MISSOULA, Mont. — There was quite a memorable scene in San Luis Obispo last year when the Cal Poly football team earned a hard-fought, historic victory over Montana, only the second win in Mustangs history over the Grizzlies’ storied program. Montana remembered that moment just as clearly.
Montana scored 16 unanswered points in the second half on a warm, sunny afternoon Saturday before an occasionally deafening crowd of 25,855 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium to defeat Cal Poly, 37-23.
“Going into the game, our coach kept showing us a little picture of their 35-33 victory over us (from a year ago), and it really got us fired up,” Montana senior receiver Jabin Sambrano said. “We felt super-bad after that loss. We just came with intensity and were focused.”
For the Grizzlies (1-1), a traditional gold standard in the FCS throughout the region, it was a sweet turnaround from the 2010 upset.
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“You prepare all week and lay it out there for 60 minutes, and when you win, there’s nothing like it,” Grizzlies senior linebacker Caleb McSurdy said. “And to kind of avenge the loss last year, even better.”
The Mustangs (0-2) led 23-21 with 4:13 remaining in the third quarter, with their scores coming on a 4-yard touchdown run by Templeton High grad Jake Romanelli, a 1-yard dive over the pile by quarterback Andre Broadous and a career day from true sophomore kicker James Langford, who connected on all three of his field-goal attempts, of 38, 36 and 50 yards.
Cal Poly found itself in a hole early, though, after Sambrano returned the opening kickoff 96 yards for a TD. The Mustangs also fumbled three times, losing two of them.
“We needed to play well on special teams, and they returned the opening kick for a touchdown,” Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said. “We knew we had to take care of the football, and we didn’t take care of the football.”
Montana, which came in ranked 13th in the FCS coaches poll and 15th by the media, finished the game with a 12-of-18 third-down conversion rate.
“We’ve got to get off the field on third down,” Cal Poly linebacker Johnny Millard said.
Montana didn’t punt in the entire second half.
“We didn’t play great on third downs,” Walsh said. “I think we played hard. Third downs, that’s what you play for, to get off the field on third down. They did a good job of protecting, and they found some open spots in some of the coverages we had.”
In the first half, Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson went 6-of-12 passing for 35 yards and no TDs. The Grizzlies were looking to bounce back from a 42-16 season-opening loss to Tennessee.
“We were all kind of tight at the beginning of the game,” Johnson said. “Like coach (Robin Pflugrad) said, we wanted to prove that we could dominate an FCS opponent (instead of playing naturally).”
They found a groove in the second half, when Johnson completed 19 of 27 passes for 205 yards and two TDs.
“We just went to our (offensive coordinator) and let him know that their coverages were cover-2, pretty much, and (that) we could beat them vertical,” Sambrano said. “We came back on fire. It was unbelievable.”
Despite the final score, the unranked Mustangs were only narrowly outgained in total offense by the Grizzlies, 356-332.
“Offensively, we’ve got to finish (drives),” Romanelli said. “There were a lot of field goals, and you’re not going to win games like that. It was kind of the same recurring thing that happened last week; we kind of shot ourselves in the foot. Give credit to them. They’re a great team, and they’re always a good team historically, but we’ve got to finish.”
Romanelli finished with 98 yards and a TD on 20 carries. Broadous rushed 22 times for 90 yards and a score, and went 9-of-13 passing for 67 yards.
Another highlight offensively for Cal Poly was the emergence of highly touted true freshman receiver Willie Tucker. Facing a secondary featuring a likely NFL Draft pick in preseason All-America cornerback Trumaine Johnson, Tucker caught two passes for 58 yards, including a leaping 38-yard grab late in the first half along the left sideline that led to Broadous’ TD.
A few objects were thrown onto the field after the play, which was controversial as to whether Tucker was inbounds.
“That was one of the things coaches and players were harping on, was keep your heads up — this is a three-point football game (17-14 at halftime), and if they’re scoring off of some, you know, interesting calls, then we’re going to have some opportunities to stop them,” McSurdy said. “We weren’t hanging our heads or going, ‘Oh, the refs are trying to ruin it for us.’ It was just, ‘Next play, next series,’ and we made our adjustments.”
Cal Poly’s starting left guard, senior Maurice McClure, left the game during the first quarter with a shoulder injury and didn’t return. Starting left tackle Scott Winnewisser took his place, and Winnewisser’s backup, Giovanni Sani, stepped in for him. After the game, Walsh said the extent of McClure’s injury was unknown.