us preparing on our own, watching the film, doing the proper film study that we have to do and then just going out and putting the plan all together out on the field.”
Who led them here
Montana has a trio of players who are receiving national recognition.
O’Connell and junior safety Justin Ford are finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the FCS defensive player of the year. Redshirt freshman punter Brian Buschini is a semifinalist for the FCS punter of the year award.
Ford, a Louisville transfer, was named the Big Sky newcomer of the year and was one of 14 Griz player who earned all-conference honors. Ford, O’Connell and Buschini were joined on the first team by junior safety Robby Hauck, junior kick returner Malik Flowers and redshirt freshman special teams player Trevin Gradney.
“It’s been super fun, especially to know that we get another game with the seniors on the team, get another game for them and for the team,” O’Connell said. “It’s super exciting to know that you earned the next week because obviously at this point, it’s not given. Like in the regular season, you’ve got a game every week, but at this point, you earn it, and that’s what makes it special for us.”
The Griz had three second-team honorees in senior left tackle Conlan Beaver, sophomore defensive tackle Alex Gubner and senior linebacker Jace Lewis. Their lone third-team selection was sophomore left guard Hunter Mayginnes.
UM put four players on the All-Big Sky honorable mention list: junior receiver Mitch Roberts, redshirt freshman tight end Cole Grossman, and senior defensive ends Joe Babros and Justin Belknap.
“It’s been fun,” Roberts said. “I think our team’s just hit quite a bit of a stride. At this point, it’s win or go home, so I think that’s just enough motivation for our team to keep competing and go out there and get a win.”