HUNTSVILLE, Texas - The Montana Grizzlies came in with one stingy defense, so it had to be a shock to everybody in black pants that Sam Houston State averaged more than 11 yards per first-half snap Friday.
By the end of the unbeaten Bearkats' 31-28 Football Championship Subdivision semifinal win at Bowers Stadium, the Griz defense reappeared. That coupled with some nice throws and one pump-fake-and-go by Jordan Johnson put a victory in Montana's grasp.
A victory didn't seem likely after the unbeaten and top-ranked Bearkats roared out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead, but the Griz made adjustments.
"We made a couple," said linebacker Caleb McSurdy. "A couple coverage adjustments just to get guys where they needed to be in the alleys, stuff like that."
"We pinched a little bit more inside," Griz coach Robin Pflugrad added. "Our linebackers were in better position - and that was only about a couple feet. In that type of offense, if you're out of position by just a couple feet you're in trouble. And we had a couple communication issues in the secondary in the first half that they got two long runs off of. We shored that up."
For much of the second half the Bearkats, 14-0 and owners of a 16-game win streaking dating back to 2010, couldn't get anything going. In fact the Griz defense started UM's rally with McSurdy batting, then catching a pass by Sam Houston's Brian Bell and taking it 61 yards near the end the first half.
"I was supposed to blitz," McSurdy said. "I was a little late on the pressure. When you're late you're supposed to bat it down or something. I was able to catch it. Guys had a couple huge blocks for me."
That cut the gap to 28-14.
After halftime Sam Houston's first five possessions included three three-and-outs, a "three-and-field goal," and a drive that ended in a quick kick.
Montana closed to 31-28 on scoring runs from Jordan Canada and Johnson. A raucous crowd of 12,367 had mellowed some before the Griz, misfiring near midfield, had to punt with 6 minutes left in the game.
Then Tim Flanders regained command, rushing for 63 yards to keep the ball in SHSU's hands. But for a time - a long enough stretch to get the Griz back in the game - UM's D was stellar.
"I don't think there was ever a time on this team when we didn't think we were going to come back and make a game of this," said Griz defensive tackle Bryan Waldhauser, who had three tackles. "I'm proud to be a part of this team, I love the guys on it. We just came up a game short."
Another No. 20
Flanders had 38 yards in Sam Houston's 49-13 quarterfinal win over Montana State, when Richard Sincere had 160 yards to spark the Bearkats.
The Griz were able to get a handle on the option - Sincere had one 36-yard run among his 49 yards total - but not the zone runs of Flanders, who had a school-record 287 yards rushing.
"You just can't stop one of their guys and be successful," said Pflugrad. "You have to stop about four guys on the perimeter, including that quarterback. And we just didn't get it done, especially that first half."
Flanders was key with his jump-cutting and breakaway speed. He reminded Pflugrad of another No. 20.
"He has some gears," Pflugrad. "He has a great jump cut - he looks like Barry Sanders on the jump cut. There's nobody else I can compare him to."
Flanders, a sophomore from Midwest City, Okla., would probably look good in an Oklahoma State uniform.
"There are a lot of people he could play for," said Sam Houston coach Willie Fritz. "And I'm glad we got him."
Another sophomore who had a big day was Johnson, who threw for 277 yards and ran for 64.
Montana's QB had his highlight on a first-and-10 from UM's 46. He kept the ball on a read zone left, faked a throw to get around Darnell Taylor and - with Antwon Moutra providing escort - went 54 yards to cut the gap to three points.
"The defensive end played flat and I just pump-faked," said Johnson. "Every time the defensive end played flat they'd loop a linebacker around. On that play they didn't for whatever reason."
Sam Houston's defense was a thorn early, recovering one fumbled exchange in the first quarter and forcing another in the third. The turnovers translated to 10 Bearkat points, but Johnson and the Griz hung in.
"They're probably the fastest defense we've played, I'd say," said Johnson, who had a TD rushing and passing, with one interception. "Including Tennessee. They rally to the ball so hard.
"Our thing was we started wearing them down in the second half. We just needed one more and didn't get it."
"I thought Jordy had a good game," Pflugrad said. "Even though he had the turnovers ... I thought he played an admirable game, especially the second half."
Eight seniors played major roles on the defense, including McSurdy, the Big Sky Conference defensive player of the year. The Griz were one year removed from a 7-4 season that perhaps lowered expectations.
A year later they went 11-3.
"It's unfortunate to go out with a loss, but again, a lot of preseason predictions didn't even see us making the playoffs," McSurdy said. "It doesn't feel good right now, but we did a lot of good things. Obviously I'd like to be playing in the national championship and go out with a win, but that's not what happened."
Sam Houston is now 1-1 in FCS semifinal games, with both games coming against Montana. ... UM is 1-3 in semifinal road games. ... Jabin Sambrano ended up tied for 10th for career TD catches at UM with Matt Wells (1992-95). Sambrano made his 19th on Friday. ... UM's Brody McKnight finished with 388 career points. That's No. 3 in Griz history. ... Montana's 103 net rushing yards Friday was its lowest total of the year. ... Sam Houston gained just 104 yards of offense the second half. ... Hit of the game goes to Griz CB Houston Roots, who tea-kettled Flanders on a third-down option for a 7-yard loss.