Monday, December 28, 2009

Runner-up again and battling Mother Nature

Normally, finishing a football season with a 14-1 record would seem like a pretty successful season. But when that 1 in the loss column comes in the national championship game for the second straight year, it tends to put a damper on things. Call it egotistical, but just getting there is no longer good enough for Montana Grizzly fans. The Griz have gotten there 7 times, but only won it all twice, which just sucks. So, needless to say, my Christmas vacation got off to a rough start as I watched the Griz blow a 14-9 halftime lead and basically get dismantled by Villanova in the 2nd half. The final score was close, 23-21, but Nova did what Montana usually does to opponents, and totally dominated after halftime. Only a long TD pass for Montana with just over a minute left made the game appear as close as the score indicates. Well, it was fun while it lasted, I guess. Now, we get to find ourselves a new head coach (Bobby Hauck left for more money at UNLV a few days after the championship) and try to get back there next year (and maybe actually win).

As for running, I was hoping to get a bunch of it done during my week long Christmas vacation, but Mother Nature had other plans. I started off well enough, putting in 39 miles in the first 4 days of the week, but then it all went to hell in a handbasket. A winter storm warning turned into a blizzard warning and we were basically snowed in on Christmas day, bringing to an end my streak of running on Christmas (I'm not even sure how long that streak was, but at least 5 years). The blizzard extended into the 26th, closing down the gym and basically the city of Belle Fourche in general, so my solid running week turned south real quick with two straight unscheduled rest days. After digging out on the 27th, I was able to get back at it, but it looks as though my running will be restricted to the indoor track for awhile. There is way more snow on the city streets than there are places to pile it, which leaves little room for two cars to pass each other much less for a runner to fit in there. Not to mention that the semi-packed snow makes for absolutely crappy footing. It's times like this that make a move to San Diego sound pretty damn appealing.

Jeez, what a downer of a blog post, huh? I'll try to come up with something more upbeat for next time. Some unseasonably warm weather would help in that regard...

Monday, December 14, 2009

One for the ages

I'll warn you right now, little if anything about this post is going to deal with running. I've got football on the mind and, in particular, what may go down in University of Montana lore as "The Game of the Century".

On Saturday afternoon, the top-ranked and undefeated Montana Grizzlies played 5th ranked Appalachian St. in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs. As I mentioned in my last post, this game pitted the two most dominant FCS teams of the past decade against each other for only the 2nd time. The only other meeting was also in the semifinals in Missoula in 2000 and the Griz won 19-16 in overtime. This meeting was expected to be just as close and it did not disappoint.

The game started off well for the Grizzlies. After forcing a turnover on downs on App State's first drive, the Griz marched downfield and capped off their first drive with a great 39-yard run by Chase Reynolds to go up 7-0. After that, the Griz offense kind of stalled out, but the defense managed to make enough plays to keep App St. off the board. But, you can't keep a player like App St. quarterback Armanti Edwards off the scoreboard for long and before halftime App St. managed to punch in a TD and a FG to take a 10-7 lead.

The 2nd half started out much like the 1st half with one exception: the weather. It was cold but clear when the game started, but by halftime a winter storm had begun blowing in, bringing gusting winds, below zero windchill and snow. The Griz were unfazed, however, and took the opening drive of the 2nd half methodically downfield to take a 14-10 lead. Again, Edwards and App St. struck back and scored another TD for a 17-14 lead. As the weather worsened, so did the field conditions, making it difficult to pass efficiently into the wind or to kick field goals. This was evident as Montana blocked one FG attempt by App St. and their kicker missed another badly in the 2nd half. However, when it was the Grizzlies' turn to try for 3, kicker Brody McKnight punched a relatively short field goal straight through and the game was all knotted up at 17 midway through the 4th quarter.

The missed field goal attempt by App St. gave the Grizzlies the ball back with just under 4 minutes remaining. The Griz mounted a drive and were soon nearing FG range, although under the weather conditions, a field goal would have been a risky proposition. As the Griz penetrated further into App St. territory, they were set back by a 10 yard holding penalty that put them back at the 25 yard line facing a 1st and 20. Up to that point, they had largely been pounding at App St with the run (Chase Reynolds ended up with 193 yards rushing) but the Griz coaches decided to gamble on first down and dialed up a fly route into the end zone. Jabin Sambrano, perhaps the fastest guy on the Montana roster, streaked up the left sideline and Andrew Selle laid up an absolutely perfect pass that dropped right into Sambrano's arms (see picture below) as he slid through the end zone, dragging both feet inbounds before falling out of bounds. The play was reviewed by the replay official, but it was clearly a catch and the call on the field was upheld. Touchdown Grizzlies and with 1:30 left, they now held a 24-17 advantage. But, had they given Edwards too much time?

Well, Armanti Edwards hasn't achieved legendary status for no reason. After the kickoff, the Mountaineers were faced with 75 yards of frozen turf to cover in just under a minute and a half. They drove down field with Edwards finding receivers open as he scrambled around the backfield to avoid the Montana rush. Eventually, App St. faced a 4th and 10 at the Montana 24 yard line with 25 seconds left. Edwards connected with receiver Brian Quick, who was tackled right at the first down line. The officials measured and App St. was given a new set of downs, literally by the nose of the football. Edwards then dumped a pass off to his running back that took the ball down to the Montana 3 yard line with less than 10 seconds left. On the next play, Edwards had an open receiver in the end zone, but Montana linebacker Brandon Fisher (son of Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher) got a hand up to tip the ball and send it incomplete. This set up the final play of the game, with 2 seconds left from the 3 yard line. Edwards fired a pass to his left and hit his receiver just inside the end zone right in the hands, but as he dove to catch the pass it slipped through and fell to the ground, giving the Grizzlies one of the more dramatic victories in their history.

