By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BOONE, N.C. — New Montana coach Mick Delaney was like a child with unbridled Christmas-morning joy as he walked around Kidd Brewer Stadium during the Grizzlies' Friday walk-through practice.
"This is just cool," said Delaney, as he anticipated Saturday evening's hotly-awaited, non-conference Football Championship Subdivision game between Montana and Appalachian State. "These are the two winningest programs in FCS, the two teams with the best attendance."
Since 1995, Montana and Appalachian State have combined for five national championships, five runner-up finishes and two memorable showdowns in the national semifinals.
"Last year, we opened the season at Tennessee, this week we're here at Appalachian State," said Delaney. "Those are two great teams."
Saturday will mark the first regular-season meeting between these two iconic FCS programs. ASU and Montana will pick up again in 2013 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, MT.
Delaney took an admiring look at his team, filing off the field on Friday and said: "They've been looking forward to this game for a long, long time. This is why they go to Montana, to play in games like this."
It doesn't matter that neither of these squads are ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in any national polls, currently. All eyes around FCS will be focused on Kidd Brewer Stadium, with an expected crowd of over 30,000 fans expected to be on hand this Saturday.
"I don't think you can find a ticket to our ballgame," said Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore, who coached in the two previous games in the series, in 2000 against Joe Glenn and in 2009 against Bobby Hauck, both losses that ended the Mountaineers' dreams of reaching NCAA Division I championship games. "I suppose (Montana is) looking forward to playing us. I know we're looking forward to playing them."
Appalachian State's highest ranking nationally is fifth in the College Sports Journal poll after last Saturday's 35-13 loss at East Carolina.
Montana, coming into the year with less on-the-field expectations, due to off-field turmoil in the off-season, is ranked No. 15 by CSJ following its 35-24 win against South Dakota.
But the tradition of the programs overshadow any current status and most FCS observers realize that to win a national title in January, you will probably have to knock off one of these teams somewhere along the postseason trail.
"You have to give a lot of credit to our athletic director Charlie Cobb," said Moore. "Charlie had the foresight to get those home-and-home games with McNeese State and Montana."
On Friday afternoon, the Appalachian State football video department, led by veteran video coordinator Jake Stroot, was putting the finishing touches on a production to be shown on Saturday night during the pre-game build up and giving homage to these two historic programs.
There was the shot of a perfectly-executed pass from Drew Miller to future-Atlanta Falcon Jimmy Farris, running a precisely-timed fade route to beat NFL defensive back-to-be Corey Hall as Montana won an overtime thriller, 19-16, in the 2000 semifinals.
Fans began spilling over the end zone stands, onto the snowy field, to mob Farris as a wild celebration began to signify the Grizzlies' trip to Chattanooga to meet Georgia Southern for the national title the next week.
There was also footage of the incredible battle in a blizzard at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 2009.
Jabin Sambrano may have graduated after last season, but there was the speedster again, racing down the sideline to beat ASU cornerback Ed Gainey for a lethal, 25-yard strike from Andrew Selle to give Montana a 24-17 lead with 1:31 remaining.
That was followed by a magical drive through the heavy snow and wind by incomparable quarterback Armanti Edwards, as he desperately moved the Mountaineers up the field in the final seconds.
Coming off a comeback in the final seconds the week before at defending national-champion Richmond, when Edwards found Matt Cline for a game-winning TD pass, the Mountaineers were poised to pull another game from the fire from the three-yard line on third down with six seconds to play.
Another pass to Cline was knocked away by Montana linebacker Brandon Fisher, the son of St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher — who watched from the stands — for an incomplete.
The game came down to one final play in regulation — with the thought already in mind from ASU sources that a two-point conversion would decide it, if the Mountaineers scored.
Montana expected the shifty Edwards to try to run for the goal line on a rollout to the left wing, but instead he fired a pass to a diving Brian Quick — now playing for Jeff Fisher's Rams as the 33rd pick of the recent NFL draft — just inside the goal line.
With Montana cornerback and future NFL player Trumaine Johnson guarding Quick closely on a square-out move, Quick got his gloved hands on the ball, but couldn't make the catch, even though he had hauled in 10 previous receptions for 135 yards during the rest of the game.
But this time, Johnson got enough of his body on Quick's torso to break up the pass and save the game.
"Quick was open, he just didn't handle the ball," said Moore. "He didn't grab on to it and lock on to it, we dropped a lot of balls. It's one thing when you are contacted and drop it, but we catch balls in cold weather all the time. We dropped some key balls and that made a difference."
A group of Montana fans in Boone for Saturday's game, discussing that 2009 finish, wondered aloud — as they have been doing since that night — why Edwards didn't make a made dash for the goal line.
One of these fans had asked Moore in a chance meeting Friday afternoon, while touring Kidd Brewer Stadium what the Mountaineers would have done, if they had scored on the pass to Quick?
"We were going to go for two," Moore said, assuredly.
Only a handful of players remain on either team, three years later and none of them played significant roles in that game.
Appalachian State, as is its trademark, has a speedy, hard-hitting defense, led by linebackers Jeremy Kimbrough and Brandon Grier and a great receiving corps, with a talented quarterback, junior Jamal Jackson, throwing them the ball.
Montana has gone to more of an Appalachian State-like spread attack under new offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach this season, but the Grizzlies still have that trademark big and strong offensive line, led by All-American tackle Danny Kistler to open holes for tough and talented Dan Moore at running back and to protect redshirt freshman quarterback Trent McKinney.
On defense, Montana is young, but is glad to have middle linebacker Jordan Tripp back from last year's season-ending injury.
If history is any indication, this game should feature fierce competition and a close finish.
"Both games have been close," said Moore. "This one probably will be close, too. (Montana is) like some of the teams in our league, they are a good football team."
Delany just wants Saturday's game to live up to its predecessors.
"I just hope we can stay with them and keep it close," said Delaney. "I would hope that it's a game like the other ones were."