By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — The last time that Montana ventured into Huntsville, TX. to take on Sam Houston State, the Grizzlies shocked the Football Championship Subdivision — by getting crushed by Sam Houston State, 41-29.
On Friday, No. 4 seed Montana (11-2) will return to Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, TX. to face top-seeded Sam Houston State (13-0) in the semifinals of the NCAA Division I Football Championships.
“I sure like (Montana) having to come down here and play us, instead of us having to go play in Montana,” SHSU coach Willie Fritz said. “I like our crowd. They are understanding when to cheer and, maybe, when not to cheer.”
The 8 p.m. game will be shown nationally on ESPN, with the winner to face the victor of Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game between Georgia Southern and North Dakota State on Jan. 7 at 1 p.m. in Frisco, TX.
Third-seeded Georgia Southern (11-2) travels to No. 2 North Dakota State (12-1) in the other semifinal.
Few people around either program are still the same, seven years later, down to new head coaches on each sideline, Fritz and Robin Pflugrad of Montana.
But you can be guaranteed that the fans of both schools remember each other from 2004.
Behind senior quarterback Dustin Long, a transfer from Texas A&M, the Bearkats built a 20-3 halftime lead and added to it in the second half.
With 9:28 to play in the fourth quarter, Long exited with 329 yards, two touchdown passes and a 41-10 advantage over the stunned Grizzlies.
This was a Bearkat team coming off a 2-9 season for veteran coach Ron Randleman and a squad that had just lost 33-31 the week before to down-trodden Missouri State.
Quarterback Craig Ochs and Montana tacked on 19 points in garbage time, but it didn’t change the fact that Sam Houston State had announced itself to this writer and the rest of the Football Championship Subdivision world that watched the game on Fox Southwest.
Sam Houston State went on to win the Southland Conference title and finished the year with an 11-3 record — the best season in the Bearkats’ FCS history until this year.
The loss served as a wake-up call to Montana, which stormed through the rest of the season and got even with Sam Houston State in the semifinals of the NCAA Division I playoffs.
After taking a tight 14-6 edge in the first half at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Montana used a couple of quick third-period strikes and took advantage of Bearkat turnovers for a 34-13 victory that vaulted the Grizzlies into the NCAA championship game.
Montana may not have beaten James Madison for the Division I title, losing 31-21 on the chewed-up grass turf at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, TN., but the Grizzlies did settle that score with Sam Houston State.
In the only other meetings between the two schools, Montana trounced Sam Houston State 49-14 in 2001 and 38-14 in 2003. Both of those games were in Missoula, MT.
Since those games were played, Montana has written several new chapters of FCS tradition, finishing as the national runner-up in 2008 and 2009 and extending its string of Big Sky Conference titles to 12 in a row and its NCAA-record playoff appearance skein to 17 straight years.
The league championship and playoff runs were snapped last year in an uncharacteristic 7-4 campaign, but the Grizzlies tied Montana State for a share of the Big Sky title again this fall and won the conference’s automatic bid to advance to the playoff again.
Montana has also moved to the semifinals of the playoffs for the fourth time in seven years.
Sam Houston State, meanwhile, is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
Randleman retired after 23 years following the 2004 season and SHSU was just 25-28 in the next five seasons under Todd Whitten, never winning more than seven games and posting three losing records.
The Bearkats gave little notice that they would be in the hunt for national honors as soon as 2011 when they finished 6-5 last year in the first season under Fritz, let alone record the best start in school history with 13 consecutive wins.
“To be able to run the table in today’s world of college football is an amazing feat,” said Pflugrad. “That is a credit to Sam Houston’s coaches and players.
The 2011 campaign marked the first time that Sam Houston State had finished the regular season undefeated since the Bearkats rolled to a 10-0 mark in 1956 as an NAIA program and beat Middle Tennessee State 27-13 in the Refrigerator Bowl in Evansville, IN.
So why has there been a seven-game improvement in wins this season for SHSU?
Start with the offense, where the Bearkats have improved from 73rd nationally in total offense in 2010 (336 yards per game) to 23rd (416 yards).
The biggest improvement has been in Sam Houston State’s ability to run the ball behind a solid offensive line that includes all-conference picks Travis Watson, Chris Crockett and Andrew Weaver and the work of Tim Flanders and Richard Sincere.
