CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- A week after being burned by special teams, Montana survived because of them Saturday.
Jerry Louie-McGee's blistering 81-yard punt return sparked the Grizzlies to a 20-14 road victory over No. 3 Northern Iowa on an evening when UM's offense was stuck in neutral.
"We've been watching him since last spring and we were so excited to get into the season to see what he could do to other people," Montana head coach Bob Stitt said. "We couldn't tackle him in spring ball or fall camp and Saint Francis had a tough time tackling him (last week). This crew had a tough time tackling him."
Louie-McGee's dash through the dome played out like everyone around the Griz redshirt freshman was in slow motion. He fielded a Sam Kuhter punt at his own 19-yard line, squirted through two defenders at the 30, stepped a few more out of their shoes at the 40 and then flew through a hole on the right side for the remaining 60.
Louie-McGee finished with 162 all-purpose yards in just his second collegiate game. He had five catches for 33 from his Z-receiver position and another that was ruled a run behind the line of scrimmage. That touch went for 11.
None of those was as influential as the punt return that quieted the 16,236 at Northern Iowa's UNI-Dome and gave the Griz a 17-7 lead with 7 minutes remaining in the first half.
The punt return likely never would have happened if not for the play of Montana's defense moments before. Set up a yard shy of midfield, the UNI offense went backward on consecutive plays. First was a Jesse Sims sack, then Ryan Johnson and Tucker Schye met at Panthers quarterback Aaron Bailey for another.
Suddenly facing third-and-long, UNI was out of scoring range.
Montana -- which allowed SFU's Lorenzo Jerome 222 return yards last week, including a 79-yard punt return TD -- was the one benefiting from special teams this time.
After watching Northern Iowa force four turnovers in its own upset victory over Iowa State last week, coach Stitt knew ball security would be key to a win Saturday.
"We were determined as an offense to not turn the ball over today," he said. "We knew how well our defense could play. To get the lead and to have special teams add to it, you had to be very careful in the second half to force their offense to earn it."
The plan came together perfectly. The Griz had zero giveaways, though a pair of fumbles came close before being recovered. After losing the turnover margin badly last week -- only five FCS teams fared worse than UM's four lost in Week 1 -- Montana went plus-2 on Saturday.
Linebacker Josh Buss forced a fumble that safety Justin Strong recovered in the first quarter and then safety Josh Sandry jumped on a loose ball during the game's final play for another recovery.
A good bye
The Griz get two weeks now to rest up and prepare for their next opponent, Sept. 24 at Cal Poly, and the bye comes at a perfect time because of Montana's mounting injuries.
Starting safety Yamen Sanders missed his second straight game to open the season while running back Jeremy Calhoun was also out Saturday. The Griz will hope two weeks is enough time to heal up an offensive line that's looking at life without two starters, too.
Center Ben Weyer, who missed all of last year with a serious knee injury, hurt his leg again against Saint Francis and did not play at Northern Iowa. Then in the second quarter, starting right guard Devon Dietrich went down holding his left knee.
The Griz offense never looked the same again.
Stitt said after the game he didn't believe either injury was too serious, but a future with Cooper Sprunk at center and Robert Luke at guard isn't how the Griz wanted to be moving forward.
A lot could change in 14 days, though, and Stitt is happy to see his team heading into its idle week on a mini two-game winning streak.
"We had two open weeks last year and lost both games going into open weeks," he said. "It's beautiful to be able to enjoy this a little bit and have a week to come out and build more team chemistry at practice.
"Relax instead of being stressed out."
Until next time
Saturday's showdown is the first half of a home-and-home series between the teams. Northern Iowa will visit Montana to open the 2018 season, the seventh overall meeting between the FCS powers, on Sept. 1 of that year.
It will be the fifth time the Griz have hosted in the rivalry with the Missouri Valley program. Montana is 4-0 in games played in Missoula, three of them in the playoffs, though the 2011 quarterfinal game was vacated due to NCAA sanctions.
The Griz have now won both bouts in Cedar Falls. The first was in 1987.