College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Northern Iowa and Montana are no strangers to the NCAA Division I Football Championships, as two of the powerhouse programs in the Football Championship Subdivision.
But when the No. 4-seeded Grizzlies (10-2) and the No. 5-seeded Panthers (10-2) square off Friday night at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, MT. in the quarterfinals, it will be a rare encounter between the top teams historically in western and midwestern regions.
UNI and Montana, teams that shared league titles in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Big Sky Conference this season, have met five times, twice in the NCAA playoffs.
The Griz took a 23-20 decision over Northern Iowa in 1994 in a first-round playoff game behind the play of quarterback Dave Dickenson.
Montana has found memories of a 38-0 semifinal victory over Northern Iowa in Missoula in 2001, a win that vaulted the Grizzlies into the national championship game against Furman a week later and UM scored its second NCAA crown with 13-6 win over the Paladins.
The Panthers also dropped a pair of regular season games to Montana in the 1980s, losing 42-21 in 1981 on the road and 33-16 in 1987 at home.
The two teams used different routes to the quarterfinals with victories last Saturday.
Ironically, ESPN’s ticker reported that Montana had won 31-0 last week when the game with Central Arkansas was still in the first half.
The game might have seemed like a TKO and it very well could have been, but the Grizzlies came back out for the second half and beat up on the Bears some more before exiting with a 41-14 triumph.
Montana’s defense forced four UCA turnovers, three on fumbles, held the Bears to 25 yards on the ground and showed balance between rushing and passing on the way to 415 yards of total offense.
Jordan Johnson was 16-of-25 for 138 yards passing, with two TDs — both to wide receiver and playoff standout Jabin Sambrano — and two interceptions.
Northern Iowa was pressed quite a bit more in a 28-21 victory over one of those teams nobody likes to draw, Wofford.
Wofford’s wingbone option accounted for 478 yards of total offense, 457 yards on the ground, and the Terriers accumulated nearly twice as much offense as UNI (238 yards).
But Wofford lost in a key department, 3-1 in turnovers, with the final one proving to be a killer for the Terriers.
A brain freeze by a Wofford kick returner when he forgot to down the ball for a touchback in the end zone led to the returnman being stripped of the ball and UNI’s Phil Wright recovering it in the end zone to give the Panthers a 28-14 lead.
That play came after David Johnson smashed in from the one for Northern Iowa to break a 14-all tie at the start of the fourth quarter.
The key to stopping UNI is to contain the Panthers’ multi-dimensional, senior quarterback Tirrell Rennie. Rennie tossed a pair of touchdown passes to Jared Herring last Saturday.
Rennie has passed for 1,709 yards, with 13 TDs and just two interceptions, and has rushed for 834 yards and nine more scores.
Johnson has come on strong as a freshman with 754 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.
UNI ranks 37th in rushing offense (169 yards per game), 92nd in passing offense (172 yards), 73rd in total offense (341 yards) and 50th in scoring (27.4 points per game).
But it is on defense where the Panthers have made their mark.
Led by linebacker L.J. Fort, the nation’s leading tackler with an average of nearly 14 per game and one of the top defensive tackles in FCS in Ben Boothby (16 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks), UNI ranks fourth in scoring defense (16.6 points), 58th in rushing defense (149 yards), 35th in pass defense (195 yards) and 36th in total defense (343 yards).
If Montana can find a weakness with the Panthers, it might come with the passing attack, particularly if Johnson can find the explosive Sambrano deep.
The Grizzlies have been about as evenly balanced as a team can be, rushing for an average of 215 yards per game (16th nationally) and have passed for 205 (58th), while being ranked 21st in total offense (420 yards) and 19th in scoring (33.2).
On the ground, Peter Nguyen (768 yards, two TDs) and Jordan Canada (532 yards, seven TDs) have been coming on strong. Together they combine for 112 yards per contest.
After some early troubles, Montana’s defense has become a big strength as the Grizzlies have roared to eight consecutive wins.
Montana has been very strong against the run, giving up only 115 yards per game to rate 16th in the FCS. The Grizzlies are 55th in pass defense (204 yards) and 21st in total defense (319 yards), while checking in at 18th in points allowed (19.8).
Linebacker Caleb McSurdy, averaging nearly 10 tackles per game, leads a defense that is more of a unit than a collection of stars.
Bryan Waldhauser, who averages a tackle for loss per contest, and Ryan Fetherston will be putting pressure on the passer, while Matt Hermanson helps guide the secondary of this young defense.
Brody McKnight is a weapon for Montana in the kicking game.
The winner of this game will face either top-seeded Sam Houston State on the road, or Montana State at home in the semifinals, likely to played a week from Friday.