Lane Hovey scores a touchdown for Montana versus St. Francis (MTN Sports photo)

MISSOULA – The 10th largest crowd in Washington-Grizzly Stadium history didn’t have much to cheer for early. But Montana lifted the fans to the feet often in the second half. The 13th ranked Grizzlies opened the 2016 season with a 41-31 victory over St. Francis.

The Red Flash from the Northeast Conference rarely play in an atmosphere like what they experienced Saturday night. And head coach Chris Villarreal admitted they had never faced an offense that runs at the pace of UM’s spread attack. But they held the upper hand through the first half. Montana only scored two field goals in the first two quarters, gaining only 152 yards, and turning the ball over three times. St. Francis led 10-6 at the break, thanks to a 4-yard touchdown pass from Zack Drayer to Marcus Alston late in the half.

The offenses woke up to start the second half. Both teams found the endzone on their first drive in the 3rd quarter. Montana trailed 17-13 late in the 3rd, when Brady Gustafson found Justin Calhoun in the corner of the endzone. The freshman kept one foot in bounds for an 11-yard score. Montana went up 20-17, and never trailed again.

Gustafson threw two more touchdowns in the 4th quarter, a 16-yard toss to Nebraska transfer Lane Hovey off an option play, and a 75-yard bomb down the sidelines to Keenan Curran, to put Montana up 34-17. But the Red Flash would not go away. Lorenzo Jerome returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and was the most impressive player in the game. He totaled 237 kick and punt return yards, nearly breaking two more touchdown returns. And the cornerback also picked off two Gustafson passes, plus tied for the Red Flash team lead with 10 tackles.

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After each side scored two more late touchdowns, Montana could celebrate a 10-point victory. Gustafson also fumbled in the first half, finishing with three turnovers. And admitted afterward that he did not play his best game. But he did finish 28 for 43 for 353 yards passing. And the 6’7 pocket passer also rushed 10 times for 29 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But he joked afterwards to not expect that kind of rushing performance from the senior.

Montana rushed for 167 yards, splitting carries between John Nguyen, Jeremy Calhoun and Treshawn Favors. Nguyen led the team with 53 yards. Curran’s long touchdown helped him total 107 yards on 4 receptions. Lightning quick freshman Jerry Louie McGee made 6 catches for 60 yards. And his moves electrified the crowd multiple times in the first half.

Montana out-gained the Red Flash 520-253, and controlled the visitors offense most of the night. Freshman safety Josh Sandry led the team with 9 tackles. Sophomore linebacker Josh Buss made 8 stops, and also 1.5 sacks. Junior cornerback Ryan Mckinley grabbed the only Grizzly turnover with a fourth quarter interception.

Montana now will not play another home game until October 1st. And the road becomes tough next week. The Griz go to Northern Iowa. The 5th ranked Panthers won at Iowa State 25-20 on Saturday. UM and UNI will kickoff at 3:00 next Saturday.