MISSOULA — The third quarter was the charm for the Montana Grizzlies in their home opener against North Alabama.
The No. 22-ranked Griz outscored the Lions 24-0 in the third quarter and 45-0 in the second half to turn a 17-16 halftime deficit into a 61-17 thrashing under the lights Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“Our kids weren’t pleased at halftime,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “They didn’t think we played sharp enough, and they were right. But our assistant coaches did a nice job tweaking a little bit, and our kids are smart, and they can handle some change, and then they’re also competitive as heck and they can handle not having great success and come out and make it happen, which is what they did.”
Montana improved to 2-0 in front of an announced crowd of 24,033, while North Alabama dropped to 1-1. The 61 points are the most given up by North Alabama, surpassing the 60 they allowed to Jacksonville State in 1971.
Montana out-gained North Alabama 304 to 66 in the second half, finishing with a 530-401 edge. They ran 88 total plays while holding North Alabama to 65, including an edge of 41 to 30 in the second half.
“They came out and did some different things, hit us with the quick passes out on the perimeter, were cutting us down, getting us blocked and we couldn’t defeat the block,” North Alabama coach Chris Willis said. “Had us on our heels pretty much the whole second half defensively. It was just two different games. It really was.”
Willis continued: “I thought first half we did what we needed to do to hang in there, whether it was one-point lead or one-point behind. We had the lead. We went in not feeling overconfident and understanding it was a close game. We made adjustments, but hats off to those guys. They’re a good football team. I think they wore us down. I think their O-line kind of controlled some things there in the second half. You could tell the size probably came into play.”
Montana running back Marcus Knight carried the ball 19 times for 89 yards and three touchdowns, including two in the third quarter. Throwing to the flats, quarterback Dalton Sneed completed 24 of 38 passes for 269 yards with one touchdown, to tight end Matt Rensvold in the fourth quarter, and Sneed ran for another score.
Griz senior wide receiver Jerry Louie-McGee capped off the third quarter with a 74-yard punt return touchdown that had the crowd chanting “Jerry.” It was his third career punt return touchdown, and his first since Nov. 4, 2017, against Northern Arizona.
With pressure up front, Montana intercepted North Alabama quarterback Christian Lopez three times through his first 23 pass attempts, including twice in the third quarter. Lopez came into the game having been picked off just two times in 315 pass attempts in his Lions career. He finished 14-of-33 passing for 320 yards with two touchdowns.
“That’s something that we talked about at halftime about how our secondary guys felt about their ability to cover their receivers and everyone was pretty positive about their ability to stay with them,” Hauck said. “We mixed up calls a little bit. He did have some time. They sprinted him out a little bit, and sometimes when you’re only rushing three, those plays extend for quite some time. But there’s a lot of guys back there, and there’s nowhere to throw it.”
In the first half, North Alabama flashed its speed on touchdown catch-and-runs of 75 yards and 64 yards. The Griz trailed 17-16 at the intermission with their final two drives of the half reaching the red zone but resulting in no points.
Montana came out firing in the second half, opening with a six-play, 65-yard drive highlighted by a 21-yard run by Sneed and 1-yard touchdown run by Knight.
North Alabama tried to answer back with a deep shot, but junior safety Gavin Robertson made a diving interception on a pass targeted for Dexter Boykin deep down the right sideline. Hauck called the interception “a little bit of a dagger for them.”
“Those guys up front put the pressure on him, and it made our job a lot easier,” Robertson said. “They did it against a good team, too,”
The Griz converted the turnover into a 47-yard field goal by Brandon Purdy, tying his career long, for a 26-17 lead.
“To get 10 straight coming out and have a nine-point lead, I think all our guys felt like the ship was righted,” Hauck said.
He later added: “I think after that field goal we felt pretty good about it. The defense had it kind of sighted in, and I just felt like it was going to take some more busts and different things like we had in the first half for them to get back in it, and the defensive guys shored it up. It was good.”
The Griz came up with another interception when redshirt defensive lineman Alex Gubner appeared to drop back into coverage and picked off Lopez at Montana’s 46-yard line.
