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!!!