In 50 years of coaching, Mick Delaney never felt anything quite like this.
Needing a win over Montana State to reach the FCS playoffs, his Montana football team responded with a season-best performance in front of a record crowd of 26,352 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The 13th-ranked Grizzlies played as if shot out of a cannon early, leaving the 12th-ranked Bobcats shell-shocked en route to a 34-7 win under the lights.
“This is unreal -- just so many emotions right now running through me,” said Delaney, who announced he will retire at the end of the season. “… Today was probably the most special day of my coaching career because of what these young men and our coaches did. Just total domination from beginning to end.”
The win boosted Montana to 8-4 and likely earned it a second straight postseason berth. The Grizzly players and coaches will gather at 9 a.m. Sunday morning to watch ESPNU and find out where and when they play next weekend.
Montana and MSU (8-4) finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Big Sky Conference standings with Idaho State, each team at 6-2. Montana State blew its a chance to tie Eastern Washington for league bragging rights but Bobcats’ skipper Rob Ash still felt compelled to salute the 71-year-old Delaney afterwards.
“I just want to congratulate Coach Delaney on the victory and wish him the best in his retirement,” said Ash, whose institution ran a full-page ad celebrating Montana’s skipper in Saturday’s Missoulian. “He’s a quality man. He’s a Montana man. He’s been at both (UM and MSU) and many other places. He deserves a lot of credit for his career and I wish him the best of luck in his future.”
Montana scored all but seven of its points in the first half, storming to a 17-0 lead in the opening frame. Key to the quick start was a deceptive running game that saw quarterback Jordan Johnson, who nursed a severely sprained ankle all week, rack up 82 yards on option keepers.
“Tonight reminded me of that run we had in 2011 when we were just rolling people,” said the QB, alluding to a run to the playoff semifinals. “It just felt like we could do no wrong. Hopefully we can take that and make another run through the playoffs.”
The Griz cashed in on their first possession with a 42-yard field goal by Wyoming transfer Daniel Sullivan. The season-long boot was set up by a 44-yard scamper by senior running back Jordan Canada.
Montana free safety Matt Hermanson recorded his first of three interceptions against MSU quarterback Jake Bleskin on the Cats’ second possession. The Griz took over at the Montana State 39-yard line and used a 29-yard option run by Johnson to help set up a 1-yard dive for a touchdown by Canada with 6:12 left in the first period.
Late in the first period the Grizzlies struck again after a Tonga Takai interception. A 43-yard option run by Johnson and a 25-yard pass from Johnson to his roommate, tight end Mitch Saylor, set up a 4-yard TD pass from Johnson to Canada. It marked Canada’s first TD reception in his storied career.
Sullivan added a second field goal from 29 yards away at 9:18 in the second quarter. Roughly six minutes later Saylor scored on a 4-yard TD pass by Johnson.
“Down on the goal line they’re expecting us to run it, downhill run with our heavy personnel, and I sold the block for a second and took off to the corner,” explained Saylor, who had a career day with six catches for 103 yards. “Jordan (Johnson) did a good job keeping the play alive, scrambling out, then did what he does best throwing a catchable ball."
Montana State had two first-half drives thwarted inside the Montana 10-yard line thanks to turnovers. Bleskin had four interceptions and a lost fumble by intermission. His team finished with seven turnovers.
“You can’t underestimate the magnitude of ending drives that way time after time,” Ash said. “It would have been a much closer and more interesting game if we would have been able to hang on to it and put the ball in the end zone a couple times.”
The Grizzlies scored their only points of the second half with 12:53 remaining. Johnson hit Missoula product Josh Janssen with a 9-yard TD pass and Sullivan added the PAT to make the score 34-0.
Montana State got on the board on a Chad Newell 1-yard run with 5:59 left. From there Montana drained the clock, snaring the first Brawl of the Wild win by the home team in six years.
After the game, defensive end Zack Wagenmann, who set a record for career sacks at Montana (33.5) with one in the second half, confided that his coach’s impending retirement provided some extra incentive.
“Coach means a lot to all of us,” he said. “He recruited a lot of us. He has been through everything with us, through thick and thin. And it means a lot to us to send him out the right way.”