HILLSBORO, Ore. — Ahead of Montana’s football matchup with Portland State, defensive coordinator Jason Semore gave his players a pep talk.
It’s one that Griz safety Justin Strong remembered well.
“He just looked in my eyes and said, ‘When you step on the field, you got your brothers. There’s a couple ways to handle adversity,’” Strong recalled. “‘Some people handle with anger and some people handle with accepting it and playing happy.’ He said, ‘You’re gonna be a savage or you’re gonna play against savages.’ I decided to play angry and play fast.”
And play like a savage he did.
Strong finished the game with three interceptions for 116 yards and a touchdown, and four tackles. He also picked off a Josh Kraght pass on a two-point conversion attempt to lead his Grizzlies to a 45-33 win at Hillsboro Stadium.
All of that came with his left hand still rendered relatively useless in a black cast to protect his thumb.
“It was huge,” Montana coach Bob Stitt said of Strong’s performance. “J. Strong gets four picks with one hand? We’re looking forward to him getting the club off and maybe he’ll have eight (interceptions) in a game with two hands.”
Strong’s performance impressed Montana’s redshirt freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen, too.
“Our defense was resilient today,” Jensen said. “What can you say about Justin Strong? That guy’s awesome.”
Jensen completed 23 of 38 passes with a touchdown and two interceptions. He also had three yards rushing. He also wasn’t sacked once.
"I definitely think I have room for improvement,” Jensen said. “Just the little things. I'll get it worked on and keep working at it.
“These wins are tough to come by. You really gotta keep grinding away at it and I think it's just the monkey off the back and now get a move on. After how last week went, really wanted to get back out here and it felt good getting out here again and looking forward to next week."
The win was Montana's first on the road since 2016 at Northern Iowa. And it wasn’t an easy win.
Portland State stayed close until the last minute of the game when the Vikings marched down the field on a 10-play, 69 yard drive.
Kraght found Trent Riley for a 25-yard pass to bring Portland within 10. The Vikings elected to go for two, but Montana linebacker Connor Strahm had other plans.
Strahm picked off Kraght and booked it down the sideline for a 98-yard PAT return to put two points on the board to put the final nail in the coffin.
“It was a great play but we needed it because we missed the extra point [on the last touchdown],” Stitt said. “If they get that (PAT), they’re down by eight. It’s a one score game. We weren’t in the clear and Connor made a great play. It was great to see him make a play. He’s got some speed — he used to be a receiver.”
Other scoring for Montana came from running back Jeremy Calhoun.
Calhoun had two touchdowns on the day with 124 yards rushing — a game-high for the junior.
“He hasn't had a 100 yard game yet in his career,” Stitt said. “He's in his third year and he's scored a lot of touchdowns but never had a 100-yard game. It was huge for him but also huge for the offensive line to block for a 100-yard rusher."
The last time a Montana rusher had more than 100 yards rushing was last season against Sacramento State when John Nguyen put up 116.
Wide receiver/quarterback combo Makena Simis found the end zone as well in the second quarter on a two-yard run while he was lined up behind center.
The only receiving touchdown of the day came at the hands of wide receiver Keenan Curran who hauled in a 60-yard pass from Jensen in the third quarter.
Placekicker Brandon Purdy connected on three field goals on Saturday with the longest being a 34-yard attempt in the first quarter.
On the defensive side of things aside from Strong, linebacker James Banks had 11 tackles, seven of which were unassisted. Josh Buss had seven tackles before leaving the game after taking a huge hit in a vulnerable position.
"I think Josh is gonna be OK,” Stitt said. “He took a blow and we'll definitely review that play and send it in. He was a defenseless player and their player went after his shoulder/head area and that's what we're trying to take out of the game are hits like that.
"He was definitely defenseless and I think he's gonna be OK. I hope he's gonna be OK. There's no part in our game for hits like that. That's what we're trying to control and that was disappointing to see that happen."
Montana hits the road again Saturday as it takes on Idaho State in Pocatello, Idaho.