(Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on the 25th anniversary of the Montana Grizzlies' 1995 national champion football team. For Part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here. For all 95 at 25 content and stories, click here).
MISSOULA -- With college football absent in Montana in the fall of 2020, it's easy to get nostalgic.
For Montana Griz fans, that feeling is even more present, as the 25th anniversary of the 1995 NCAA Division I-AA national championship between the Griz and the Marshall Thundering Herd happens this week on Wednesday.
The win signified a turning point for Griz football as Montana was now in the national spotlight after cracking through to the national title, a first for the program.
But while UM's offense was a juggernaut through the first three games of the playoffs, it was the Griz defense whose number was called in the national title game after UM's offense was uncharacteristically slowed by Marshall.
Montana's defense needed to step up, and with a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, Troy native and safety Blaine McElmurry did just that with a big hit on a Marshall receiver.
“In terms of the highlights, I think Blaine McElmurry’s big hit early in the game really set the tone in what we wanted to do," former Griz linebacker and Missoula native Mike Bouchee said. “And then for the Marshall guy to jump up and celebrate and get flagged for it was just icing on the cake, so we knew that not only were we going to play physical but we were hopefully going to play smarter than they were throughout the day as well.”
“And I think that play in the beginning with the hit, it kind of just helped relax everybody and everybody went, 'OK, this is our team, this is what we do,'" McElmurry added.
The Griz defense provided plenty of highlight plays. Cornerback Mike Temple picked off Marshall quarterback -- and future 11-year NFL veteran -- Chad Pennington just before halftime to preserve a 10-3 Montana lead. Then midway through the third quarter, Montana's defense pressured Pennington, who was forced to throw the ball away in the end zone, but the pass was deemed intentional grounding, resulting in a Griz safety.
"As a defense, we played pretty well," McElmurry said. "We were pretty accustomed to our offense putting up 50 points a game and so it was strange for us not to have that kind of lead to play with. Every play ended up becoming so important. We knew it was going to come down to the end. Every single down you wanted to make sure you were doing your job because it could come down to this is why you win or lose. I think that's ultimately what happened, is everybody just did their assignment."
UM allowed just 14 total points in the first three playoff games, but after limiting Marshall most of the game, the Thundering Herd ultimately took a 20-19 lead with 4:45 left after Chris Parker scored on a 26-yard touchdown run. But on the ensuing drive, the Griz grabbed the lead again after an Andy Larson field goal with 39 seconds remaining to make it 22-20.
Bouchee was on the field goal unit for that play, not only witnessing history, but knowing that he and his teammates needed to come up with one more stop for the Grizzlies to seal the victory.
“We’d been working for four, five years, some guys, to get to that point, and we were 30 seconds away from finally achieving this national championship goal that we had set and worked on for years," Bouchee said. "So to have it be that close just within reach, we were definitely motivated to get out there and stop them and achieve our goal.”
The Griz did just that. Marshall's desperation field goal as time expired fell well short, sending the Montana players and the Griz faithful into a frenzy.
"The most special memory of course would be when the game is over and everybody storms the field and we have all of Griz nation there," Bouchee said. "It felt like all of Missoula and a good chunk of Montana were there with us."
"It's strange, you have moments like this where you sit there and start thinking about memories and it seems like not that long ago," McElmurry added. "But then when you start looking in the mirror and start thinking about some things that have changed since then it seems like a long time ago. It's fun that people are still talking about it."
The Griz strategy of bending but not breaking paid off. Montana allowed 358 total yards to Marshall, but, along with the safety and Temple's interception, UM forced four fumbles, recovering one of them. The Griz held the Thundering Herd to 6 for 16 on third down. Marshall was also flagged for 12 penalties for 109 yards, alluding to Bouchee's point of staying composed. Helena native Jason Crebo led the Griz with 12 total tackles, while Bouchee tallied 11.
The dream became reality. Montana coach Don Read preached that it would happen, and McElmurry remembers it vividly.
"It was the pinnacle of the whole season," McElmurry said. “I can remember standing in the stadium with coach Read talking to us mid-season or so and we were playing well, and he said, 'You know what? After the season we’re going to look up there and we’re going to put '95 national champions up onto the press box,' and I remember us all standing there and him pointing up there and us all kind of thinking about that. It was just so fulfilling to feel like it was such a big deal for all of us together. It was just this huge moment for Montana.”