MISSOULA — Montana was going to be opening the playoffs against an offense that knows how to rack up yards and points.
Turns out the Griz will get the pass-heavy attack of Southeastern Louisiana instead of the balanced offense of Villanova. The Lions pulled off a come-from-behind 45-44 win in the first round on Saturday in Hammond, Louisiana.
Sixth-seeded Montana hosts Southeastern Louisiana in the second round at 1 p.m. MT Saturday in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The game will be streamed on ESPN3.
It'll be the Grizzlies' 24th all-time appearance in the playoffs, the most in FCS/I-AA history, but they'll be hosting their first postseason game since Nov. 28, 2015, and will be playing in their first playoff game since Dec. 5, 2015. Montana finished the regular season 9-3 overall and 6-2 in the Big Sky in coach Bobby Hauck's second season of his second stint.
SELA (8-4) is an at-large team out of the Southland and was less than 1 yard away from being the champion before losing a fumble in the closing minute of a 28-27 loss to Nicholls, which won its opening-round game. The Lions' only other game against a playoff team this season was a 34-0 win over No. 8 seed Central Arkansas.
SELA and Montana have never played before.
The Lions have 11 all-conference picks. On the first-team are offensive lineman Pat Allen and defensive back Ferlando Jordan. On the second team are tight end Bransen Schwebel, offensive lineman Jarius Gooch, defensive lineman Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund, linebacker Alexis Ramos and defensive back Xavier Lewis. The third team includes quarterback Chason Virgil, wide receiver Austin Mitchell and running back Devonte Williams, who was also a third-team punt returner.
Frank Scelfo is the Southland coach of the year. He's 12-11 in two seasons at SELA, his first head-coaching gig. The Lions are making their first playoff appearance since 2014 and just the third in their history.
While the Lions hosted the game because of the bidding process, they were an underdog against Villanova (9-4), an at-large team out of the CAA that was ranked eighth in the latest STATS FCS Top 25, one spot behind Montana. SELA wasn't ranked.
The Lions erased a 17-point halftime deficit against Villanova by showcasing their prolific, potent passing offense. They finished the regular season third in the FCS in passing offense (330.2 yards), seventh in total offense (473.8 yards) and 10th in scoring offense (36.6 points). Montana, meanwhile, is allowing 280.3 passing yards per game, 116th out of 124 FCS teams, but is giving up just 25.5 points on average, 46th in the nation.
SELA passed for 508 yards against Nova and put up 602 yards of total offense with their two-quarterback system. Virgil completed 36 of 49 passes for 474 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, while running four times for 5 yards. He's now averaging 279.6 passing yards per game and has 21 touchdowns to 11 interceptions.
SELA wide receiver CJ Turner caught 11 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns, including what proved to be the game-winning score on fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line. Schwebel was the main receiving threat in the first half and finished with six catches for 119 yards.
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Wide receiver Javon Conner also went over 100 yards, catching nine passes for 102 yards and one touchdown. Mitchell had seven catches for 43 yards.
Lions backup QB Cole Kelley operated a running aspect of the offense, rushing six times for 6 yards and two touchdowns. He was 2-of-5 passing for 34 yards with one interception, a 78-yard pick-6. Williams ran the ball 12 times for 78 yards and one score and caught three passes for 62 yards.
Mitchell, Turner, Schwebel, Williams and Conner are now all over 500 receiving yards on the season.
SELA trailed 31-14 at the intermission but rallied to tie the game 31-31, on a field goal, and 38-38. The field goal was a rarity because the Lions had attempted just one in the past four games and had made just six of nine coming into the game. They prefer to go for it on fourth downs, converting 21 of 32 (65.6%) before Saturday, the seventh-best conversion rate in the FCS. They picked up three of five fourth downs Saturday while going just four of 13 on third downs.
Villanova took a 44-38 lead on a 50-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, had the PAT blocked, and SELA responded with seven points to take its first lead since 7-3.
The Wildcats then made a push for the end zone instead of trying to set up a field goal. They had a 40-yard, one-handed, diving touchdown catch waived off because of offensive pass interference with 91 seconds to play. They turned the ball over on downs when pressure from a safety blitz forced a throw to be just beyond a wide-open wide receiver for what would've been a go-ahead touchdown.
The Lions outscored Nova 31-13 after halftime. They're a strong second-half team like Montana, outscoring opponents 210-118 in the final 30 minutes.
SELA registered eight tackles for loss and two sacks. The Lions came in averaging 8.7 TFLs per game, sixth in the FCS, and 3.55 sacks per game, fourth in the nation. They made some hard-hitting tackles but still gave up 501 yards after coming in allowing 389.5 yards and 24.1 points.
Nova quarterback Daniel Smith finished 19-of-30 passing for 283 yards with four touchdowns. He was also the team's leading rusher, running seven times for 90 yards and one score.
SELA had at least one opportunity to grab an interception but dropped the pass. The Lions' 16 picks this year were the seventh most in the country coming into the game. Jordan has five of those interceptions and returned three of them for touchdowns.
They still have a turnover margin of minus-4. They've gained 16 interceptions and six fumbles, but they've been picked off 13 times and lost 13 fumbles, putting the ball on the ground 21 times.