Flanders has rushed for 1,273 yards and 21 touchdowns and has added 28 catches for 404 yards and two more scores.
Sincere has been a change-up back for the Bearkats, adding 916 yards and nine TDs on the ground and 25 receptions for 449 yards and four touchdowns through the air.
Sincere has been most effective as the key man in the SHSU wildcat formation. The Bearkats also run a lot of option out of their pistol formation and occasionally show an I formation
Quarterback Brian Bell and running backs Ryan Wilson, Keyshawn Hill and Torrance Williams have provided more depth to a Bearkat rushing attack that has improved from 26th in the country (186 yards) to sixth (259 yards).
Bell isn’t going to put up huge passing numbers (1,841 yards), but he is second to Furman’s Chris Forcier in passing efficiency and had 18 touchdowns passes with only four interceptions.
All four picks have come in the past five games, including two against Southeastern Louisiana.
Bell left Saturday’s 49-13 victory over Montana State with an ankle injury after he scampered for a 54-yard touchdown. With Bell out, Sincere took most of the snaps the rest of the way and piled up 160 yards on just 11 carries.
The Bearkats are 101st in NCAA passing (157 yards), but rank first in scoring (29.8 points per game).
On defense, Sam Houston State has remained tough against the run — a characteristic for years among champions in the Southland Conference — and has made dramatic strides in defending the pass.
The Bearkats were 114th in pass defense (261 yards) last season, a deadly vice against offenses like the Jeremy Moses-led Stephen F. Austin attack that won the Southland title in 2010.
But SHSU has whittled that down to 208 yards per contest this season, good for 61th in the FCS rankings.
Sam Houston State was eighth against the run last year (100 yards), but has improved to first this season (67 yards), helping the Bearkats rank second nationally in total defense (276 yards) and scoring defense (13.8 points per game).
Another factor is that SHSU is second in the country in turnover margin, gaining two more turnovers per game than its opponents. The Bearkats have forced 37 turnovers,
Junior defensive back Daxton Swanson ranks third in FCS in interceptions with eight to spark a mostly unsung group of defenders.
Junior safety Darnell Taylor was named an All-American by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA). Taylor was also the Southland defensive player of the year and leads the team with 105 tackles.
Defensive lineman J.T. Cleveland, linebacker Will Henry and defensive back Kenneth Jenkins were named to the Southland first-team defense, along with Taylor.
“They possess tremendous speed, size, and play physical football,” Pflugrad said of the Bearkats. “They have a very unique scheme on offense which keeps defensive coordinators awake at night.“
The biggest question mark for the Bearkats this season has been a lackluster schedule that included just one opponent (Central Arkansas) that had won more than six games in the regular season.
SHSU did outlast perhaps the worst team in FBS, beating New Mexico 48-45 in overtime, but the Bearkats have overcome the poor schedule to topple Stony Brook 34-27 in a final-minute victory in round two of the playoffs and then played perhaps their finest game of the season in stopping Montana State.
Montana has been no stranger to questions about scheduling in the past, but the Grizzlies heard little about that as they worked their way through a challenging Big Sky slate in 2011.
The Grizzlies have won nine straight games since dropping two of its first four games to Tennessee and Sacramento State, both on the road.
Young players have stepped to the forefront to make significant impacts both offensively and defensively for the Grizzlies.
Quarterback Jordan Johnson beat out the more well-known Nate Montana, the son of Joe Montana and a transfer from Notre Dame, and has been a steadying influence on offense.
Johnson has 2,565 yards of total offense, with 20 touchdown passes, three rushing scores and just eight interceptions — half of them in the losses to Tennessee (one) and Sacramento State (three).
Johnson showed his effectiveness as a runner in a 17-14 win over defending national champion Eastern Washington (10 carries, 102 yards) and in last week’s 48-10 quarterfinal romp over Northern Iowa (10 carries, 86 yards, one TD).
Montana likes to keep its running backs fresh and will use a platoon of Peter Nguyen (858 yards, three TDs), Jordan Canada (593 yards, eight TDs) and Dan Moore (461 yards, seven TDs).
Like always, the Grizzlies have plenty of fine receivers to throw to, like Sam Gratton and Antwon Moutra, but one of the biggest threats is Jabin Sambrano, who excels as a wideout and a returnman.
