MISSOULA — The game between No. 13 Northern Iowa and No. 24 Montana was supposed to be a close game through and through.
It didn't look like it in the first half, but the Panthers made it a close one in the end, giving Montana fans flashbacks of the Eastern Washington game of last year.
But a complete repeat of that game didn't happen as the Grizzlies fought off a late comeback, winning, 26-23, after going up 26-0 at halftime.
"In the first half, we looked like a veteran team. In the second half, we did some dumb stuff. We looked like a bunch of rookies out there," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said after the game. "But the one thing I will say about our team was, as it started tightening up in the second half, there was no panic on our sideline. There was no doubt in anybody's eyes. They just went out and played.
"Even though it wasn't going the way we wanted to coming out of the locker room, they did a really good job."
Montana had the ball to end the game, and junior quarterback Dalton Sneed completed three consecutive passes — a 3-yard pass to redshirt freshman running back Adam Eastwood, a 6-yard pass to sophomore receiver Samori Toure and a 13-yard dart to Toure — to gain the first down in order to run out the clock.
"That last drive was beautiful," Hauck said to Sneed in the postgame press conference before giving him a fist bump. "Three completions. Nice work."
Sneed finished the day with 248 yards passing on 26-of-39 throwing with one passing touchdown, 58 yards rushing and a rushing score. In total, Sneed eclipsed the 300-yard mark of total offense.
Junior linebacker Dante Olson, in his first start, led all defenders with 13 tackles. He also grabbed an interception and returned the pick for 26 yards. After he was tackled by UNI first-string quarterback Eli Dunne, Olson let out a celebratory bellow that could be heard from the other side of the field.
He also had a sack, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry to nearly fill out the defensive stat line.
"It was awesome. It was a great time," Olson said of his first career start in a Montana uniform. "A lot of things we need to work on. Nobody ever plays a perfect game, that's for sure. I was far from perfect. The whole defense, we played well. I think there's also a lot of things that we need to work on. But it was a great night in Washington-Grlzzly tonight."
Senior safety Reid Miller was second on the team with nine total takedowns and a pass break up.
Montana as a whole forced three fumbles — credited to senior linebacker Josh Buss, junior defensive tackle Jesse Sims and junior cornerback Justin Calhoun — but the Grizzlies didn't recover one of them.
Olson was well aware of that.
"We have to be able to come up with those fumbles. We can't let the offensive line fall on them," Olson said. "When we have the opportunities, we have to take advantage of them. Every play we're trying to cause a turnover."
The storyline all week was that Northern Iowa had no idea what to expect out of Hauck's offense early on and that the Panthers would need to make in-game adjustments to what was presented to them.
Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley said the secrecy part of Montana's offensive and defensive scheme is one reason why he feels the Panthers lost the game Saturday.
"I did not know what they were going to do offensively or defensively or anything really about it," Farley said. "I just knew a little bit about their players. And then, also, this place is worth seven points. There's some places that are worth seven points a game and this is one of them.
"So with the first move and the seven points is really what cost us this game. We just didn't do a good enough job on the first move. It took us too long to adjust to it and then we ran out of time."
Northern Iowa's lack of proper game plan for Montana's offense showed early.
The Grizzlies looked tough out of the gate, piecing together a six-play, 65-yard drive, capped off by a 17-yard touchdown run up the middle by Sneed to get on the board 6-0.
Junior kicker Tim Semenza nailed a 25-yard field goal and Toure had a 10-yard touchdown reception that he caught over the defensive back in the corner of the endzone. Those two additional scores put Montana up 16-0 by the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Montana scored on a trick play when Sneed lateraled to senior wide receiver Keenan Curran, who then passed to junior tight end Colin Bingham for a 25-yard score.
"Everybody loves them, including me," Hauck said of the trick plays. "Especially when they work. Keenan made a good throw.
Hauck added with a laugh: "Dalton better watch out."
As time expired, Semenza hit a 31-yard field goal to put up the Grizzlies 26-0 going into halftime.
At the half, Montana had 273 yards of total offense, compared to Northern Iowa's 47.
"Our guys paying attention to detail, being ready to play," Hauck said of Montana's hot start. "I thought it was well-done by the guys on our team. Across the board, our assistant coaches did a really, really nice job of having this team prepared.
"We came up, played fast, hard and physical right out of the gate. We didn't have a bunch of errors. We look like a well-drilled football team and we needed every one of those points."
Montana didn't score again and Northern Iowa made a big personnel change.
The Panthers put their senior starting quarterback in Eli Dunne — who started 0-of-8 and went 5-of-20 for 24 yards with an interception — on the bench and replaced him with senior quarterback Colton Howell for the second drive of the third quarter.
The Panthers went three-and-out that drive, but Howell took it to the house on their next series on a 1-yard touchdown run.
That score was Northern Iowa's first touchdown of the game, coming with 1:57 remaining in the third quarter.
"He's certainly a way, way, way different guy than their starter in our opinion," Hauck said of Howell. "That kid, he's a competitive dude. He came in, he took some shots, he broke some tackles, he made some throws and there's some things for us defensively — in terms of schematics — that change.
"And there's no way we'd be prepared to see him as much as we did. Good on us the first half making that happen. ... Mark Farley's a veteran. He's got guts. You pull a really good player and put in the backup and all of a sudden it's hard to defend, that's a great coaching move by him."
The quarterback switch wasn't the only change.Montana and Northern Iowa's roles reversed.
Northern Iowa punted on every drive in the first half. Montana punted on nearly every drive in the second half. Northern Iowa only mustered 47 yards of total offense in the first half. Montana scrounged together 75 yards of total offense in the second half. Northern Iowa exploded for 221 yards of total offense in the second half, compared to Montana's 273 yards of total offense in the first half.
"We played good defense in the second half," Northern Iowa's coach Mark Farley said of his team. "We played terrible defense in the first half."
The Panthers found the end zone twice in the fourth quarter when running back Marcus Weymiller scored on a 1-yard rush and Howell aired it out to Howell with 3:14 left in the game.
That Panther score made Washington-Grizzly Stadium tense. The Panthers were just 3 points shy of tying the game.
No Montana running back had a rush of 5 yards or longer — Eastwood's longest carry of the day was a 4-yard gain. Senior running back Alijah Lee's longest carry was 3 yards. 58 of Montana's 78 yards rushing came from Sneed.
Senior linebacker Josh Buss, who's been nursing an offseason injury, got the start on Saturday, although he played minimal snaps. Buss made four tackles and forced a fumble.
"We had a plan. We wanted to play him some, but not a bunch," Hauck said. "We pulled it off in the second half. He only played a couple plays. Didn't want to be greedy. He's been banged up. He doesn't, right now, have the conditioning to play a whole game. We want to have him in November too. This is a huge, important game. Every time the Montana Grizzlies play, it's a big game in these parts. But, we try to be smart too."
Montana (1-0) plays Drake next week in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.