MISSOULA — When the Montana Grizzlies take the football field against North Dakota State on Saturday, they’ll be playing in an FCS semifinal playoff game for the first time since 2011.
They lost the semifinals to Sam Houston State on the road that year, and the appearance was later voluntarily vacated due to NCAA infractions. But the players on that team remember the season like it was yesterday.
“We played really good football throughout that year. We had some really good games,” said Ryan Fetherson, a defensive end on the 2011 squad. “A lot of people kind of questioned how we were going to be early in the season, kind of very similar to what you saw going on now. … Games you remember are played in November, and we got in the playoffs and made a run, so it was fun.”
Much like this year’s team, the 2011 Griz hit a few bumps early in the year. They lost at FBS Tennessee to open the season and then again at Sacramento State in Big Sky Conference play.
Montana then won seven consecutive games to close out the regular season, including beating Montana State to claim the Big Sky Conference championship.
“They were ranked No. 1. And we went into the litter box and just dismantled them, 36-10 I think was the score,” said Sam Gratton, a 2011 Griz wide receiver. “It just proves you belong. You can beat anybody. To do it to them in their home stadium just gives you a lot of momentum.”
“That game is such an important game to the state of Montana, to the people who are playing in it, so when you’re able to win that game like this year and that year we played and win it decisively, it definitely gives you a lot of momentum, a lot of confidence going forward into the playoffs,” echoed Bryce Carver, another receiver on the 2011 team.
“Not only when you win that game, when you beat a Montana State team that’s good and has been good and played good all year. I think it’s obviously shown this year with this team that they had some struggles early, but credit to coach (Bobby) Hauck and his staff and all the players on the team continuing to battle all year, and now they’re rolling and back in the semis.”
In 2011, the Griz rode the momentum from the win in Bozeman to two lopsided playoff victories.
As the fourth seed in the FCS playoff bracket, Montana cruised past Central Arkansas 41-14 in the second round of the playoffs. Jabin Sambrano had two receiving touchdowns in the win, while Jordan Canada added two scores on the ground as the Griz built a 38-0 lead early in the third quarter.
In the quarterfinal round, Montana again rolled, defeating fifth-seeded Northern Iowa 48-10. Quarterback Jordan Johnson had a hand in four touchdowns — one rushing and three passing, including two to Gratton.
Both games were at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“The way the engineers built that and how it comes down, (the fans are) on top of you,” Fetherston said of UM's home stadium. “That noise is deafening. We had to communicate like sign language at times just so we knew what we were doing because it was so loud. It gives me goosebumps.
"You’re never going to play in a stadium like that, especially at those numbers. When you say 27,000 (fans) and we’re putting up 111 decibels, we’re competing with (NCAA Division I) programs, the NFL at times. Shows you how prideful our fans are and how much they understand the game and when to cheer and when to be quiet. It helps us out a lot. It’s just surreal. Goosebumps. I got to see a couple games when I was a kid, but to be able to walk on that field and play in front of your state like that, just nothing like it. No other feeling.”
Fetherston, an East Helena native, wore the legacy No. 37 that season on a defense that featured All-Americans in cornerback Trumaine Johnson and linebacker Caleb McSurdy. McSurdy was also the Big Sky defensive player of the year, and Trumaine Johnson, tackle Bryan Waldhauser, linebacker John Kanongata’a, safety Mike McCord and cornerback Houston Roots earned all-conference recognition on defense.
The defense allowed 19.9 points per game but really hit its stride over the back half of the season.
“You have to have multiple guys, and that was our defense,” Fetherston said. “It wasn’t 11 guys playing football, we had almost 22 different guys. It’s very similar to this D. You watch a lot of them substitute, you’ve got to be able to stay fresh throughout the game. I think one thing that’s similar, where we had success in 2011, is we loved to tackle people and we hustled to the ball.”
Offensively, Montana employed a balanced attack that featured multiple weapons. Four guys had at least 400 rushing yards on the season, led by Peter Nguyen with a team-high 835 yards. Canada had 580 yards and led the team with nine rushing touchdowns.
Eleven different players had at least 10 catches, with Sambrano, Gratton and Antwon Moutra each hauling in 36 passes. Sambrano, an All-American that season, had 10 touchdown catches.
Jordan Johnson finished the year with 2,400 passing yards and 21 touchdowns.
“That was kind of our second year in a new system under coach (Robin Pflugrad). Previously we were kind of more of a run-first team, but we were pass heavy in a sense that once we wore you down we were gonna get you over the top. So, we’re talking (Marc) Mariani numbers. We were more like a run and gun with coach Pflu, spread it out,” Gratton said.
“Guys didn’t get a ton of volume — one, two, four catches a game sometimes. I think what made us dangerous is we didn’t have that one guy you just had to stop. We kind of just had four different guys, five guys that could get it done any given game.”
Now, 12 years later, the guys from that 2011 team are this year’s team’s biggest fans.
“It’s fun. I kind of like to stay back a little bit and kind of watch as a silent fan,” Carver said. “Obviously we talk to our friends and stuff about what’s going on. A lot of guys I played with, we still keep in touch, and it’s exciting. It’s fun. We still want success for those guys, and we love when Montana wins.
Being a player for coach Hauck and coach (Justin) Green and those guys, it's been fun. You want success for them. I like to sit on my couch and be quiet and watch it, that’s fun for me, but definitely keep in touch with a lot of the guys we played with and are rooting for the team this year.”
“I grew up on Griz football. I was lucky enough to get to be a part of it, and it was hard once it was over,” Gratton said. “To be able to just come back, come to the games with my dad and my brother, I’ve brought my kids a couple times now. It’s just a special place, special program. I love coach Hauck to death, Montana guy, he’s the perfect coach for this team. It’s just really cool.
"This is where we should be every year. I think for a little while there our standards dropped, and it was, you’d hear people, ‘Well, we made the playoffs.’ Sorry, that’s not good enough around here. We’re back to where we need to be every year, competing for a title, being a top three or four program to have a shot at it every year.”