MISSOULA — It was a big performance for the Montana Grizzlies on Saturday afternoon at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Griz defense pitched a perfect game as they had their best performance of the entire season, and after a slow start the offense got going, and in the end it was a 40-0 victory for the Grizzlies over Northern Colorado as Montana improved to 7-1 overall and 4-1 in Big Sky Conference play.
"I like our team," UM head coach Bobby Hauck said. "I like how our team competes. I like how our guys in general are not fazed by negative plays or things that go against them, and they don't watch the scoreboard, and when the game is over they look up and hopefully we've got more points than the other team, and we did."
It was a day to remember well for the Griz defense, as Montana put together a masterful performance with six sacks and pick-6s from Jaxon Lee and Braxton Hill, while they held UNC to just 94 yards of total offense and forced the Bears to 1 for 15 on third down with just seven total first downs, three of which came on penalties.
"Those type of plays just build so much momentum, and shout out to Jaxon Lee and Braxton Hill," said sophomore linebacker Riley Wilson, who had three sacks in the game. "Just the Highway 1 boys really stood out (Saturday)," Wilson added, referring to the connecting highway between Hill's hometown of Anaconda and Lee's hometown of Philipsburg.
"Those type of plays just build a lot of momentum, and just really help our offense as well, and the sideline. I was running a blitz, saw Jaxon pick it off and it boosted a lot of my energy, so it was a great play."
Lee's touchdown was the first score of the game in the second quarter, as Montana's offense was slow out of the gates, but that score helped ignite the entire team.
"We got set back a couple times on our first few drives with some penalties, and I think that the defensive score really turned it around, and that kind of gave us some momentum," senior running back Nick Ostmo said. "Like Riley said, it just kind of boosted everybody's energy. It all goes into the line, quarterbacks making calls and the offensive line getting a push off the ball and just opening holes for us."
Since the second half of UM's win over UC Davis three weeks ago, Montana's defense has been dialed in in leading this team on its current four-game winning streak.
And for them, it's everyone doing their part as a unit to make game-changing plays.
"I really just think that is what builds this defense, just everyone doing their 1/11th, what coach Hauck talks about," Wilson said. "And whenever you have guys in the backfield that are just locking up their man, and then you've got guys in the front like (Alex Gubner) and Kale (Edwards) who are just taking double teams, it really just allows us linebackers to fit gaps and make plays."
"That was a really great effort by our defense and our defensive coaches," Hauck added. "Shutouts are difficult, but to hold somebody under 100 yards is really something. I think it really starts with the fact that we're a great tackling football team. We have a great tackling team, even the offensive guys that play in the kicking game tackle well, so it starts there. We're doing a good job of, I think, our linebackers are doing a better job than ever getting off of blocks, playing with their hands, front guys the same and obviously it's showing up on the scoreboard."
The other big storyline from Saturday was the much-anticipated debut of quarterback Keali'i Ah Yat, the son of Grizzly Hall of Famer and former UM QB Brian Ah Yat.
It's been 27 years since Brian threw his first career touchdown as a Grizzly against Oregon State, and on Saturday Keali'i stood up to the task in his first college minutes as he connected with Junior Bergen for a 21-yard score in the second quarter to make it 14-0 Montana.
"Touchdown Ah Yat, there wasn't even electricity in the stadium last time that was said," Hauck joked after. "Good to see him spin it, he throws a nice pass in both scenarios. We'll watch the film, but I thought he held up his end of the bargain."
Ah Yat split reps with Clifton McDowell at QB, and Montana's offense found its rhythm behind both, while the run game with Eli Gillman, Ostmo and McDowell shined with 285 yards total on the ground. Ah Yat finished the game 9-13 for 89 yards and the touchdown pass while McDowell passed for 81 yards and threw a score to Sawyer Racanelli, his first career receiving TD as a Griz.
On the ground, Gillman racked up 106 yards and two scores while Ostmo finished with 86 yards rushing and McDowell added 78.
Ah Yat had been slowly creeping up the depth chart in recent weeks and at practice, and his performance had fans reminiscing about the great memories in the past while buzzing about the future's potential.
"We've had him in the number two spot for about four weeks and we've intended to play him in each of those games, and there just really wasn't a juncture in any of those games where we felt good about plugging in a true freshman in his first college game," Hauck explained. "So we basically had decided that whatever the scenario (Saturday), we were going to play him, and it was good to get him in the game. We've intended to have a two-quarterback system all year long and that's what we intend to do."
With the win, Hauck also tied former Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Souers for the all-time head coaching wins record in the Big Sky Conference with 123.
The Grizzlies now turn their attention to next Saturday when they welcome Sacramento State (6-2, 3-2) to Missoula in what will be a top-10 matchup that has ramifications both in the Big Sky and around the FCS. Kickoff for Saturday's game is set for 6 p.m. at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.