After an interception by junior cornerback Dareon Nash got overturned, Louie-McGee returned a punt 29 yards to the North Alabama 31-yard line. Two plays later, Knight ran through multiple tackle attempts, got spinned around and scored on a 24-yard run to give Montana a 33-17 lead.
Montana forced another three-and-out, and Louie-McGee weaved through traffic to return a punt 74 yards for a touchdown to give Montana a 40-17 lead with 2:51 left in the quarter.
“I think our pace was pretty well,” Louie-McGee said of the offense. “I think we really dialed in on blocking, on everything we needed to do. So, I think it just went well for us and we just did what we needed to do.”
The Griz built on their lead early in the fourth quarter when Sneed rolled right, looked back to his left and hit wide-open tight end Matt Rensvold for the touchdown and a 47-17 lead.
Montana added a score when backup quarterback Cam Humphrey connected with true freshman running back Nick Ostmo for a 12-yard touchdown pass, Ostmo’s first collegiate score. That put the Griz up 54-17 with 7:45 to play.
Montana redshirt freshman Drew Turner added his first collegiate score, a 3-yard touchdown run, for a 61-17 lead.
“I just think they up-tempo’d us,” Willis said. “The last team we played last week did that to us. I’m sure Montana looked at the film and thought maybe they had something there, and they went to it a lot more in the second half. We had the numbers out there, but that’s kind of what’s tough as a coach when you look over there and you’ve got the numbers but yet they still get you blocked and you miss the tackle.”
Montana appeared poised to take a lead into the half on two occasions. The Griz had a 33-yard field goal attempt for a potential 19-10 lead. Instead, they faked, holder Mitch Roberts pitched to Purdy, who was tackled short. Three plays later, Lopez connected with a wide-open Jakobi Byrd down the middle of the field for a 64-yard touchdown and a 17-16 lead with 1:48 left in the half.
Montana raced down the field and got down to the 6-yard line before Sneed fumbled the ball, which North Alabama’s Wallace Cowins recovered with 21 seconds left in the half.
Montana was in trouble of trailing early as North Alabama took the opening possession to the Grizzlies’ 5-yard line. Nash deflected a pass intended for Boykin in the right corner of the end zone, and sophomore safety Robby Hauck came up with the interception.
Montana took advantage of a short field when Louie-McGee returned a punt 33 yards as the crowd chanted his name and a penalty put Montana in North Alabama territory. North Alabama’s A.J. Bracey was called for pass interference on third-and-goal, and Knight had a 1-yard touchdown run up the middle for a 7-0 lead with 6:03 left in the quarter.
North Alabama responded by scoring on a 75-yard pass when Lopez hit Cortez Hall on a tunnel screen and Hall outraced Montana to the end zone. That came three plays after North Alabama’s K.J. Smith fumbled the kickoff and the Griz tackled him at the 6-yard line.
The special teams gamble came through for Montana earlier in the half when former rugby player Adam Wilson kept the ball on a punt and scrambled to his left for 19 yards and the first down at the North Alabama 40-yard line. The drive concluded with a 36-yard field goal from Purdy to give the Griz a 10-7 lead with 1:06 left in the first quarter.
Montana upped its lead to 16-7 when Sneed scored on a 1-yard touchdown run off right guard with 11:25 left in the second quarter. Earlier in the drive, Sneed ran for 21 yards and lowered his shoulder on a defender, who got called for unsportsmanlike conduct after punching the ball out of Sneed’s hand following the play. The Griz mixed in runs from Knight and Ostmo before the touchdown.
North Alabama then scored the final 10 points of the half. The Lions settled for a 21-yard field goal by Joe Gurley when safety Josh Sandry came off the edge, nailed Lopez to force a fumble that was recovered by the Lions. They had showed their speed to get down to the 2-yard line on a 35-yard catch and run by Andre Little on an inside tunnel screen.
“I thought that North Alabama, they’re a physical team,” Hauck said. “I thought they tackled well. They did a nice job. They were ready to go and handled things. We helped them a little bit probably. So, at halftime, we said, ‘Our stuff’s good, our plan is sound, we just need to play better,’ and that’s what we did. We played better the second half.”
Notes: Montana upped its winning streak in home openers to 16 dating back to 2004. … Montana safety Gavin Crow left the field on a cart after a kickoff coverage play in which he was involved in a tackle.