By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
MISSOULA, MT. — Jabin Sambrano was a genuine playoff hero at Washington-Grizzly Stadium before Montana’s 48-10 victory over Northern Iowa on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division I Football Championships.
Quarterback Jordan Johnson wrote his name into that pantheon of stars for the first time before a national television audience and the 23,049 fans that watched in person.
And because of their efforts and a lot of other strong performances by Grizzly teammates, Montana found it easy to steam into the semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision tournament for the third time in four years.
The No. 4-seeded Grizzlies (11-2) meet the winner of the quarterfinal between top-seeded Sam Houston State and Montana State Saturday in Huntsville, TX.
A win by Sam Houston State would mean that Montana would have to travel to Huntsville. A victory by Montana State would set up a rematch of the yearly Brawl of the Wild rivalry in Missoula.
Northern Iowa, the No. 5 seed, ended the season at 10-3.
Johnson completed 13-of-20 passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns, but just as important were the 86 yards he piled up on 10 carries, including one for an important score.
Sambrano, whose late fourth-quarter touchdown catch in a blizzard lifted Montana to a win over Appalachian State and vaulted the Grizzlies into the national championship game in 2009, didn’t find the end zone on Friday.
But his kickoff and punt returning skill and his one reception on the night gave the Montana offense a short field to work with several times during the evening.
Sambrano returned one kickoff for 40 yards, a punt return for 30 more — one of five punts he grabbed for 54 yards — and hauled in a key pass from Johnson for 28 yards to keep a drive alive.
It was just seven touches for 122 yards, but everyone of them put the Panther defense on its heels.
Montana rolled up 463 yards, 267 of it on the ground and the defense chipped in with three turnovers and allowed UNI just 257 yards to complete another Washington-Grizzly massacre.
But for much of the first quarter, this game looked like it would be anything but easy for
It didn’t take long for Northern Iowa to get on the scoreboard. Rennie directed the Panthers from their own 44 to the end zone on their second possession, mixing runs and passes before hitting Jared Herring for 27-yards and a touchdown.
Catching Montana in a blitz, Rennie dumped the ball off just in the nick of time and Herring dashed into the corner of the end zone to make it 7-0 at the 9:22 mark.
The Grizzlies matched UNI with six seconds left in the first period when Jordan Canada slammed into the end zone from a yard out on a third down rush.
Over the next three quarters, Montana turned the game into a rout, outscoring UNI 41-3.
The Panthers struggled with tackling on a cool, clear Montana evening, with temperatures falling into the 20s and lost contain with Johnson repeatedly, several times on third and long.
Johnson keyed Montana’s second scoring drive early in the second period with several important runs and capped off the march with a twisting, six-yard scamper for the go-ahead TD.
Northern Iowa missed a chance to tie it on its next possession and settled for Tyler Sievertsen’s 21-yard to make it 14-10, but Montana answered with two touchdowns in the final five minutes of the half.
Peter Nguyen shocked UNI with a 10-yard scoring romp on a third-down draw play at the 4:26 mark and Kavario Middleton caught a five-yard scoring toss from Johnson to make it 28-10 with 30 seconds left in the half.
The second half was all Montana, with Johnson throwing a pair of TD passes to Sam Gratten and cornerback Donnie Lisowski returning an interception 35 yards for the final score.
Rennie finished with 64 yards in the first period, but was contained the rest of the way to finish 9-of-19 for 93 yards passing, with one TD and two interceptions and 22 carries for 51 yards rushing.
The rest of the Panther attack fared even worse against the tough Montana defense, making it a long evening in the final three quarters.