The Montana Grizzlies’ offense certainly didn’t hit on all cylinders Saturday, but a win is a win is a Nguyen.
Following Peter Nguyen’s 90-yard punt return for a first-quarter touchdown, the No. 14 Griz came out swinging, using solid defense and short fields to score a smoky, 34-14 nonconference win over Liberty.
It wasn’t pretty, and not just because of haze from the surrounding fires. Montana threw for just 95 yards and a Washington-Grizzly Stadium crowd of nearly 25,000 – including four dozen members of Montana’s Hall of Fame 2001 national championship team – saw Liberty take most of the snaps through three quarters.
Yet the Flames never challenged, falling behind 24-0. They burst a few bubble screens but couldn’t get a handle on special teams and offense.
“I was really proud of our defense that first half,” Griz coach Mick Delaney said. “They were just tenacious. We got a lot of three-and-outs, we got some turnovers – which we emphasized hard all week.”
A fumble recovered by John Kanongata’a and a long interception return by fellow linebacker Jordan Tripp set up one-play scoring drives. Dan Moore ran untouched 32 yards on an inside zone play, and Trent McKinney ran in from 6 yards on a read-zone.
Those made it 21-0 at 9:47 of the second quarter, and Chris Lider hit a 42-yard field goal midway through the period.
But it was Nguyen’s return – a twisting thing of beauty in which escaped punter Grant Bowden, then pivoted and watched safety Andrew Jauch fly into the bench at the Liberty 28 – that seemed to galvanize the Griz.
“We knew that was going to happen pretty soon,” said Delaney. “We talked about it all week and yesterday and this morning at early meetings. I’m just extremely proud of Peter and the special teams guys.
“I’m proud of the defense and you know I’m proud of the offense.”
Delaney, who has spent a good part of his coaching career guiding running backs, hammered home a key stat: Montana ran for 201 yards and allowed the Flames just 21.
So much for time of possession; Liberty won that by almost 9 minutes.
“When you get a couple one-play touchdown (drives), you’re not going to have the football very long,” Delaney said. “We still rushed for 200 yards and that always makes my heart beat a little faster.”
Moore ran for 92 yards, including a handful of short-yardage rumbles that kept scoring drives alive. He caught two passes, both of them one-handed. His 11-yard catch preceded McKinney’s 2-yard scoring flip to Greg Hardy that put the Griz up 31-7 at 12:20 of the fourth quarter.
“Their defense was good,” Moore said of the Flames, who had linebacker Nick Sigmon – a sophomore who wasn’t on Liberty’s two-deep – making a game-high 11 tackles. “That defensive line was really good, I thought. Once we started going back to the inside zone (run) they started putting more people inside the box and getting closer to the line, which opened up the passing game.”
Hardy’s TD capped the longest drive of the day for UM: 13 plays, 54 yards. After Liberty countered with a 31-yard scoring pass from Josh Woodrum to Ryan Ferguson, drawing to 31-14, the Griz drove to a 46-yard Lider field goal midway through the final period.
The Griz ran the final 1:53 off the clock after linebacker Nick Holt forced a fumble and Justin Whitted recovered.
A good chunk of Montana’s offense came in the final 15 minutes.
“We scored quickly a few times,” said Tripp, who had nine tackles to go with his 58-yard interception return. “When they do score it’s going to be quick, and sometimes you’re going to be on the field for a while. That’s just the way it goes. Our job is to get them back the ball as much as we can.
“You saw in the fourth quarter they got the ball and they took care of business.”
The Griz took care of things on defense and on special teams, hemming in standout kick returner Kevin Fogg and getting big kicks from Lider and punter Stephen Shaw.
And then there was Nguyen.
“He had to beat the punter,” Moore reminded, drawing laughter. “And I was worried there for a second. But he had a great block and made him miss, and I knew he was gone from there.
“Our team was fired up on the sideline – we were about to run on the field and get a penalty, we were so excited. But it was huge. It was a huge momentum turn for us, and the next time our offense and special teams got on the field we were ready to go.”
|Montana 34, Liberty 14|
|UM – Peter Nguyen 90 punt return (Chris Lider kick), 5:54.|
|Key play: Grizzlies Tyrone Holmes and Sean Murray sniff out a third-and-9 screen pass, setting up a 48-yard punt.|
|UM – Dan Moore 32 run (Lider kick), 12:10.|
|Drive: 1 play, 32 yards, :06 time of possession.|
|Key play: Griz corner Nate Harris forces a fumble from Liberty receiver Pat Kelly; John Kanongata’a recovers for UM.|
|UM – Trent McKinney 6 run (Lider kick), 9:47.|
|Drive: 1 play, 6 yards, :08 time of possession.|
|Key play: UM linebacker Jordan Tripp steps in front of a pass meant for tight end Justin Gunn and returns it 58 yards.|
|UM – FG Lider 42, 6:52.|
|Drive: 6 plays, 18 yards, 1:33 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Zack Wagenmann’s third-down sack forces a Liberty punt; Moore carries the ball 13 yards to put the Griz in FG range at Liberty’s 26.|
|L – Pat Kelly 14 pass from Josh Woodrum (John Lunsford kick), 10:22.|
|Drive: 6 plays, 39 yards, 2:16 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Moore has the ball stripped by Liberty’s Kevin Fogg at the end of a 4-yard gain; Woodrum hits Kelly for 9 yards down to UM’s 25 on third-and-5.|
|UM – Greg Hardy 2 pass from McKinney (Lider kick), 12:20.|
|Drive: 13 plays, 54 yards, 4:49 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Moore gains 3 yards on fourth-and-2, then takes a third-down screen pass 11 yards to set up first-and-goal.|
|L – Ryan Ferguson 31 pass from Woodrum (Lunsford kick), 10:11.|
|Drive: 5 plays, 92 yards, 2:00 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Passes of 22 yards to Ferguson and 24 yards tight end Brandon Apon move the ball past midfield.|
|UM – FG Lider 46, 5:34.|
|Drive: 12 plays, 46 yards, 4:37 time of possession.|
|Key plays: Jordan Canada runs for 3 yards on third-and-1 and Moore goes 3 yards on fourth-and-3 down to Libert’s 33; in between McKinney goes 18 yards on a read-zone play.|
|Average per carry||0.8||4.4|
|Sacks by-yards lost||1-8||5-32|
|Time of possession||34:23||25:37|
|Sacks by-yards lost|
|Thomas Nelson 1-8.|
|Kevin Fogg 1-1.|
|Missed field goals|
|John Lunsford 52 (WL)|
|Sacks by-yards lost|
|Wagenmann 2-16, Tonga Takai 1-7, Caleb Kidder 1-5, Trevor Rehm 1-4.|
|Nate Harris 1-0. Nick Holt 1-0. John Kanongata’a 0-1, Justin Whitted 0-1.|
|Jordan Tripp 1-58.|
|Missed field goals|
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247, at firstname.lastname@example.org or @Fritz_Neighbor on Twitter.