CEDAR FALLS, IOWA — Montana’s offense went absent for the second half, but the Grizzlies relied on its defense to beat Northern Iowa, 20-14 in front of 12,346 fans in the UNI-Dome on Saturday.
The game, however, began looking like it may be a shootout between these two FCS heavyweights from the Big Sky and Missouri Valley Football Conferences.
Montana jumped to lead when Grizzly quarterback Brady Gustafson found Josh Horner wide open on the sideline for a 34-yard passing touchdown to take a 7-0 lead with 11:52 left in the first quarter for the early lead.
Montana added to the score with a 47-yard field goal by Tim Semenza at the 8:20 mark to give the Grizzlies a 10-0 lead.
UNI cut the Montana lead after running back Tyvis Smith found the end zone on a one-yard scoring plunge. Quarterback Aaron Bailey and Smith combined for 48 rushing yards during the drive. The touchdown made the score 10-7 with 3:56 on the clock in the first quarter.
Montana’s Jerry Louie-McGee provided some fireworks on special teams after the two team’s defense after the electrifying first quarter. He scored on an 81-yard punt return with 7:07 left to play in the second quarter, putting the Grizzlies up 17-7.
Montana converted its second field goal from Semenza at the 2:09 mark in the second quarter to end the first half scoring. The 35-yard field goal gave the Grizzlies a 20-7 lead at intermission.
“We definitely had some good things scheduled in the first half that enabled us to have a fast start,” Montana Coach Bob Stitt said.
The teams were scoreless in the third quarter, but UNI broke the defensive battle in scoring on a 28-yard passing touchdown from Bailey to wide receiver Daurice Fountain to cut the Montana lead to 20-14 at the 8:01 mark in the fourth quarter.
Misfires inside Montana territory plagued UNI in the second half. Of the Panthers’ four drives past midfield after intermission, two were stalled by sacks and another UNI selected to bypass a 34-yard field goal attempt and go for it on a fourth-and-eight where Bailey’s pass went incomplete.
“I look at the clock, percentages, momentum and how good the defense is playing and if they are shutting the other team down,” UNI Coach Mark Farley said. “It was a good decision.”
Northern Iowa still had a chance with 1:14 left in the game but penalties and sacks left the Panthers needing a miracle on fourth-and-19 from their own 39 yard line with 3 seconds left. After a pass and several lateral throws, Montana jumped on a loose ball to seal the victory.
“You have to be very careful in the second half to force their offense to earn it,” Stitt said. “We were going to make them go the length of the field. We weren’t going to make turnovers.”
UNI’s Smith finished with 130 yards on the ground, while Fountain had seven catches for 97 yards to highlight the Panther offense.
Northern Iowa, which beat FBS Iowa State 25-20 last week, totaled 351 yards to just 206 for Montana, but also committed two turnovers. The Panthers also converted just 6 of 19 third downs and was 0 for 3 on fourth down.
The Grizzlies only had 70 yards in the second half but other than the one scoring drive for UNI, played stellar defense.
The win kept Montana perfect against Northern Iowa now in six all-time meetings.
Northern Iowa plays another Big Sky Conference team on the road in Eastern Washington next week, while Montana has next week off before traveling to Cal Poly to begin its Big Sky slate on Sept. 24.