MISSOULA – Chad Chalich made the most of his first start in 2016. The senior quarterback broke a Montana school record with seven touchdown passes, leading the 19th-ranked Grizzlies to a 62-44 win over Idaho State Saturday night.
Chalich came in for an Brady Gustafson. The Grizzlies senior starter and captain missed practice time because of injury suffered last week at Eastern Washington. Head coach Bob Stitt said Gustafson could have played versus the Bengals, but he gave Chalich the start because he had taken most of the snaps during the week. Stitt says Chalich is good enough to start for a lot of teams in the country. And the Coeur D’Alene Idaho native proved it.
Chalich threw touchdown passes on Montana’s first three drives. He did start the fourth drive with an interception. But then threw three more touchdowns in the second quarter. His seventh and record breaking touchdown came in the fourth quarter, and effectively sealed the win for the Grizzlies. Chalich went 21 for 27 for 388 passing yards.
Keenan Curran helped Chalich the most on his big day. The sophomore receiver made a 9-yard touchdown catch for the fist score of the game, added a 25-yard touchdown late in the first, hauled in a 4-yard score in the final seconds of the first half, and grabbed the last touchdown from Chalich to make the game 55-31. Curran finished with seven receptions for 129 yards. And his four touchdown receptions tied a Griz record.
“It doesn’t faze us if a new quarterback is in, cause our system works,” said Curran after the game. “It doesn’t really matter who’s back there. I mean, credit to Chad. I’m not taking anything away from him. But our system works.”
While Montana’s offense kept putting up numbers on the scoreboard, the Idaho State offense kept the visitors in the game. The Bengals answered with touchdowns after each of the first two Montana scores. The Bengals scored back to back scores in the middle of the second quarter, which gave ISU a 31-27 lead. The first came on a Tanner Gueller to KW Williams 6-yard touchdown strike. The second on a 3-yard run from Michael Dean.
But that lead only lasted 2:08 until Jerry Louie-McGee made a great touchdown catch on a 52-yard bomb from Chalich. Curran’s last touchdown in the first half put Montana up 41-31 at halftime.
Idaho State’s final play of the first half seemed like an innocent incompletion. But starting quarterback Tanner Gueller took a hit from Griz defensive end Caleb Kidder. And Gueller never played a down in the second half. He finished 16 for 30 with 205 yards passing and three touchdowns.
After 72 points in the first half, neither team scored in a third quarter that saw four punts. The scoring immediately picked up on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Chalich added yet another touchdown on a quarterback sneak. His seventh scoring pass came next. Idaho State scored twice down the stretch, but never closed the gap to less than 17 points in the final minutes.
The win snaps a two-game losing streak for Montana. The Griz improve to 3-3 in the Big Sky, and 6-3 overall.
“You know, after those two losses kind of brought us down,” said Chalich. “But we rallied around each other this last week. And came out and got a big win.”
“What we didn’t do last week, the difference in the game was just making a couple plays,” added Stitt. “And the difference today was making those plays. We’ve got great football players. They’ve just got to continue to move forward and get that confidence.”
Justin Calhoun hauled in the other two touchdown catches from Chalich. The freshman made an incredible grab while keeping one foot in-bounds in the second quarter. He caught three passes for 88 yards. Senior John Nguyen led the rushing attack with 91 yards on 19 carries.
The Grizzlies were also missing two other offensive weapons. Running back Jeremy Calhoun and inside receiver Josh Horner did not play after suffering injuries last week.
Middle linebacker Connor Strahm led UM with 9 tackles and added a sack. Linebacker Josh Buss made 8 tackles. Defensive ends Ryan Johnson and Kidder spent the night in the backfield. Johnson had 1 1/2 sacks and three tackles for loss. Kidder had one sack and two tackles for a loss.
But the defense kept giving up big plays for a third straight week. Stitt knew afterward that his defense was not happy with the performance against the Bengals. Idaho State piled up 520 yards of offense. Montana finished with 591 yards.
Idaho State falls to 1-6 in the Big Sky, and 2-7 overall.
Montana will hit the road again next Saturday, travelling to Northern Colorado for a kickoff at noon.