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Griz season draws to a close at James Madison

13 Dec 2021 | 08:26 | Football

An undermanned Montana Grizzly football team fought until the very end but couldn’t overcome injuries and a very good James Madison team on Friday night, falling 28-6 in the FCS quarterfinals to end their season in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Montana, who have struggled with injuries all season long, lost starting quarterback Cam Humphrey and star receiver Samuel Akem in the first half of the game, and the offense would struggle to get anything going in their absence as the Dukes limited Montana to 302 total yards and no touchdowns.

On the other side, Montana’s defense provided several highlights as they forced a couple of turnovers. But a big play James Madison offense was too much to handle, as they finished with four plays of at least 40 yards – two of which resulted in touchdowns. The Dukes advanced to the semifinals behind an offense that accumulated 487 yards.

“There’s a couple of things. They are a good outfit. They are well-coached, well-prepared and they are a good looking football team in person,” Head Coach Bobby Hauck said. “They are a tough-minded team.

“A couple of things stand out to me in this game. One of them was the three big plays were really a backbreaker for us. The fact that they ran the ball far better than anyone all year has been able to on us was the difference in the game. And then the third point I would make is when it comes back to us, we just didn’t have enough left in the tank as guys started to go down.”

This is the second consecutive fall season that Montana – who closed the season at 10-3 – has reached the quarterfinal round of the FCS Playoffs, as they were eliminated in the same stage against Weber State in 2019. The last time the Grizzlies made it this deep in the playoffs in consecutive seasons came in the final two years of Bobby Hauck’s first stint as coach in 2008 and 2009.

“I think we’re back. We’re back in the stands and on the field, and it’s pretty cool,” Hauck said. “It’s a special place, and we just ended our season half an hour ago and frankly I can’t wait to see everybody next September to tell you the truth. I’m energized, I’m excited for the future and I’m excited for next year, because I love what’s going on in our program.”

The Grizzly defense did what they could against the CAA Player of the Year Cole Johnson and the Dukes offense. Robby Hauck led the team with 10 tackles, including a forced fumble that would eventually lead to points for Montana. Jace Lewis also forced a fumble, while Braxton Hill had a breakout game off the bench with eight tackles and a sack that helped end a James Madison drive.

Patrick O’Connell, a finalist for the Buck Buchanan award, added his 14th sack of the season, but Montana would get home on Johnson just twice all game. Typically a strength of the Grizzly defense, they would finish with just three tackles for loss against the Dukes.

It was a special season for a Grizzly defense that ranked among the nation’s best in several statistical categories.

“This team, I could have been around this particular team for 50 weeks. They were so much fun to coach, and not just on Saturdays,” Hauck said. “Every day of the week, the offseason, this was really a special group.”

The Grizzly offense would get into James Madison territory on seven of their 13 drives, yet they would muster just six points on a pair of field goals from Kevin Macias. The offense struggled after Humphrey left the game. He started 7-of-12 for 88 yards and looked sharp, but the Grizzlies would have to turn to a pair of backups over the final nearly 45 minutes.

Robbie Patterson filled in admirably while playing the entire second half, flashing some skill on the ground. He rushed for 55 yards on 10 carries, leading a couple of long drives down the stretch. He completed seven of his 17 passes for 44 yards, but did throw a pair of interceptions on the final two drives of the game as Montana chased points in the comeback.

“It’s never over until it’s over, and I thought Robbie Patterson came in and competed his tail off. He didn’t get a lot of reps this week, we were talking about running a couple of plays,” Hauck said. “It was kind of wild down there at times tonight.”

He received help from Xavier Harris, who rushed for 65 yards on 18 carries. Junior Bergen also continued to be the X-factor for the Montana offense, running 12 times for 32 yards and hauling in four passes for 45 more yards.

The Grizzlies had 14 players close out their careers in the loss on the road.

“(The seniors), along with the guys the year before them and our junior class this year, have really changed the whole tenor around Grizzly football. We’re back to being a fierce, tough-to-deal-with, really good football team,” Hauck said. “Not just X’s and O’s wise, but effort-level, attitude, speed, physicality. This team has been transformed, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

It started well for Montana. Humphrey connected with Akem for a deep ball up the sideline for a first down that set up Montana in JMU territory, a 35-yard gain on a perfectly weighted over the shoulder ball. But the gain came at a cost and set the tone for the rest of the game, as Akem left injured and wouldn’t return to the game. The Griz converted their second third down on the drive as well, with Humphrey finding Keelan White on a slant to keep the drive going.

