MISSOULA – On a day the Montana Grizzlies honored their glorious past, the present and future looked pretty good, too.
Nineteenth-ranked Montana finished off a tough challenge from Sacramento State to win its Big Sky Conference opener, 41-34. Dalton Sneed led the way with a Grizzly quarterback-record 206 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The junior also threw for 234 yards and another score.
Sneed’s big day came while Montana fans celebrated a remarkable accomplishment for the best quarterback in program history. Dave Dickenson brought the crowd to its feet between the first and second quarters when he was honored for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I think this is somewhere near the top three,” Sneed said when asked where this game ranked in his career. “Honoring a great quarterback who came back to Missoula, he set the standard here. Wearing the throwback colors is awesome, the fan base, no environment like it.”
“What a great football game,” added Griz head coach Bobby Hauck. “Sac State is the best team we’ve played this year and I don’t think it’s close: well-coached, veteran, talented. Great job by them. It was a great game in Grizzly Stadium today.”
Sneed’s one passing touchdown gave the Grizzlies the lead for good with 10 minutes remaining. On 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard line, the transfer QB rolled to his right and found freshman Matt Rensvold for his first career touchdown, putting UM up 38-31.
Montana’s defense forced punts on the next two possessions. Then, Sneed broke a 50-yard sprint down to the 2-yard line. The Griz couldn’t punch in the touchdown and settled for a short field goal, but that extended the lead to 41-31 with only 1:32 left on the clock. The Hornets did add a late field goal with 11 seconds remaining, but didn’t recover the onside kick. Sneed took a knee to run out the clock.
The Griz finished with 351 yards rushing, more than they had totaled over the first three games of the season. Freshman running back Adam Eastwood added 75 yards.
The contest, featuring two of the top defenses in the Big Sky, started looking like a shootout. Sacramento State scored 90 seconds into the game on a 59-yard touchdown run from Elijah Dotson. The Griz immediately responded. On a quick handoff, UM gave true freshman Gabe Sulser his first touch at the college level. The reigning Montana Gatorade Player of the Year took it 53 yards down the Griz sideline for a touchdown.
“It’s pretty cool when every time you touch the ball you score. I kind of expect that next week, we’ll give it to him five times,” joked Hauck after the game. “(Sulser’s) a kid that has explosive ability and it showed on that play. When you give him that much space, he has a chance to finish in the end zone, and he did. I’m proud of him for not dropping it on the 5-yard line or something in celebration. I think we’ll see a lot more of those here.”
Dotson added another 1-yard score later in the first quarter. On the next play, Sneed sprinted 75 yards to the end zone to tie the game at 14.
UM took a brief lead after a Tim Semenza field goal in the second quarter, but Dotson scored his third touchdown on a 66-yard run. He finished with 234 yards against a defense that was only giving up 75 rushing yards per game.
“They’re a good team. Their running back is a fast boy, really fast,” said Griz linebacker Josh Buss. “The quarterback was good. That was one of the funnest games I’ve played in, the environment, two teams going at it for four quarters, back and forth the whole game. Give credit to them because it was a fun game.”
Sac State picked up another long touchdown from Kevin Thomson to Jaelin Ratliff to push the Hornets’ lead to 28-17 with 4:10 left in the first half. But the next two Griz series changed the game. Sneed finished off a long drive with a 12-yard score. UM also took nearly all of the time off the clock, making the game 28-24 at halftime.
The Griz received the ball to start the second half, and once again marched 70-plus yards into the end zone. Sneed ran the final 38 for the touchdown that put Montana in front 31-28.
Sac State looked poised to retake the lead midway through the third quarter, but a 3rd-and-goal play was stopped at the 1-yard line. The Hornets committed a false start while lining up to go for it on 4th-and-goal, so head coach Jody Sears decided to kick a short field goal to tie the game at 31.
Montana’s defense that gave up 373 yards and 28 points in the first half only allowed 144 yards and a pair of field goals in the second half.
“We were making small mistakes here and there,” explained Buss. “We didn’t start how we wanted to. The coaches did a great job adjusting it in locker room, came out and had to pay attention to fine details. Do one small thing wrong and the holes open up. I think we got focused in on that and played as hard as we could.”
“We did not play well on defense in the first half,” added Hauck. “Up and down the field, both sides of the ball. They got the 10-point lead and we were up against the wall, but I’m starting to like this team’s resiliency and will to never give in. We had some great performances.”
Buss totaled three sacks and 11 tackles. The Big Sky preseason defensive player of the year now looks back to 100 percent after an undisclosed offseason injury limited his early season snaps. Fellow linebacker Dante Olson continues to shine in Montana’s aggressive defense. The junior made 15 tackles, increasing his season total to 55 through four games.
Montana improves to 3-1 while starting 1-0 in Big Sky play. Sacramento State falls to 2-2 and 0-1 in league.
“It was a special day out there, really neat,” summed up Hauck. “Everything from from wearing the copper jerseys, having David Dickenson here, just a fabulous football game, a great, great exciting game. For anyone who didn’t get a chance to come, they missed something good today.”