So, now it's on to Chattanooga for the 2nd straight year where Montana will face the Villanova Wildcats in the national championship. Last year, the Griz came up short in the title game, losing 24-7 to Richmond. Hopefully, that experience will drive them to get some redemption this year. If nothing else, history is on their side. Montana has been to the championship game 6 times prior to this year. They have a 2-4 record with both wins coming in odd numbered years (1995 and 2001) and all four losses coming in even numbered years (1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). Also, both times the Griz won the championship, their starting QB was a Montana native (Dave Dickenson from Great Falls in '95 and John Edwards from Billings in '00). In all four championship games they lost, the starting QB was from outside of Montana. So, being that 2009 is an odd numbered year and that Andrew Selle is from Billings (the same high school as John Edwards), it's virtually a lock that the Griz will win this one. May as well call up Vegas and put the paycheck on it. Plus the fact that they are a damn good team looking to erase last year's loss to Richmond from memory. Of course, Villanova is good too, or else they wouldn't be here. In fact, this is the first time since Montana played Marshall in the '96 championship that the #1 and #2 seeds will face each other in the title game. Just more proof that the BCS system is effed up and that they should implement a playoff like FCS. In any case, the Griz are playing their best football of the year right now and I think they ride that wave of momentum into Chattanooga and bring a 3rd trophy back to Missoula. Montana 27, Nova 13. GO GRIZ!!!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Frigid temps and the Final Four

Well, I've gotta hand it to Mother Nature: November was pretty sweet. After a cold snap in October that made it seem as though early winter was setting in, we actually got a solid month of fall weather in November with highs in the 50s many days. In other words, perfect running weather. To be doing long runs in late November in shorts and a t-shirt is pretty awesome. But, of course, winter couldn't stay away forever and as soon as December started, the cold air moved in. From highs in the 50s and 60s to highs in the single digits with negative windchill. Such is life in South Dakota.

Regardless, my running went fairly well last week. I had at least 3 runs where my mileage exceeded the temperature, but I wasn't really cold on those runs. The relative lack of wind helped a ton, along with some judicious use of layers. For example, for my long run yesterday it was 10 degrees with a windchill of around 0. I layered up and headed out and ended up logging 16 miles and was never once really cold. In fact, after wearing my facemask for the first mile I pulled it up and never put it back down again. This morning, I headed out for a 7 miler before work and it was all of -1 degree outside. I was cold for the first mile or so, but after that felt fine. If the damned wind stays away, the cold can be very bearable. It's actually got me wondering just how cold it could be and still be okay to run outside if the wind wasn't blowing. I don't really want to find out, but I'm still curious.

Okay, enough about running. Time for some football talk. It's been an interesting two weeks if you're a Montana Grizzly fan. The Division 1 FCS playoffs started on Nov. 28 with a 1st round game against South Dakota St. After spotting SDSU a 34-14 halftime lead and then proceeding to fall behind even further, 48-21 in the 3rd quarter, the Griz reeled off 40 unanswered points in the last 20 minutes of the game to pull of a miraculous comeback and win the game 61-48. That win earned the top-seeded Griz a berth in the quarterfinals where they were 9-1 all time and 9-0 when playing in Missoula. Stephen F. Austin University from east Texas rolled into Missoula and was greeted with temps in the 20s and windchills even lower. Apparently, SDSU had awoken the sleeping bear in that first playoff game, because SFA never stood a chance. The Griz capitalized on 10 turnovers to rout the Lumberjacks 51-0. Coming into this game, SFA was the highest scoring team in the nation. Not anymore. Since falling behind to SDSU 48-21 in that first game, the Griz have now outscored their opponents 91-0 in the last 5+ quarters of football.

The win over SFA sends the Griz into the Final Four of the FCS playoffs where they will play Appalachian St. in Missoula this coming Saturday afternoon. This is the matchup many people have been looking forward to. Montana and App. St. have been the two dominant programs at the FCS level for the last decade. They rank 1 and 2 respectively in games won and have won a combined 4 national championships (3 by App. St. in 2005, 2006, and 2007 and 1 by Montana in 2001) in that period (Montana also won a championship in 1995). Montana has also finished runner-up three times (2000, 2004 and 2008) in the last 10 years (and also in 1996). Despite all their success, the two teams have only played each other once before. In the 2000 semifinals, the Griz scored a TD in overtime to beat the Mountaineers 19-16 in Missoula. This year's game should be another barn burner. Montana brings in a perfect 13-0 record and seems to have hit their stride at the perfect time. App. St. brings an explosive offense led by QB Armanti Edwards, the 2008 Walter Payton Award winner (FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, he's also a finalist for this year's award). The winner will face either Villanova or William & Mary in the national championship.

Of course, I'm heavily biased but I really think the Griz will pull this one out playing at home. Very few visiting teams leave Washington-Grizzly Stadium with a win and the way the Griz have played over the last 5 quarters of football has been amazing. But it's gonna be close; App. St. is too good of a team to not put up a fight. I say the Griz force Edwards into a turnover or two and take advantage of the Mountaineer's relatively soft defense to win the game 31-27. And then it's on to Chattanooga for the championship! GO GRIZ!!!