Head coach Bob Stitt wanted to enhance the excitement for Montana's annual spring game. Well it's tough to come up with a better climax to spring practices than the waning moments of Saturday's final scrimmage.
Discarding any notion of a tie, Montana's White team went for the win with a two-point conversion down by one in the final minute. In a scrimmage that at times felt more like a true game, the Maroon's Ryan McKinley got a hand on the pass in the end zone to preserve his side's 27-26 victory in front of what remained of a few thousand rain-soaked fans at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
McKinley's lunging break-up, which disrupted a potentially game-winning pass from senior quarterback Chad Chalich to redshirt freshman receiver Kobey Eaton, capped a spring game that pitted UM's No. 1 offense -- teamed with its second-string defense as Maroon -- against the top defense and offensive reserves as White.
Strength versus strength.
"That's what you want as a player. You want to be in that position, on the line like that in front of all these fans," McKinley said. "I couldn't have asked for a better ending to be honest with you."
The play also finished Montana's spring drills, which went 15 practices deep dating back to March 21. Back then the Griz had many unknowns up and down their roster, replacing tons of graduated talent on defense and offensively at wide receiver. Though Saturday's game provided an exhilarating outcome, finding reliable players among the untested was always more important than the score.
Montana appears able to tally that one in the win column as well.
The scrimmage opened with star-in-the-making Jerry Louie-McGee returning the kickoff 99 yards right up the middle for a touchdown. The redshirt freshman's score put the Maroon ahead 7-0, but was just the beginning of his monster day.
Louie-McGee added long touchdown catches of 71 and 67 yards -- those scores working in the White's favor -- to reach 175 yards receiving in all, his second straight scrimmage over the century mark.
Fellow WR newcomer James Homan, a junior transfer from Blinn (Texas) College, also scored once for each side and totaled 121 yards on just four catches.
"We didn't know when spring ball started what we had in those guys," Stitt said of his unseasoned receiving corps. "Now everyone knows them; our team knows what they can do.
"Through these scrimmages, doing it when it counts, gives them a lot of confidence going into the next phase."
The Maroon upped its lead to 13-0 midway through the second quarter when another young receiver, H-back Colin Bingham, found the end zone for the first time. The redshirt freshman and Missoula Big Sky product caught a ball from senior quarterback Brady Gustafson, cutting up field inches from the left sideline and making his way 44 yards to the end zone.
Redshirt freshman kicker Tim Semenza missed the extra point, the first of a parade of issues in the kicking game on the rainy afternoon. Semenza also went wide on field goals from 39 and 26 yards. White kicker Brandon Purdy, another redshirt freshman, was blocked by junior cornerback Shane Moody from 47 and senior Harrison Greenberg also had a PAT knocked down by McKinley after a bobbled snap threw off the attempt's timing.
Chalich pulled the White within 13-7 still in the first quarter when he gave Homan his first score from 24 yards out. That was a major chunk of Chalich's yards for the day; he completed just 7 of 20 attempts for 56 yards.
On the other side, Gustafson tossed off a cool 300 yards with three scores, a 51-yard bomb to Keenan Curran giving Maroon the 20-7 advantage before halftime. His sub-.500 completion percentage (15 of 32) evened out those numbers, though that wasn't too worrisome in Stitt's eyes.
"It's more about the decisions than the actual result in weather like this -- especially in spring," Stitt said. "We'll go back into the film room, but our guys made some good checks."
"It's great in Year 2 just being able to do whatever I think will work," Gustafson said about reading defenses at the line. " ... It's really easy to see something that'll work and just go to it right away. That really helps us keep our tempo for the games."
QB Reese Phillips, a junior who transferred from Kentucky this offseason, has started to display similar abilities after just a month in Stitt's system. He helped pull the White back into Saturday's game, throwing both of those long touchdowns to Louie-McGee in a third quarter that featured a running clock.
"I love that, the hand signals and how the quarterback makes the calls," Louie-McGee said of the offense. "Reese was giving great calls and that's why I was making the plays."
Phillips finished with 233 yards on just 8 for 14 passing. He did have one interception, a pick by redshirt freshman Jerrin Williams, his third in three spring scrimmages. But Phillips also continues to struggle facing the pass rush, taking six sacks against the second-string defense. That included three by defensive end Tucker Schye. The junior has eight in three scrimmages.
After the White tied it 20-20, Gustafson and the Maroon answered in just two plays. A 55-yard run by junior Treshawn Favors set up a Gustafson-to-Homan connection for a 15-yard TD to go up 27-20 with 6 minutes to play.
With time winding down, Chalich guided the offense 70 yards in 14 plays to score, his 11-yard scamper with 25 seconds remaining capping the march.
The game ended a play later on McKinley's fingertips, a thrilling final play Griz fans will have to remember for the next four-plus months. The season opener back at Wa-Griz against Saint Francis on Sept. 3 is only 133 days away.
NOTES: Montana announced its 2017 spring game will be held at Naranche Stadium in Butte next April. The Griz alternate spring games at home and away from Missoula biennially.