MISSOULA — Montana coach Bobby Hauck took some time to poke a little fun at reporters after his team's 34-24 come-from-behind playoff victory over Southeast Missouri on Saturday.
"You all gotta go rewrite your stories now. You probably had them done," Hauck said with a laugh. "Double the work today."
He's wasn't necessarily wrong.
Trailing 24-3 in the third quarter, the Grizzlies, for all intents and purposes, were done. The season was seemingly over. SEMO closed the first half with a 92-yard touchdown drive, then promptly marched 75 yards for another TD at the outset of the second half to build a three-touchdown advantage with 8:41 left in the third.
Both of those physical, clock-eating drives were capped by short touchdown runs by SEMO running back Geno Hess, one of the best runners in the FCS. The crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, sparse to begin with, seemed lifeless and bored.
But all it took was a special teams spark to change the momentum, and kickoff returner Malik Flowers provided it.
After SEMO's second consecutive long touchdown drive, Flowers bobbled and dropped the ensuing kickoff but gathered the ball and returned it 80 yards down the left side of the field for a touchdown to give Montana life. It was Flowers' seventh career kickoff return for a touchdown, which tied the all-time FCS record.
The Grizzlies ended up reeling off 31 unanswered points to complete a frenetic comeback. Included in the rally were TD passes from Lucas Johnson to Keelan White and Cole Grossman, as well as a 58-yard punt return for a score by Junior Bergen.
It was eerily reminiscent of a 2009 first-round playoff game against South Dakota State in which a 98-yard kickoff return by Marc Mariani down the right sideline in the third quarter ignited a huge Griz comeback in a 61-48 victory. Though he wasn't the only one thinking it, that 2009 game was squarely on Hauck's mind both during and after the SEMO contest.
“I’m not joking when I say we talked about it at halftime," Hauck said. "Obviously we were down 21 and then (Flowers) went to the house and then it was at the forefront of my mind. A lot of similarities, man.
"I'll call Marc tonight. I know he was watching. I bet I got a text or two on my phone from him."
Granted, the deficit against South Dakota State in 2009 was greater — the Grizzlies were down 27 points (48-21) to the Jackrabbits at the 5:40 mark of the third quarter that day — but it was a kickoff return for a touchdown that began the comeback.
Mariani's return against SDSU was part of a run of 40 unanswered points in the second half as the defense stiffened and the offense founds its groove. Included were consecutive 1-yard touchdown runs by Chase Reynolds, a 4-yard TD pass from Andrew Selle to Mariani and a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown by defensive lineman Severin Campbell.
Current Griz safety Robby Hauck, who broke the Big Sky Conference's all-time tackles record on Saturday against Southeast Missouri, was much younger at the time but remembers the comeback against SDSU well, especially Mariani's return.
"Probably that play specifically," Hauck said when asked what he remembers from the 2009 comeback. "Marc kind of sparked the comeback and took the kick return to the house like Malik did today. And just the defense hunkering down and getting off the field and getting the offense on the field and getting them into a rhythm. It's pretty cool. Another great game to be a part of."
As it became clear the Grizzlies were going to complete the comeback against SEMO — and as reporters reworked their stories late Saturday night and into the early hours Sunday — the Griz (8-4) knew they had a second-round playoff matchup against defending national champion North Dakota State (9-2), winners of nine of the past 11 FCS titles.
Bobby Hauck referred to the Bison as "the gold standard. There's really no other way to put it." But he also said this matchup is one he's been looking forward to since returning to Montana as coach prior to the 2018 season.
Mariani's kickoff return sparked a huge comeback against South Dakota State in 2009, and helped send the Grizzlies on a deep playoff run that produced their third trip to the national championship game in a six-year stretch.
Will Flowers' kickoff return have a similar impact? Time will tell. The Griz will have their hands full this week against NDSU, but the team is very much alive.