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Special teams, defense propel Montana to win over Cal Poly, first 3-0 start since 2013

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MISSOULAย โ€” Levi Janacaro raced right up the middle and into the backfield on his way to blocking a punt.

The Montana sophomore and Missoula Big Sky grad wasnโ€™t done yet. He hustled toward the end zone to dive on the loose ball for a touchdown late in the third quarter.

The score was one of three touchdowns on special teams and defense that propelled Montana in its Big Sky opener on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. It also served as the dagger for the No. 4 Griz in a 39-7 win over Cal Poly as they improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2013.

UMโ€™s special teams and defense stepped up as its offense struggled at times coming off the bye week. In addition to Janacaroโ€™s score, the Griz had a kickoff return touchdown by Malik Flowers after not having broken off any field-flipping special teams plays through the first two games.

The defense aided the cause with a score by defensive end Justin Belknap and by keeping Cal Poly scoreless into the fourth quarter. Montanaโ€™s defense extended its streak of not allowing any points to 35 consecutive drives and 164 minutes, 57 seconds.

UM knocked out Cal Poly starting quarterback junior Conor Bruce on a hit by Jace Lewis in the second quarter. The Mustangs were already without regular starter Spencer Brasch, and that led to true freshman Kahliq Paulette taking over after they alternated quarterbacks early on.

Montanaโ€™s offense started slow but went up 7-0 in the first quarter when Sammy Akem caught a 65-yard slant touchdown pass over the middle. He finished with a team-high 84 receiving yards while quarterback Cam Humphrey was 15-of-24 passing for 215 yards, two touchdowns.

Just 41 seconds later, Belknap returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown, dropping back in coverage to intercept the pass. The Griz added to that with a 2-point conversion run by wide receiver Mitch Roberts.

The 15 points were the most for the Griz in the first quarter since Nov. 3, 2018, when they scored 20 points at Southern Utah.

Montana found some offensive rhythm with a 17-play, 74-yard drive that took 6:26, but it settled for a 24-yard field goal by Kevin Macias to go up 18-0 in the second quarter.

The Griz nearly had another explosive scoring plays when linebacker Pat Oโ€™Connell recovered an apparent fumbled and returned it for a touchdown, but it was waved off as an incomplete pass upon review. The defense rose up as Justin Ford intercepted Kahliq Paulette at the UM 9-yard line one play after Cal Poly completed a 32-yard pass on a fake punt.

Junior Malik Flowers added to the advantage by returning the opening kickoff in the second half for a 95-yard touchdown. He snuck through a seemingly too-small hole in a mass of players around the UM 25-yard line and was off to the races.

UM tacked on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Humphrey to Joey Elwell, his first career touchdown reception, in the third quarter. Janacaroโ€™s special teams score made it 39-0 before the third quarter ended.

The lone score allowed by UM came on a 2-yard run by Shakobe Harper with 10:12 left in the game.

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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