VERMILLION, S.D. — After blowing fourth-quarter leads last year, it wasn’t ideal for Montana to have South Dakota start the final frame 7 yards away from the Grizzlies’ end zone.
Montana’s defense stepped up on that drive and throughout the fourth quarter to preserve a 14-point lead coming into the final stanza for a 31-17 win over South Dakota on Saturday at the DakotaDome.
“Well, they just got to keep playing hard and chasing the ball,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “If we do that, we’ll have a good chance to be good on defense. We’re a good tackling football team. We practice it. I think for a first game our tackling was excellent. That’s what it comes down to.”
The Griz had a fourth-quarter lead in 10 of 11 games last season and ended up losing four of those games. Against South Dakota, the defense pitched a scoreless fourth quarter, just the second time that’s happened in the 12 games since Hauck returned as head coach.
“Fourth quarter is something we have emphasis on every day in practice,” said sophomore safety Robby Hauck, who had a game-high 11 tackles. “To shut them out in the fourth was a big step for our defense, and hopefully we continue to do so.”
With South Dakota facing a fourth-and-6 at Montana’s 7-yard line, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Alex Gubner made the biggest play of his first game in a Grizzly uniform. He chased quarterback Austin Simmons, who scrambled left as the pocket collapsed and picked up 1 yard before Gubner tackled him to force a turnover on downs.
Montana marched down the field with the chance to take a three-score lead, but quarterback Dalton Sneed, who threw for a career-high 430 yards, was picked off by middle linebacker Jack Cochrane in the end zone.
That forced Montana’s defense to have to step up again. It didn’t start great as cornerback Dareon Nash was called for pass interference on the first play. Simmons completed a pass for 31 yards and South Dakota got to Montana’s 26-yard line in five plays.
On fourth-and-2, South Dakota opted to take a shot down the field. Robby Hauck got matched up with Caleb Vander Esch down the right seam, read the receiver's eyes well and broke up the pass with no one between them and the end zone.
‘We were in man coverage,” Robby Hauck said, breaking down the play. “We had a little bit of a concept going. He became my man and he inside released on me, but I was able to get in position to make a play on the ball. Luckily, the D-line got pressure on them, so it made my job easy.”
After the Griz went three-and-out and punted the ball, South Dakota got into Montana territory in two plays. On the third play, senior cornerback Justin Calhoun intercepted a pass at the 22-yard line. The Griz then embarked on a drive of 6:15 to run out the clock.
Montana held South Dakota quarterback Austin Simmons to 271 yards of total offense after he ranked sixth in the FCS with 314.2 yards per game last season.
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Simmons completed 23 of 33 passes for 246 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, and he ran nine times for 25 yards. In the fourth quarter, he was 2 of 6 for 39 yards with one interception, and he ran two times for 1 yard.
“Some of the coverage things, that’s the guy that led the Missouri Valley Conference in total yards last year at quarterback, and he didn’t exactly have a big day on us,” Hauck said.
Montana receiver Samori Toure said he was confident in the defense while standing on the sideline.
“We hate practicing against them because of all the stuff that they throw at us,” he said. “We know other teams do not have fun going against them either.”
Bunch of Flowers
After leading the Big Sky Conference in kickoff return yardage last season, Malik Flowers continued his sophomore campaign with a big day. He returned four kickoffs for 116 yards, with a long of 34. His average of 29 yards was slightly better than his 27.6 from last year.
Flowers’ most impactful return came late in the second half. After South Dakota scored to pull within 14-10, Flowers fielded a short kickoff and ran it back 24 yards to Montana’s 37-yard line.
That play and the next one, a 17-yard run by Marcus Knight on a draw, turned a potential run-out-the-clock situation into an opportunity to score points. The Griz took two shots to the end zone before tacking on a 43-yard field goal by Brandon Purdy for a 17-10 lead.
Montana ended South Dakota’s streak of 16 consecutive wins in home openers, which was tied for the fifth best in the FCS. The Coyotes came into the game 35-5 in home openers at the DakotaDome.
“Any time you can win on the road, it’s good for the Grizzlies,” Robby Hauck said. “Especially snapping their home streak, it’s pretty big for our program. It was awesome.”