Sambrano, Montana’s best deep threat, has hauled in 33 passes for 560 yards, but he has 1,786 all-purpose yards and 13 combined touchdowns.
Against UNI, Sambrano had 131 yards to give the Grizzlies excellent field position throughout the night.
Montana is 14th in rushing (219 yards) and 59th in passing (204 yards) to provide a balanced attack. The Grizzlies rank 21st in total offense (423 yards) and 15th in scoring (34.3 points per game).
Another weapon is Montana’s kicker and punter Brody McKinght. McKnight has kicked a school-record 16-consecutive field goals (three more than the previous mark by current-NFL kicker Dan Carpenter) and he showed his value as a punter by penning UNI deep last Friday night.
The Grizzlies are ninth in the nation in net punting (37.8 average) and McKnight is fourth with a gross average of 43.4 yards per punt.
Like Sam Houston State, Montana’s defense is filled with workmanlike performers more so than the stars of past years.
Linebacker Caleb McSurdy has come on strong as a senior to provide leadership. He has led the Grizzlies with 130 tackles to earn All-American honors.
Another All-American and a probable NFL draftee is senior cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who tied Tim Hauck last week for third place on the all-time Montana interception list with his 15th career pick.
Montana showed its strength as a rushing defense last week in grinding Northern Iowa’s offense to a halt. The Grizzlies rank 18th in rushing defense (118 yards), 39th in passing defense (197 yards), 19th in total defense (314 yards) and 13th in scoring defense (19.1 points per game).
The Grizzlies have been one of the top passing rushing teams in the country (16th in sacks) and are 12th in turnover margin and tackles for loss.
Both Montana and Sam Houston State are among the top teams for protecting their quarterbacks, tying for seventh in fewest sacks allowed.
Sam Houston State and Montana have had two common opponents, Montana State from the Big Sky Conference and Central Arkansas from the Southland Conference.
Sam Houston State dispatched Central Arkansas 31-10 in the second game of the season, a contest that ultimately decided first place in the Southland.
The Bearkats hammered out a surprisingly easy 49-13 victory over Montana State, the co-champion of the Big Sky, in the quarterfinals of the playoffs last week at home.
Montana has played those two teams in the past four weeks, knocking off Montana State 36-10 on the road in Bozeman, MT. in the annual rivalry game, the Brawl of the Wild. SHSU’s win over MSU prevented a rematch of that heated series in Missoula this weekend.
After a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Grizzlies walloped Central Arkansas 41-14 at home.
Sam Houston State is trying to become just the second Southland team to knock off Montana State and Montana during the playoffs in back-to-back weeks.
McNeese State pulled off that feat in 2002 on the way to the national championship game, beating Montana State in the first round and Montana in the quarterfinals of what was then a 16-team championship tournament.
The Cowboys of McNeese State were the last Southland team to start the season 13-0, accomplishing that in 1995 before losing at home in the semifinals to eventual national runner-up Marshall, 25-13.
McNeese State was the last Southland team to reach the title game and Texas State was the last Southland squad to make it to the quarterfinals.
No Southland team has won an NCAA football title since Northeast Louisiana did it with a 43-42 over Marshall in 1987.
Five other Southland teams (Louisiana Tech in 1984, Arkansas State in 1986, Stephen F. Austin in 1989, and McNeese State in 1997 and 2002) have been national runner-ups.
Montana, meanwhile, has been synonymous with playoff success.
The Grizzlies are making their 21st appearance in the playoffs, with a 32-18 record. But while Montana is 28-6 at home, the Griz is just 2-8 on the road and 1-4 at neutral sites, while winning national crowns in 1995 and 2001 over Marshall (22-20) and Furman (13-6) respectively.
In 11 semifinal appearances, Montana is 7-3, including a 6-1 mark at home and 1-2 on the road. The Grizzlies took their only semifinal win 35-27 over No. 1 ranked and previously unbeaten James Madison in 2008 before losing to Richmond 24-7 in the title game.
Montana also lost the 2009 title game, 23-21 to Villanova.
“We’re looking forward to this tremendous challenge to go against Montana,” said Fritz. “We know about all the history and tradition of Montana football. They’re a very, very talented team.”