Prior to the nationally televised showdown between Montana and North Dakota State, former Griz quarterback John Edwards had the honor of raising the No. 37 flag in the southeast corner of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The No. 37 jersey, of course, has been passed down from defensive player to defensive player through the years, and it is only worn by a homegrown product. It’s a long-held tradition, and the raising of the flag symbolizes solidarity between the past and present in UM’s football program.
But Edwards, now a Billings lawyer, is also part of another tradition -- big-time Griz quarterbacks who came through Billings West High School.
Edwards, a 1998 West graduate, quarterbacked the Grizzlies to their last national championship in 2001. A handful of years later, Andrew Selle, a West grad in 2006 and now the quarterbacks coach at UM, guided the Griz to their most recent appearance in the title game in 2009.
Now here comes another West product, Brady Gustafson, who in his first collegiate start threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns and led the Grizzlies on an 80-yard drive to beat NDSU, 38-35, in the final seconds.
Edwards, who was famously nicknamed “Johnny Montana” by former coach Joe Glenn, watched Gustafson intently from the Griz sideline. He liked what he saw.
“I couldn’t imagine being in that position, frankly,” Edwards said. “I think my first start was in some mid-level Big Sky Conference game in the middle of the year. I was never faced with the situation that Brady was in against such an unbelievable opponent.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a more impressive start for somebody thrust into that position.”
Gustafson threw touchdown passes to Jamaal Jones (7 yards), Ben Roberts (38 yards) and Ellis Henderson (62 yards). He also took his share of big hits, especially in the fourth quarter when North Dakota State pinned its ears back with its blitz.
But despite a couple turnovers and mistakes, Gustafson stayed in the pocket, kept his confidence and willed Montana to its biggest win in years.
In front of a record crowd of 26,472 and countless more watching on TV, it was a monumental debut.
“(Selle) and I both were established and had been in the system for a while before we got to those big games,” Edwards said. “We never started off like this, with a new coach and a new system. The poise and the calmness he showed in times of adversity and on that last drive, that will go down in Griz lore whether he’s from West or anywhere else.”
Gustafson’s biggest moment came on a fourth-and-10 play from NDSU’s 44-yard-line with 21 seconds left. It was his do-or-die moment on that fateful final drive.
He’d misfired on his two previous throws, but Gustafson stepped up and hit Reese Carlson for 31 yards to the Bison 13, which eventually led to Joey Counts’ 1-yard TD run with two seconds left.
“Just sticking with my keys,” Gustafson said of the throw to Carlson. “Coach Stitt and coach Selle give me things to look at, and I just kind of trusted them, trusted the system and trusted the process. We were able to get the first down.”
Gustafson and Montana snapped the ball 92 times, a staple of Bob Stitt’s offense. Gustafson threw the ball 55 times, completing 30 of them. At that pace, Gustafson will throw the ball 605 times from now until November.
“That’s going to be our goal every game. Run a bunch of plays and give ourselves a chance to truly win the fourth quarter,” Gustafson said. “We run a bunch of plays and at the end of the game you just have to trust that they’re going to be weary and we’re going to be able to move the ball on them.
“Looking back on the previous couple seasons, (NDSU is) so tough in the fourth quarter. It’s amazing we were able to stick with our game plan, trust our defense and trust in our whole team.”
Stitt settled on Gustafson as his starting quarterback all the way back during spring practice and stuck with him throughout fall camp.
A wise decision, it seems.
“The thing that was special about this, he had a lot of great plays and got us in the end zone, but he had adversity where he had some plays open and he knew he missed some,” Stitt said. “He knew he had some big opportunities, but he never wavered.
“That’s what showed me that he’s ready to do this thing. He just turns the page and flushes it and moves on to the next play. It’s never going to be perfect, but you have to come back with a positive play to wipe out the one you just had. That’s what championship quarterbacks do.”