The drive would eventually stall out, and on the next drive James Madison found the end zone from 82 yards out for the first score of the game.

On Montana’s second drive, they again moved into Dukes territory thanks to three plays to Junior Bergen. A couple plays later the Grizzlies converted on third and long with a pass across the middle to Mitch Roberts.

The Grizzlies would lose yardage on the ensuing third down, dropping them back to the James Madison 34. This time in JMU territory, Hauck sent out his kicker Kevin Macias for a 51-yard attempt. The kicker drilled it, setting a new career-long mark while also extending his streak to 18 consecutive made field goals, a new Montana school record.

James Madison looked dangerous again on the following drive, getting it into Griz territory. A sack from Braxton Hill backed them up and eventually forced James Madison into going for it on fourth-and-10. On that play, Johnson scrambled and nearly escaped the Griz defense before O’Connell finally tracked him down for a big hit to end the drive.

On Montana’s next drive, the injuries kept coming. Humphrey was injured scrambling on third down, forcing Montana to backup Kris Brown. The Grizzlies went for it on fourth-and-one from inside JMU territory, but the Dukes defense wrapped up Harris and forced the turnover on downs.

The Grizzly defense came up with a huge play of their own in response, as they have done all season long. Jace Lewis forced a fumble with a big hit on the outside, and O’Connell quickly dove on it to set up the Grizzlies from their own 43-yard line.

Montana’s defense stood strong again, as DeAri Todd sacked Johnson on third down to force yet another punt. Bergen provided a big return, again setting Montana up in James Madison territory. But with Humphrey still out of the game, Montana’s offense stalled again and was forced to punt.

Despite a great punt from Brian Buschini that pinned the Dukes deep, the James Madison offense found a rhythm and completely changed the game. In just four plays, they drove 96 yards to take a 14-3 lead.

James Madison extended the lead to 21-3 early in the third quarter with a sustained drive after Montana went three-and-out to open the half.

The Dukes busted off another big play on their following drive, but the Grizzly defense wouldn’t go down without a fight. Robby Hauck forced another James Madison fumble that the Grizzlies recovered for their second turnover of the game.

Robbie Patterson, who started the second half for Montana at quarterback, made some big plays on the ground to move the Grizzlies deep into James Madison territory. It would lead to points for Montana, as Macias hit again from 38 yards out to cut the lead to just 15 points.

After the teams traded three-and-outs, James Madison put it out of reach with a rushing touchdown to extend the lead to 28-6.

Montana faced fourth down just inside James Madison territory on the next drive and Patterson threw a strike to Ryan Simpson for a first down that continued the drive. Patterson scrambled for another big gain to get the Grizzlies into the red zone, where the Grizzlies would again face a fourth down.

Needing two yards, Bergen picked up just enough on a speed option to the outside to give Montana first and goal. The Grizzlies would face their third fourth down of the drive in the goal to go situation, lining up from six yards out and trailing by 22. This time Montana ran out of big plays, as Patterson was picked off in the end zone to end the drive.

The Grizzlies didn’t give up, getting another defensive stop and once again getting into James Madison territory on offense thanks to a big run from Patterson. He then found Roberts for a first down gain on the slant route. But it officially came to an end with Patterson’s second interception of the game, giving it back to James Madison with just 90 seconds remaining.

Montana’s season came to an end with 10 wins, a big rivalry victory and their second consecutive quarterfinal trip. It was a season with plenty of highs that came to an end against a fantastic James Madison team on the road. The Dukes improved to 12-1 on the year and advance to the national semifinals next week.

“It’s really difficult, and when you’re down to the top eight teams and really probably one of the top two teams in the country that you’re fighting tooth and nail with, if you go into that fight with one hand tied behind your back you’re going to have a hard time knocking them out,” Hauck said. “No fault of anybody’s, but we just didn’t have enough left to get these guys tonight.”

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