It takes a lot to leave Joey Counts speechless.

The climactic touchdown in one of the biggest events in Missoula sporting history sure did the trick though.

The beleaguered running back carried Montana into the end zone and past four-time defending FCS national champion and preseason No. 1 North Dakota State on Saturday, 38-35, igniting a record crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium to cap a perfect day for UM that was already ripe with storylines.

A new head coach. A mysterious and alluring offense. An ESPN-televised kickoff. The opponent to end all opponents. And a fourth-down, goal-line try with almost no time on the clock?

The Grizzlies' position required measurement in inches, not yards, just a football's tip from the goal line. Moments after being turned back by air, Counts attacked by land, waltzing through the left side on fourth-and-everything to thrust the Grizzlies ahead with 2 seconds remaining on the clock.

It was the moment of a lifetime for Counts, who missed all of 2014 with a foot injury and was held of out of much of fall camp, too.

"I can't believe it," said Counts, a locker room favorite for his boisterous attitude. "There's a lot of heart and perseverance on this team and it was calm; everybody knew what they had to do.

"We all figured they were gonna pinch down pretty hard. I just saw some light and I took it."

The season-opening defeat under smoky skies in ESPN's FCS Kickoff showcase is only the fourth loss for North Dakota State (0-1) in the past four-plus years. The Bison carried a 58-3 record into Saturday's contest, a game played before 26,472 fans, dating back to 2011.


With the nation watching -- Montana's opener was the only college football game on the slate Saturday -- North Dakota State looked early just like the team that dominated the FCS the past few years.

The Bison marched the opening kickoff 75 yards in 4 1/2 minutes, senior quarterback Carson Wentz finding running back Chase Morlock for a 27-yard touchdown on the eighth play of the possession.

Wentz would be a force all afternoon, passing for just a hair under 200 yards and rushing for another 70.

Griz fans got a taste of first-year head coach Bob Stitt's style on Montana's opening take. Montana picked up a first down to get within sight of midfield before its drive stalled. On fourth-and-4 from the 45, Stitt called for a pass play.

And missed.

Montana went for it six times on fourth down, converting four. This particular failure had no ill effects; Montana's defense forced a three-and-out and a punt.

"We were going to be aggressive and when we failed on fourth down, our defense came up big and didn't give any big plays up," Stitt said. "Everybody's got to stay calm and the defense has to go out and bail us out once in a while."

Montana gave the game its first tie on its next possession, covering 86 yards in just 1:55 to reach the end zone. Junior quarterback Brady Gustafson, making his first career start, found receiver Jamaal Jones running across the middle near the goal line for a 7-yard score.

Gustafson and Jones hooked up eight times for 119 yards and that touchdown, just one of three for the QB. He threw for 434 yards in his Grizzly starting debut, completing 30 of 55 attempts.

Another 133 of those yards went to Ellis Henderson, who had seven catches.

"I know this," Bison coach Chris Klieman began. "That's as good a set of wide receivers that we're probably gonna face this year. ... Those kids made plays."


The Grizzlies' defense, much maligned when these teams met in Fargo, North Dakota in last year's 22-10 defeat, provided the highlight on NDSU's next possession.

Deep in its own territory, North Dakota State couldn't keep the Grizzlies out of the backfield as Wentz tried to avoid defensive end Tyrone Holmes. The senior gripped the QB's jersey, whipping him around to jostle loose the football.

Though set up at the Bison 19-yard-line, Montana was forced to settle for Daniel Sullivan's 22-yard field goal to give Montana the 10-7 lead.

After Wentz rushed for his first of two TDs to help North Dakota State regain the lead in the second quarter, Sullivan added another field goal. His latter try wasn't much farther, just 24 yards.

Wentz added an 11-yard TD scramble soon after, fending off a tackler long enough to find the corner pylon.

Each side completed touchdown passes in the final 6 minutes before halftime -- Montana's to Ben Roberts for 38 yards and NDSU's a 10-yarder to Zach Vraa -- as the Bison carried a 28-21 lead to halftime.

The Griz racked up 280 yards in the first half (they had 544 for the game). The Bison allowed an average of 280.4 a game last year.

"They definitely gave us a lot of the same looks, just different players at those positions," said Bison linebacker Nick DeLuca, whose team prepared for Montana by watching last year's Colorado School of Mines film, Stitt's former program. "They ran what we expected them to do and they executed."


After Montana tied the contest 28-28 on another long pass, this one 62 yards to Henderson, and the Bison untied it to start the fourth quarter on running back King Frazier's 7-yard bruising score, Montana looked to march down for one more TD.

A botched handoff hit the turf and the Grizzlies took it down to the 2-yard-line, a first-and-goal situation, six plays later. Two straight runs of negative yards and a false start penalty left Stitt with a choice. With 2:47 to play and a seven-point hole still to make up, was this fourth-down spot one worth going for?

Apparently not. Sullivan was good from 28 yards.

"That's big-time adversity when you're down there thinking you're going to tie the game up and you have to kick a field goal," Stitt said, putting the game on his defense.

The Grizzlies responded.

The Griz stuffed Frazier on first down from his own 30. Wentz had to throw his second-down pass away thanks to pressure, then another incompletion made fourth down and forced a punt.

"I think they made some really good adjustments to some of the things we were doing to them in the second half," Klieman said. "It’s not an excuse but I don't think it helped that Carson wasn’t 100 percent and that took away our quarterback run game."

Wentz rushed for minus-5 yards after halftime.

Montana's final drive will be one for history books. The Griz went 80 yards in 16 plays in just 1:39, converting two fourth-down chances. First Gustafson hit Reese Carlson for 31 yards on a fourth-and-10 try near midfield.

Then there was Joey Counts.

"The adversity that I've gone through and the struggle with my injury has all paid off in this moment," Counts said. "I don't think you could write a better script than this."

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