Grizzly football season was a study in contrasts
It was mad art. Had to be. Whoever choreographed Montana's 1998 football season spent little time on such nuances as logic.
The Grizzlies staged a wild comeback in the wilting heat of East Texas to win their first game at Stephen F. Austin. One week later they were discombobulated at home by a Southern Utah team that finished 5-6.
They roared - well, sometimes it was a growl - through the last five games of the schedule to become improbable Big Sky Conference champions.
And then they lost 52-9.
In the end, Montana won eight games, lost four and made one quick trip in the Division I-AA playoffs. In those regards, it was a mirror of 1997.
Strange mirror though.
Presumed disaster struck when senior quarterback Brian Ah Yat went down with what was revealed, two weeks later, as broken transverse processes in his vertebra early in Game 5 against Portland State. But the Grizzlies were just 2-2 at the time, and backup Sean Davis engineered a last-ditch touchdown to win that game.
Montana tried to fool Cal State Northridge into thinking Ah Yat would be back the next week. Suitably duped, the Matadors won 21-7 and, at 3-3, UM's title thoughts and playoff plans seemed all but dashed.
Then Ah Yat trotted unexpectedly onto the field against Jerome Souers and Northern Arizona, the defense proved it could play with something beyond youthful exuberance, and the special teams boomed onto the scene. The Grizzlies won the first of five in a row, and after thwarting Montana State in the mud of Washington-Grizzly for the 13th straight time on Nov. 21, appeared primed for a run deep into the playoffs.
When lowly Idaho State upset Northridge later that night with a last-minute touchdown, Montana was the outright Big Sky champion. The Grizzlies seemed to possess the kind of karma that blessed them late in 1995, when Dave Dickenson was at quarterback and nothing could go wrong, here or thousands of miles away.
Then came the draw.
The I-AA selection committee, noting their 45-35 loss to Southern Utah, gave the Grizzlies a lowly 13th seed and a trip to Macomb, Ill.
As distressing as that was for a Big Sky champion, it still didn't seem too bad: Western Illinois, the Gateway champion, owned the nation's best defense but had limped home with a one-dimensional attack. It hadn't even scored a touchdown in a closing defeat to Northern Iowa.
But somewhere in a bye week after that game and the days leading up to the playoffs, the Leathernecks and Coach Randy Ball conjured up another dimension. They came out passing as they'd never passed before, and Montana was helpless to stop them. It was 52-9 when the dust cleared.
"Their offense and their defense began feeding off each other, and it almost became a frenzy," UM coach Mick Dennehy said this week. "It was a very helpless feeling."
For the second year in a row, the Grizzlies lost their senior running back against the Bobcats. Neither Josh Branen in '97 nor Brian Gales in '98 played in the playoffs. Neither this year did their most veteran linebacker, Marcus Wilson. But it probably wouldn't have matter in Macomb.
Ah Yat went down in the third quarter with an ankle injury, but by then the cause was lost.
A whupping of 43-point proportions was something UM hadn't endured since 1985, when the Grizzlies played at Minnesota for money, got terribly beat up and lost 62-17. For perspective, Washington-Grizzly Stadium was still a pipe dream at the time, the Bobcats had won the national championship nine months earlier and Don Read was an enemy coach.
"That was a very good team that deserved to win that football game," Dennehy said of Western Illinois. "The credit needs to go to them. They prepared very well. I thought our kids were ready, but obviously we weren't as ready as they were."
Gut instincts were worthless around the Grizzlies in '98. This Montana team was more unpredictable, week by week, than any in the past dozen years.
But Dennehy had a feeling leading up to the Northern Arizona game on Oct. 17.
UM had just lost for the third time and second in league. Ah
Yat hadn't played at Northridge and his status was unsettled. The team's 12 seniors were faced with a dire homestretch.
"I don't know if they ever said it, but I'm sure they thought it," Dennehy said. "They might be the first team here in a long time that hasn't made the playoffs. They might be the first team that hasn't had a chance to win the Big Sky championship this early in the season after just a couple of games.
"Maybe they even thought they might be the first team to lose to the Bobcats in a long time, I don't know."
Beyond that, there was the prospect of Jerome Souers, UM's long-time defensive coach, coming to town as NAU's head coach.
"There was some pride involved there, with Jerome being on the other sideline," Dennehy said. "We never did harp on it a lot, but it was there."
It was the best week of preparation Dennehy can remember.
"The kids were just so focused and so plugged in," he said. "It was so crisp and precise, practices were just unbelievable. I told them on Friday, 'I don't know about you guys, but I feel better about going into this game than any other we've ever played.' "
Montana had the game in hand early and beat the Lumberjacks 33-20.
"That kind of got the ball rolling," Dennehy said.
They snuck past Eastern Washington, whistled through Idaho State and barged past Sacramento State. The Bobcat game, the most significant UM-MSU meeting yet, was bogged down by mud. Montana's defense dominated in the second half and the Grizzlies won 28-21 when Dallas Neil scored on an epic catch and run with 5:21 left.
Six hours later, Idaho State's squeaker over Northridge handed the Grizzlies the Big Sky crown.
"I'm really proud of these kids because really when all is said and done, there was only one team that did what it had to do down the stretch," Dennehy said. "Every single weekend, under a lot of pressure."
Sunday - 12/6/98
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