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'It wasn't close': Big plays, records and emotions lift Montana into quarterfinal round of FCS playoffs

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Posted at 6:32 PM, Dec 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-04 20:32:24-05

MISSOULA — This season, the Montana Grizzlies and Eastern Washington Eagles gave fans two games they'll remember forever.

After the Eagles won the first contest back in October in Cheney, the Grizzlies got their revenge on Friday night in Missoula in the second round of the FCS playoffs on an emotional and raucous night at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

PHOTOS: MONTANA GRIZZLIES RACE PAST EASTERN WASHINGTON IN FCS PLAYOFFS

Montana's start to the game was anything but perfect, as Eastern Washington quickly jumped out to a 21-10 lead by the second quarter, and EWU quarterback Eric Barriere, who threw 80 passes in the game, was seemingly finding every deep shot he wanted early. UM opened the scoring with a 75-yard touchdown run from Malik Flowers.

"We kind of tried to screw it up in the first quarter and that was on us, not necessarily what they were giving us and then it's why you play four quarters," said Montana safety Robby Hauck, who moved into fourth all-time in career tackles at UM with 354. "Faced some adversity and fought back and we're able to regain momentum and take control of the game and that's credit to everybody on defense but also on offense and special teams."

The Grizzlies used the crowd to their advantage too. In the second quarter, after big hits from Gavin Robertson and Robby Hauck went under review, UM's defense did everything they could to keep the crowd loud and engaged, and a few plays later, a blocked punt gave the momentum to the Griz that Junior Bergen eventually turned into a touchdown.

"It's awesome getting the crowd involved," UM linebacker Marcus Welnel, who had two sacks in the game, said. "They're crazy here, I love it. I wish we could play every game here but after (Robertson) got that hit, Robby got that hit, and then just sitting there, pumping up the crowd. It was a special moment just really, I feel like even though they kind of had some momentum at that (point) of the game I feel like it definitely started switching towards us."

EWU also had three potential fourth down attempts affected by a false start because of the crowd noise.

In the second half, the defense and special teams came up big as Welnel sacked Barriere early in the third quarter that led to an EWU punt that Bergen took back to the Eagle 8-yard line. Xavier Harris punched it in to give UM a 30-21 lead at that point. Later, Patrick O'Connell tackled Barriere and forced a fumble as Barriere tried to pitch the ball that was recovered by Jace Lewis who took it to EWU's 5-yard line that eventually turned into a Cole Grossman touchdown. A pick-6 from Justin Ford in the final minutes, his ninth interception of the year, sealed the game for UM as well.

Kicker Kevin Macias also went 3 for 3 on field goal attempts on Friday with makes of 37, 44 and 46 yards, to give him 17 consecutive conversions.

The game also became a historical one for Samuel Akem, who caught a pair of touchdown passes to tie Marc Mariani on the all-time career receiving touchdowns list with 29 each. Akem finished with five catches for 104 yards and scored on touchdowns of 44 and 30 yards. He moved into third all-time in career receptions with 190 and fourth all-time in career receiving yards with 2,676.

"It's a real pleasure, first of all, to be able to coach both (Akem and Mariani), both quality dudes and guys that I've enjoyed," UM coach Bobby Hauck said. "Marc's still around whenever he gets a chance, I hope Sammy is the same once we kiss him goodbye. I hope he comes back whenever he gets a chance just like Marc does. It's fun to see those records fall, it's why they're there."

The game was special for Akem, who missed Montana's playoff run in 2019 due to injury.

"It was awesome," Akem said. "I'm just kind of speechless right now because like I tell you guys all the time, like I had no idea that I was going to do things like this when I came to Montana. I just came to play football and it's awesome to look up and see my name next to somebody so great."

With so much hype and talk surrounding the rematch between these two programs, the Grizzlies emerged victorious as they head back to the FCS quarterfinals once again and will take on third-seeded James Madison.

"Thought it was a great team effort, offense, defense, kicking. Just terrific," Hauck said. "Any time, if you're going to try to throw the ball 80 times and we're going to rush for 200, you're never going to beat us. You're never, never, never, ever gonna have a chance to beat us in that particular game so our kids went out there and took that win. I was proud of them. They kind of got called out and it wasn't close."