It took a lot of heart and a little bit of luck for it to happen.
The casual Montana football fan may not have even noticed Saturday. Quite understandable considering the Griz put together a comeback for the ages to edge visiting Cal Poly in OT, 21-14.
Just in case you overlooked it, the Mustangs failed to score after the second quarter.
It wasn’t exactly a defensive gem by the Griz. Cal Poly piled up 308 rushing yards and 403 total.
But considering Montana’s defense was on the field for more than 36 minutes against a puzzling triple option, it’s hard to fathom the Mustangs finishing empty-handed in both the second half and overtime.
UM defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak likened Saturday to a “war zone” the way Cal Poly used cut blocks on every level almost every play. Yet his tired, aching crew found a way.
“It was a long week for me, trying to figure out a good game plan for our guys to defend the triple option,” Gregorak said. “It was a sleepless night type of week.”
Gregorak is going to have trouble catching Zs again this week with third-ranked Eastern Washington coming to town Saturday for a 1:40 p.m. kickoff. The Eagles have arguably the most dangerous threat in the Big Sky Conference in sophomore quarterback Vernon Adams.
“It’s a huge game with huge implications and it will be a playoff atmosphere,” Gregorak said. “We have to get our guys healthy from that war against Cal Poly and I expect it to be one heck of a game.
“Vernon Adams is one special player and we’ll have to dial up some stuff to try to contain him.”
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There’s mixed news on the injury front for Montana. Nosetackle Tonga Takai will be back in the lineup after missing last week with a sore ankle. Montana’s most productive cornerback, senior Anthony Goodwin, had his shoulder slip out of place last weekend but will play with the help of a brace Saturday.
The news is not as good on the offensive side, where junior running back Travon Van will sit out this week with a severely sprained ankle. He and starter Jordan Canada have had a majority of the carries this season for a 10th-ranked Griz team that is 3-1 in league play and 6-1 overall.
“That means a whole bunch of reps for Joey Counts and John Nguyen,” Montana coach Mick Delaney said Tuesday. “We’re fine. Obviously you’d love to have Travon’s breakaway speed but we don’t have it. Joey will step up. I have all the confidence in the world.”
The Griz enter Saturday’s game believing they’re capable of just about anything after last weekend. A smile still comes to Delaney’s face when he reflects back.
“Well I learned way back in grade school for miracles to happen you have to believe, right?” he said. “So we believe, especially after Saturday.
“Just an incredible milestone in 2013 Griz football. Our guys have hung in there and done so many things the right way. I looked up and thought somehow or another if we block the field goal we can tie this up.”
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The blocked field goal Delaney will probably never forget came with 2:22 remaining Saturday and his team trailing, 14-7. Griz senior linebacker and Missoula Big Sky grad Jordan Tripp came around the right side and went vertical to block a Bobby Zalud boot from 26 yards.
According to Gregorak, Tripp wasn’t even supposed to be on the right side. But special teams coach Jake Cookus listened to the senior when he suggested the move.
“Probably the chances of them kicking the football and us blocking it right in the middle of the field from the 12-yard line are slim to none actually if you took percentages,” Delaney said.
Montana’s head coach emphasized his team is re-focusing and will be ready this Saturday for what shapes up as an even tougher challenge against the Big Sky-leading Eagles (3-0, 5-2).
The game represents the ultimate challenge for the senior-oriented Grizzly defense. That unit has been far from perfect but it’s performance in the clutch has been noteworthy. Montana has allowed just 13 fourth-quarter points all season.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” Gregorak said. “We preach winning the fourth quarter and you look at the scores against us – we’re constantly striving to get better.
“We know where we make mistakes and where I can get better and the players can get better. The one thing I’m very proud of is you take a look at our second-half production and it’s been very good.”
Montana’s defense will need to be extra sharp against an Eastern offense that averages almost 500 yards a game, 324 coming via the pass.
“It’s going to be the same type of battle, maybe tougher than last week,” Delaney said. “But I know we’ll be better on offense and we’ll be every bit as good on defense as we have been.
“... They’re a good football team but so are we.”
QUICK KICKS: Delaney confirmed Tuesday that Jake Wiley has joined the football team. The 6-foot-6 California native quit the UM basketball team earlier this month and he is concentrating on the wide receiver position, targeting 2014. ... Griz reserve wideouts Taylor Wolcott and Mitch Saylor also missed last weekend’s game with leg injuries. Their status for Saturday is day-to-day. ... UM defensive tackle Alex Bienemann has been playing with a shoulder injury that may require surgery at the end of the season. ... Last year at EWU, the Griz led 26-17 with 8:26 to go in the fourth quarter, but the Eagles scored two touchdowns in the last two minutes for a 32-26 win. ... Root Sports will broadcast the game (in Missoula that includes Charter channels 60 and 560, DirecTV channel 687 and DISH channel 426).