MISSOULA — Montana’s seniors will never be able to say they beat Montana State — barring an improbable rematch in the FCS national championship game.
It’s part of the legacy they’ll leave behind in Missoula, and maybe a defining component of it.
However, they have broken individual records and been key in helping turn around the program since coach Bobby Hauck’s return. They laid the groundwork by leading once-proud Montana to its first playoff appearance since 2015, earning the No. 6 seed in the nation in the process.
But the players who follow through on the return to dominance — like winning Montana’s first Big Sky title since 2009 or making a deep playoff run — are surely to be remembered more. This year’s group came up short on the former but now has a chance to go to work on the latter.
Montana’s 17 seniors have ensured they won’t be remembered as the class that never made it to the playoffs, but they don’t want to be a one-and-done team. Now they get a chance to alter their legacy when they try to make a postseason run beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday in Washington-Grizzly Stadium against Southeastern Louisiana in the second round of the playoffs.
“It’d mean everything,” Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed said about making a deep run. “We have goals before the season that the team writes down and that we strive for. This is one of them: Get to the playoffs and make a run in the playoffs.”
Montana can accomplish something that hasn’t been done this decade if it wins just one playoff game. A victory would put the Griz into the quarterfinals for the first time since Hauck led them to the title game in 2009. They did make the semifinals in 2011, but those playoff games are vacated and no longer officially recognized as part of the team’s history.
Believe it or not, Montana has a losing record in the playoffs this decade, going 2-3. Count the vacated 2011 postseason run, and that increases to just 4-4. That win total is not much, especially when it’s considered that the Griz won three playoff games in 2008 and three more in 2009.
For Montana’s in-state seniors who grew up knowing the team’s success in Hauck’s first stint, a drought like the Griz have experienced was unimaginable. Their first three seasons playing at Montana resulted in the program’s first three-year stretch without a playoff appearance since 1990-92.
Now those seniors get a much-needed, well-deserved chance to correct those ills. And a joyous march to the semifinals could help result in redemption and topple the feeling of the four consecutive losses to MSU, namely the blowout loss this year after the heartbreaking loss on a goal line fumble last year.
“It’s very exciting,” senior tight end Colin Bingham, a Missoula native, said about returning to the playoffs. “It’s a little novel, but it’s something I’ve grown up seeing. When I came here, I expected to play a lot of playoff football, so it’s good to be here. It’s been fun preparing for a new team and seeing something different. Just fun to be playing in December.”
Added senior safety Josh Sandry, a Bigfork native: “It’s an awesome feeling. You play all year for it, you work all offseason for this time of year. For me and everybody on the team, we’ve never been in this position, so it’s new for us, and we’re excited.”
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Some of the seniors went through two coaching staffs, and a few even had contact with three because they were recruited by former coach Mick Delaney and then spent their first three years under ex-coach Bob Stitt.
Those who have been here for five years were redshirts who didn’t get to play when Montana last made the playoffs in 2015 in Stitt’s first year.
“This senior class, we’ve been working for a long, long time,” senior left guard Angel Villanueva said. “To be in this position is an awesome feeling, and knowing that we’ve brought this back to the city of Missoula and state of Montana, it’s a huge feeling of excitement.
“It obviously comes with pressure, but we’ve been dealing with pressure for years now. This is exactly what we play for. This is exactly the position we want to be in. We want to see where we can take it.”
The importance of returning to the playoffs among the fans, campus and city isn’t lost on the players, even as they try to block out the outside noise.
“The whole team and the whole city are fired up to have the playoffs back here in Missoula,” Sneed said. “It’s been a long time coming. This city wants Montana football to be successful. They’re happy that we’re here, and so are we. We’re ready to go.”
Added Sandry: “I think the whole city of Missoula has been hungry for a playoff run for a long time. Now that it’s finally here, it’s pretty exciting. We’re excited, too.”
As Montana’s seniors prepare for a defining moment in the playoffs, they’re trying to not look too far ahead in the postseason, where their path potentially could include a rematch with Big Sky foe Weber State in the quarterfinals.
“I don’t think we’re out to prove anything,” Sandry said. “Just go out there and play Montana football like we have been all year and just put ourselves in a position to win.”
Added Villanueva: “As players, we put the whole trust in all the coaches and let them guide us, let them steer us because as the end of the day, they know best for us, for this program, for this university. It’s just about trusting a process, going to work every single day and knowing at the end of the week that the coaches are going to do everything in their power to hopefully come out with a win.”
Bingham, a future doctor and the son of a Grizzly who’s ever passionate about the team, takes the approach of why set the sights low when it's possible aim high.
“Winning a national championship, that’s the only goal right now,” Bingham said. “School’s about over, so we can pretty much put 100 percent of our focus into football. That’s the plan right now: To make a run and win a national championship. We believe we can.”