MISSOULA – In many ways it felt like he never left.
Bobby Hauck ran onto the field at Washington-Grizzly Stadium for the first time in eight years. The former and now current Montana head coach oversaw an aggressive, impressive start, with a raucous crowd providing a significant home-field advantage. And in the end, the Grizzlies needed to make a couple clutch plays to take down a ranked team and pick up a terrific victory.
Just like he did so many times a decade ago.
“It was really cool coming out on the field and seeing the place jumping like it was,” Hauck said about the opening moments of his return.
No. 24 Montana raced to a 26-0 lead by halftime against the 13th-ranked Northern Iowa Panthers. UNI made a comeback late, but the Griz held on for the 26-23 win.
“Beating a really fine football team that is as veteran as Northern Iowa is quite a win for us,” said Hauck. “It’s great to be 1-0. Certainly we’re thrilled to be in that situation.”
Montana’s early domination was felt in every part of the game. The UM defense did not give up a first down in the first quarter and allowed only 47 total yards in the first half. Quarterback Dalton Sneed played a part in three touchdowns in his first start at Montana, and punt return dynamo Jerry Louie-McGee kept giving the Grizzlies great field position, averaging 15.6 yards on five returns.
Sneed scored the first touchdown on a 17-yard run to cap off the opening drive of the game. He found Samori Toure for a 10-yard score late in the first quarter to make the score 16-0. In the second quarter, he tossed a quick lateral pass to receiver Keenan Curran, who then threw a perfect pass downfield to tight end Colin Bingham for a 25-yard touchdown.
Tim Semenza added a pair of field goals, the last a 31-yard kick as time expired in the first half. Montana went to the locker room up 26-0.
“We had a lot of guys playing their first college football game,” Hauck said, recalling the conversation at halftime. “I’m not sure they believed me when I said it’s going to tighten up in the second half. We better be ready.”
Northern Iowa proved in the second half why it entered the night with a high ranking, and an unexpected switch gave the Panthers a spark.
Senior backup quarterback Colton Howell replaced senior Eli Dunne, who was making his 17th start at quarterback for the Panthers. Dunne struggled mightily in the first half against the Griz defense, completing only five of 20 passes for 24 yards. He threw an interception on UNI’s first drive of the second half and didn’t take another snap.
Howell gave the Panthers a different look and finally got the offense moving in the right direction. He finished 11-of-22 passing for 140 yards and also rushed for 22 yards.
“He’s certainly a way, way, way different guy than the starter in our opinion,” said Hauck. “That kid, he’s a competitive dude. He came in, he took some shots, he broke some tackles, he made some throws.”
Howell put the Panthers in the end zone late in the third quarter on a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line. He also had a 30-yard rush on the drive. Then he sent murmurs through the Washington-Grizzly crowd after leading another touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. A two-point conversion cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 26-15.
Montana’s offense managed only three first downs in the second half, and the Panthers started to wear out the Grizzlies with some timely third-down conversions. Howell connected with receiver Nick Fossey for a 20-yard touchdown with 3:14 remaining. After Howell found tight end Briley Moore in the end zone for another two-point conversion, the Panthers only trailed by three points.
UNI had burned timeouts in costly spots in the second half, one before a two-point conversion try and another before a punt, so the Panthers lined up for the final kickoff with no timeouts remaining. They elected to kick the ball deep and hope for another defensive stop.
That’s when Sneed and the UM offense came through for the first time in the second half. He tossed a swing pass to running back Adam Eastwood for a 3-yard gain. Then threw back-to-back slants to Toure. The first gained six yards, the second 13, giving the Grizzlies a first down.
“He just happened to be the guy that was in the right spot at the right time and was open right there,” Sneed said about finding Toure twice with the game in the balance. “The line absolutely made lanes. There was nobody in my face, nobody pressuring, and we executed. We did what we had to do.”
With less than two minutes left, and UNI out of ways to stop the clock, Sneed took a knee twice to end the game and put a huge smile on Hauck’s face as he congratulated his team on the sideline.
Sneed finished 26-of-39 passing for 248 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 58 yards, the highest total for any player on the night. Montana’s offense never turned the ball over.
But junior linebacker Dante Olson might have been Montana’s biggest star of the game. In his first start, he totaled 13 tackles, a huge sack to end a second-half drive and an interception of Dunne’s last pass of the game. Converted receiver Justin Calhoun also showed flashes he could become a shutdown cornerback at his new position. Calhoun broke up three passes, made five tackles, and also caused a fumble on a sack of Dunne.
Montana stays home for the second contest of the year. The Griz will host the Drake Bulldogs at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8.