MILES CITY — The 26th annual Knights of Columbus Badlands Bowl was a tale of two halves for Montana.
Montana entered halftime trailing North Dakota 14-0 and hadn’t managed to build any rhythm offensively. That quickly changed, as Montana hung up 41 unanswered points in the second half to rout North Dakota, 41-14, on Saturday night at Connors Stadium.
“We kind of got after them at halftime, we really challenged them,” Montana head coach Rob Stanton said. “Our kids responded very well. We got the balls to our explosive guys and they made some plays for us. It was a fun second half.”
“At halftime we challenged ourselves. We challenged ourselves to come out here and put 40 on the board, and that’s what we ended up doing,” Montana commit and Billings West standout Jesse Owens said.
Hamilton standout Cam Rothie got the scoring going for Montana early in the third quarter. He caught a pass from Bozeman’s Kris Brown, also a Montana commit, and bounced off a pair of defenders before sprinting into the end zone to cut North Dakota’s lead to 14-7.
The Montana defense dominated the second half, routinely forcing three-and-outs from North Dakota and setting up the Montana offense with great field position. That led to a huge second half for Owens. After being quiet in the first half and even saying on the sidelines that he would be a decoy, Owens exploded in the second half.
The first touchdown of the night for Owens came when Great Falls High’s Blake Thelen, a Montana State commit, found Owens wide open across the middle of the field for a 20-yard score to tie things up at 14-all. But Owens was just getting started.
Owens pushed the Montana lead to 21-14 early in the fourth quarter on a dazzling catch and run. Owens hauled in a pass over the middle of the field before dodging multiple North Dakota defenders and waltzing into the end zone. His third touchdown of the game was eerily similar, as he turned on the jets and sprinted past the defenders.
“He’s not a good decoy, because we want the ball in his hands,” Stanton said. “I don’t care if he’s bracketed or has two guys on him, coach (Kane) Claunch did a good job to get the ball to Jesse. You saw what happened with that. There’s a reason he’s going to Montana.”
Late in the fourth quarter with North Dakota trying to mount a comeback, Billings West’s Trevin Gradney picked off North Dakota quarterback Jesse Forknell and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. Helena’s Zach Spiroff put the exclamation point on Montana’s win with a punt return touchdown with less than five minutes to play.
Early on, North Dakota controlled the tempo of the game and had the Montana defense on its heels by employing a jumbo package. That led to North Dakota’s first touchdown, a 1-yard run by Cade Busek. In the closing moments of the first half, Thelen had a pass batted up in the air and intercepted by Luke Lennon. Lennon returned the interception for a touchdown with less than 20 seconds in the half.
But from that point on, Montana dominated every phase of the game.
“(Our defense) got challenged in the halftime room, as well,” Owens said. “We expect excellence from these guys. They’re the best defensive players in the state of Montana, so we expected that shut out. And that’s what we got in the second half,” Owens said.
The win marks Montana’s fifth consecutive win and 20th in the series, moving the all-time series to 20-6. Owens was named Montana’s offensive MVP, while Spiroff took home defensive MVP honors. Busek took home North Dakota’s offensive MVP and Lennon won the defensive MVP.
“I’m very proud (to rep Montana),” Owens said. “To be out here with my friends and to do it with guys that I’ve got to know this last week that I’ve been battling with the last four years, it’s really something special to get out here with guys you used to compete against and compete with them.”