MISSOULA — Bob Stitt knew from the start that his No. 24 Montana Grizzlies were going to win on Saturday.
After winning the toss and deferring, the Montana defense forced a North Dakota three-and-out.
“When I saw our defense play in the first series, there was no question that we were gonna win the ballgame,” Stitt said. “It was never a question.”
Montana’s defense forced seven North Dakota three-and-outs in its dominant 41-17 win, including five straight to start the game.
The Grizzlies didn’t start out hot on offense either.
Quarterback Gresch Jensen threw an interception on Montana’s first play of the game.
By the end of the first quarter, Jensen committed three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble.
“That was a little rough,” Jensen said. “I gotta definitely protect the ball better.”
Little did Jensen know that he’d follow up that forgettable first quarter with a career-high day.
Jensen finished the game with 459 yards of total offense and four total touchdowns. He completed 22 of 35 passes for 423 yards with three passing touchdowns and two interceptions with six carries for 36 yards rushing and a rushing touchdown.
The last time a Montana quarterback passed for more than 400 yards was in 2016 when Brady Gustafson had 415 against Southern Utah.
Most of Jensen’s success came on the long ball, as 10 of his 22 completions were catches that were longer than 20 yards.
“Gresch is making beautiful throws,” wide receiver Keenan Curran said. “The guy’s got ice in his veins.”
Curran led the Griz with 151 yards receiving on five receptions with two touchdowns — the biggest day by a Griz receiver since Jerry Louie-McGee had 159 yards against Valparaiso.
Redshirt-freshman Samori Toure had the other receiving touchdown and had four catches for 72 yards. Louie-McGee finished with 92 yards on three catches.
“It’s just those guys making plays.” Jensen said of his long connections. “A lot of those, I just dump it off to receivers. … It’s just guys making plays for me.”
Montana (5-2, BSC 3-1) had success on the ground as well, out-gaining North Dakota’s run-first offense by seven yards — 162 yards to North Dakota’s 155. And 56 yards of North Dakota’s rushing total came on one long dart from James Johannesson.
Alijah Lee led all UM rushers with 16 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown. Jeremy Calhoun — who didn’t play in the second half — had seven carries for 42 yards.
All told, the Grizzlies mustered 604 yards of total offense compared to the Fighting Hawks' 343.
Montana’s defense, though, is what brought home the bacon.
Montana held North Dakota to 188 yards passing and 155 yards rushing.
North Dakota’s injuries aided Montana’s effort.
North Dakota’s starting quarterback Keaton Studsrud was extremely limited in warm-ups due to an apparent knee injury that left him walking gingerly. He didn’t end up playing.
“In warm-ups, we kinda saw him with his knee wrapped, but he wasn’t really throwing, saw him hobbling around a bit,” linebacker Josh Buss said of Studsrud. “It didn’t really change anything with how we prepared. Same mentality, same focus going into the game.”
Second-string wide receiver Travis Toivonen — who averages 12.8 yards per reception — was out as well.
The Grizzlies' stingy defense limited North Dakota's backup quarterback Brad Heidlebaugh to 56 yards on five completions. Third-string signal caller Andrew Zimmerman came in after halftime and was a bit more effective, completing 7 of 14 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown.
Montana’s defense shut down highly-touted running back John Santiago, who only had 32 yards rushing on 14 carries. In all 30 games of his, Santiago’s only had six games with less than 40 yards on the ground.
“It was definitely a great week to be in the front seven,” Buss said. “That’s what you play football for right here. … It was a fun day being a defensive player, more specifically, a linebacker or a D-lineman because there was so much running toward you.
“Coach (Jason) Semore and all the other defensive coaches got us in the right defense. It was a great week of preparation. Hats off to all the coaches and everyone just did their jobs and executed and played fast. It was a good day."
Buss led all tacklers with 14. Safety Josh Sandry had seven tackles, half a sack, an interception and a forced fumble.
Montana managed to come away with two sacks on the day. Chris Favoroso had one, while Buss and Sandry each had a half-sack.
“I'm very proud of how our defense came out and a team that was bound and determined to run the ball and they had a tough time doing it today,” Stitt said.
Montana — currently on a three-game win streak — has next week off before heading to Ogden, Utah, to play No. 16 Weber State in two weeks.