MISSOULA — Levi Janacaro raced right up the middle and into the backfield on his way to blocking a punt.
The Montana sophomore and Missoula Big Sky grad wasn’t done yet. He hustled toward the end zone to dive on the loose ball for a touchdown and a 39-0 lead late in the third quarter.
The score was one of three touchdowns on special teams and defense that propelled Montana in its Big Sky opener on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. It also served as the proverbial dagger for the No. 4 Griz in a 39-7 win over Cal Poly as they improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2013.
“There are all kinds of different ways to win games, and I think good teams find a variety of ways to win games,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said after winning his 101st game at UM. “Sometimes it’s the offense that carries it. Sometimes it’s the defense that carries it. Sometimes it’s the special teams units that carry the day.
“All the great teams that I’ve been around have that in common, that they find ways to win maybe when they don’t play their best game.”
Junior Malik Flowers collected the first special teams score when he took the opening kickoff of the second half back 95 yards for a touchdown, bursting through a tight hole near the 25-yard line. It was his fourth career kickoff return, two shy of the Big Sky record of six held by Weber State senior Rashid Shaheed.
UM’s special teams had yet to break off any field-flipping plays through the first two games. They stepped up at a key time because the offense struggled coming off the bye week, marking the first time UM had two special teams touchdowns in a game since Nov. 1, 2003.
“Scoring twice was huge in terms of the outcome of the game,” Hauck said. “Both those plays, the blocked punt and the kick return for the touchdown, we felt like those were opportunities that might transpire if the game played out the way we thought it would. It’s kind of nice once in a while to have the crystal ball.”
The standout special teams play was reminiscent of Hauck’s teams during his previous stint at UM from 2003-09. They could be counted on to make a game-changing play in that phase of the game on a regular basis.
Cal Poly coach Beau Baldwin was well aware of that having coached at Eastern Washington during and after Hauck’s reign in the Big Sky. The Griz had special teams success back then with Levander Segars, who had two punt return touchdowns in that November 2003 win at Northern Arizona, and Marc Mariani, who Baldwin confused with former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
“They can score in a lot of different ways, and they’ve always been that way,” he said. “I can go back to Marcus Mariota. I have nightmares of him returning punts. They’ve always been good at dialing up certain blocks. It’s not anything that’s uncommon.”
The special teams success wasn’t contained to just the return game. Redshirt punter Brian Buschini continued his strong start to the season, averaging 45.4 yards on seven punts and pinning Cal Poly inside the 20-yard line four times.
Flipping the field left Cal Poly looking at long fields after it thought it might get a short field by making a defensive stand. That’s not ideal while facing a Griz defense that had 14 tackles for loss, four sacks and extended its streak of not allowing any points to 35 consecutive drives and 164 minutes, 57 seconds before it was snapped in the fourth quarter on a 2-yard run by Shakobe Harper.
“When you have a punter like that, it’s a weapon,” Baldwin said.
The coverage teams held Cal Poly to 36 yards on two kickoff returns and minus-5 yards on one punt return. The lone mistakes for Montana came on a fake punt in which Cal Poly tight end Michael Roth completed a 32-yard pass to Ryan Rivera down to UM’s 17-yard line.
“The kicking game kind of carried the day for us. It was really good,” Hauck said. “It’s unfortunate we gave up the fake punt. It was something that we actually practiced the play that they ran this week, believe it or not. Beyond that, it was a pretty dominating day. The coverage teams were terrific. The return game was terrific.”
The trick play was Cal Poly’s second-longest pass of the day as starting quarterback Conor Bruce was knocked out of the game on a hit by linebacker Jace Lewis in the second quarter. He finished 16-of-30 passing for 183 yards, but Cal Poly, which was already missing regular starter Spencer Brasch to injury, still ended up outgaining the Griz 362-354.
Montana’s offense started slow but went up 7-0 in the first quarter when Sammy Akem caught a 65-yard touchdown pass on a slant over the middle and outran defenders the final 46 yards to score. He finished with a game-high 84 receiving yards while quarterback Cam Humphrey was 15 of 24 passing for 215 yards and two touchdowns on an underwhelming day for the offense.
Just 41 seconds later, defensive end Justin Belknap picked off Bruce by dropping back into coverage and returning it 24 yards for a touchdown. The Griz added a 2-point conversion run by Mitch Roberts to go up 15-0, their most first-quarter points scored since Nov. 3, 2018.
“It was a great call by coach Baer,” Belknap said, referencing defensive coordinator Kent Baer. “It was a cool feeling. I don’t know how to describe it. I haven’t scored in college football before, so it was nice to get a score like that.”
The Griz found some offensive rhythm with a 17-play, 74-yard drive that took 6:26. They converted on fourth-and-3 but later settled for a 24-yard field goal by Kevin Macias to go up 18-0 in the second quarter.
UM nearly had a second defensive score when linebacker Pat O’Connell recovered an apparent fumble and returned it for a touchdown. However, it was waved off as an incomplete pass upon review. The defense rose up as Justin Ford intercepted true freshman third-string quarterback Kahliq Paulette at the UM 9-yard line one play after the fake punt.
Following Flowers’ kickoff score, Humphrey tossed a 23-yard score to Joey Elwell, his first career touchdown reception, to make it 32-0. Janacaro added the score on the blocked punt by rushing through the A gap, something Baldwin hadn’t seen much of on UM’s film going back to 2019, to get a hand on the ball punted by Chris Bartolic, who shanked two 15-yard punts on Cal Poly's first two drives of the game.
“I saw him score it, and I didn’t know who’d blocked it,” Hauck recalled. “I said, ‘Alright, who blocked it?’ And he said, ‘I did both.’ So, that’s a big-time play when you block it and scoop it up and score it.
“I’d have to see the replay, I don’t know if we got our hand on one in the first half. Their punter struggled a bit with the pressure, and our guys, they had a pretty good understanding of their protection, and they executed the rush pretty well.”