MISSOULA — Montana won 14 games in 2008, rose as high as No. 2 in the FCS Top 25 poll, finished as the national runner-up and had at least 13 players go on to play in the pros or coach in college or the pros.
And yet the Griz almost lost to Division II Central Washington. They trailed for the opening 41:55, overcame five turnovers and needed a literal last-second score to squeak out a 38-35 win against a team led by Mike Reilly, a quarterback from nearby Kalispell Flathead who UM didn't even recruit.
“In ’08, they came in here and could have beat us, and that was a Griz team that won 14 and played for the national championship, so we know we’ll have our hands full,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck recalled Monday ahead of the Grizzlies' spring season opener against CWU at 11 a.m. Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.
Hauck, now in his third year of his second stint at UM, was in his sixth of seven seasons guiding the Griz in 2008. He led Montana to seven consecutive Big Sky Conference titles and three national championship game appearances from 2003-09 before he left for UNLV.
Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie was Montana’s offensive coordinator at the time and recalls the Sept. 27, 2008, game rather clearly nearly 13 years later. Montana was ranked fourth in the Sports Network poll, while CWU was ninth in the American Football Coaches Association poll.
“We had to kick a field goal to win it at the end,” Phenicie said Monday. “That was a good Central Washington team. They had a kid from Kalispell at quarterback who we didn’t recruit because we had Cole Bergquist.
“Then they had a running back, and they had some receivers, and they actually had a really good defense. We knew that was going to be a dogfight. That was a good Central team.”
Mike Reilly, who played for former Griz QB Grady Bennett at Flathead after his family moved from Washington to Montana his senior year, completed 21 of 35 passes for 280 yards and three touchdowns. The last of those touchdowns started an 11-0 run that included a two-point conversion, an onside kick recovery and a 44-yard field goal to tie the score at 35-35 with 2:47 left.
The 6-foot-3 senior originally signed with Montana Tech, walked on at Washington State and transferred to CWU. He went on to appear on four NFL teams' practice squads, was on teams that won two Grey Cups in the CFL, was the Grey Cup MVP in 2015, was the CFL's Most Outstanding Player in 2017 and is still in the league.
Reilly wasn’t the lone future pro on that team. Linebacker Adam Bighill, who had 12 tackles, won two Grey Cups in the CFL and was named to the CFL’s first-ever All-Decade Team in November. Safety Courtney Smith was on one NFL offseason squad and played two years in the Arena Football League. Tight end Jared Bronson participated in a couple NFL camps. Assistant coaches Joe Lorig and Stacy Collins are currently coaching at Penn State and Boise State, respectively.
Bergquist, who went on to play three years in the CFL, completed 25 of 34 passes for 377 yards and three TDs, including first-half scoring passes of 64 and 42 yards to Marc Mariani, who played for the NFL’s Titans and Bears. Bergquist was picked off once and sacked three times, but UM backed him with 154 rushing yards.
Colt Anderson, who played and coached in the NFL, and Shann Schillinger, who played in the NFL and now coaches at UM, combined to force a fumble that kickstarted a 14-0 UM run after trailing 24-21 at the half. Chase Reynolds, who played for the NFL’s Seahawks and Rams, scored on touchdown runs of 12 and 3 yards to give the Griz a 35-24 lead with 7:30 left.
With the score tied, freshman Brody McKnight, who went on to play two seasons in the CFL, made a 42-yard field foal with 0:01 left in the game. Other Griz in that game who played in the NFL or CFL included Trumaine Johnson, Caleb McSurdy, Levi Horn, Steve Pfahler and Jabin Sambrano, while Mike Ferriter and Brandon Fisher went into coaching.
“That’s one where you brush of your eyebrows,” Phenicie said, “and go, ‘Woo, let’s go on to the next one, jeez.”
That next game was one to forget, though. Montana’s win over CWU was its 25th consecutive regular-season victory, but that streak was snapped with a 45-28 loss to Weber State, which was UM’s lone league loss in 32 Big Sky games from 2006-09. They’d avenge that loss by trouncing Weber State in the FCS playoff quarterfinals.
Ready to run
Central Washington senior Michael Roots began his career as a Division I running back, and he’ll try to show he still has that talent when the D-II Wildcats come to play a D-I team for the first time since 2019.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound senior has shown just how good he is at the D-II level by being named to two All-American teams in his first season as a full-time starter in 2019.
“Talent has no division,” Roots said. “There’s talent everywhere. Talent at the D-I, talent at the D-II. There’s no difference to me really. If you can play, you can play.”
In 2019, Roots ran for 1,515 rushing yards, the third most in D-II, and averaged 172.8 all-purpose yards per game, the fifth most in D-II. He had 14 TD runs, averaged 137.7 rush yards per game and 6.9 yards per carry on 219 attempts, all tops in the GNAC.
“I see myself as a playmaker, I’m able to make plays when needed. I’d say my ability is my strength and speed and agility also to make guys miss," said Roots, who goes by the nickname “Racecar,” which he said came from a high school announcer's call of a kickoff return touchdown.
“The physicality that a person has to have, you have to be mentally tough to play this position, it’s not for everyone,” he contined. “Being able to go out and dominate in the position and be able to get up to 45 yards each carry is something that I pride myself on. I used to play tackle football in the streets with my cousins, so my toughness is something I’ve always had.”
Roots ran for 1,067 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2018 in his first season with CWU. He had started his college career as a preferred walk-on at San Jose State in the Mountain West but left after a redshirt season, a combination of not transitioning well from high school to college life as well as stuff going on with his family back home.
Roots ended up at NAIA Southern Oregon for one year, rushing for 325 yards and eight scores. He then followed coach Greg Stewart from SOU to CWU following the 2017 season.
“I think his ability to sense what the defense is going to do, it almost feels like he can see it coming before it happens and make some cuts that really surprise you,” Central Washington head coach Chris Fisk said. “He just sees the game and has that special vision you look for in a running back.”
Roots has no relation to former Montana Grizzly Houston Roots, although they are both from the same hometown of Sacramento. But he did get to practice in Washington-Grizzly Stadium when SOU made a stop in town while coming to play an NAIA team in Montana.
So when he leaves Wa-Griz again, what is he hoping Montana fans say about him about watching him play Saturday? “He’s one hell of a running back,” Roots quickly said.
Former Montana running back Rey Green is returning to the stadium he once called home.
Green, now a senior at Central Washington, redshirted at UM in 2016, missed the 2017 season with an injury sustained during fall camp and ran the ball one time for minus-1 yard in 2018. He carried the ball 21 times for 103 yards in five games at Central Washington in 2019 and is now one of the Wildcats' top two backups behind Roots.
“He adds depth,” Fisk said. “We’ve got a deep backfield. A guy people will see on Saturday is Tyler Flanagan, who’s a redshirt freshman, he’s No. 2 on the depth chart right now, and then Rey is certainly behind him. Both those guys just add tremendous depth so when we need to take Michael out of the game, our drop-off is not significant there at that position.”