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Montana Scores 31 Unanswered Points to Topple SEMO in Playoff Nightcap

The Grizzlies special teams ignited a furious comeback on Saturday night.

Cal Poly v Montana Photo by Tommy Martino/University of Montana/Getty Images

At this time last week Montana’s players and coaches were tossing and turning in their beds, not knowing if they’d be in the postseason mix after a horrid showing in their regular season finale. Fast forward to now, though, and the Grizzlies are happily on their way to the second round after staging an epic comeback to take down Southeast Missouri State on Saturday night in Missoula.

The Redhawks silenced the Grizzly faithful early in the first when Lawrence Johnson recovered a fumble by UM quarterback Lucas Johnson and returned it for a touchdown. SEMO led it 7-0 early and had stolen momentum.

The Southeast Missouri State defense took that momentum and used it to make another huge play on the ensuing Griz drive when they bottled up running back Nick Ostmo on fourth and short. Paxton DeLaurent and the offense got the ball back with the lead on the road.

Running back Geno Hess made a big run but ultimately SEMO had to give it right back after getting backed up into third and a mile. Both offenses sputtered out the rest of the way through the opening quarter and when the second began, UM trailed by seven and their fans let them hear it as they booed the offense after they failed to convert on a third down toward the end of the period.

Redhawks kicker DC Pippen drilled a 35-yard field goal to swell the lead to 10-0. Head coach Tom Matukewicz had to be happy about how his team was starting. Pitching a shutout in a place like Missoula is no easy feat.

Just when it seemed like the Grizzlies offense was going stagnant yet again, Malik Flowers came up with two big catches to move the sticks and breathe some life into the crowd. An facemask penalty set Johnson and his crew up at the SEMO 29-yard line with a fresh set of downs.

The Southeast Missouri State D stepped up and forced Montana to settle for a field goal try. Nico Ramos hit his 35-yard attempt to get UM on the board but SEMO still led 10-3 with 9:35 to go until halftime.

The two offenses continued to struggle. Both DeLaurent and Johnson were unable to connect with their receivers on the following two drives and each had to trade punts because of it.

When SEMO got the ball back for the their last drive before the half, though, they finally found some rhythm. DeLaurent and Hess led an impressive 92-yard drive that ate up seven minutes. Hess bullied his way over the goal line from a yard out to make it 17-3 at halftime. At the break the Grizzlies were on the ropes.

The second half began the same way the first one ended. DeLaurent methodically drove the Redhawks down the field with a healthy mix of passes and runs but none bigger than a across-the-body dart he threw to receiver Ryan Flournoy to get into the red zone. The highlight reel throw set up Hess for his second touchdown of the night. He powered ahead for a two-yard score to stretch the lead to 21 points.

The Grizzlies needed a jolt and they got it without the offense even taking the field. Flowers bobbled the kickoff but then did what he does best and broke free for his seventh all-time career kick return touchdown. The big return tied an FCS record set by former Weber State specialist Rashid Shaheed.

SEMO return man Dalyn McDonald did his best to impersonate Flowers and ran the ensuing kickoff back into Griz territory. DeLaurent took over from the 43-yard line but was able to do nothing with it. Pippen came on for a 48-yard field goal try but sliced it wide right and the Redhawks still led by 14.

Aided by a pass interference call, Montana’s offense put together their best drive of the night up to that point. Johnson unloaded a teardrop pass to Keelan White for a 17-yard touchdown to make it a one-score game. With 5:07 to play in the third, UM trailed 24-17.

Now playing against the revitalized crowd, DeLaurent and the SEMO offense started to come apart. They were only able to pick up two yards on their next series and had to punt away again and it turned disastrous in a hurry. Griz return man Junior Bergen found a seam and cut it back for the second special teams score of the night. Bergen’s 58-yard scamper tied the game back up and capped off a streak of 21 unanswered points.

Everything was now flipped and the pressure was squarely on the Southeast Missouri State offense and the moment seemed to be too big for DeLaurent who took two big sacks on the drive. Another punt would put the SEMO defense on the spot to try and deliver a big play to stop the bleeding.

The fourth quarter began with Johnson driving the offense at midfield and with 12:28 to play Montana grabbed its first lead. Ramos booted in a 32-yard field goal to make it 27-24. To make matters worse for the Redhawks, though, they had to punt yet again after another failed drive.

SEMO’s defense tightened up this time and senior defensive back Ty Leonard made a huge play for the Redhawks when he intercepted Johnson in the end zone to hold the Grizzlies scoreless.

On the other side, DeLaurent finally was able to get the offense moving when he evaded a tackler and found Flournoy for a big gain into UM’s end of the field. It started to feel like SEMO was changing their fortunes but it was a short-lived feeling. DeLaurent and receiver Pervis Frazier came up short on a fourth down try.

Montana only needed two plays to extend their lead. Johnson found receiver Cole Grossman wide open over the middle for a 19-yard touchdown to make it 34-24 late in the fourth. The wheels were completely off for SEMO and it was showing.

Garrett Graves put the bow on it when he picked off DeLaurent with under five minutes to play. The raucous crowd erupted putting an exclamation point on their big night.

Hess wrapped up his night with 122 yards and two touchdowns. He now has 53 scores on his career. DeLaurent completed 25 of his 49 passes for 277 yards but had no passing touchdowns.

The Grizzlies experienced a range of emotions as they put up 31 points in the second half. The special teams was on fire with two return touchdowns, one on a kick and one on a punt. Johnson ended the game with 306 yards and two touchdowns. Robby Hauck registered 15 takedowns and broke the Big Sky tackle record as he hit career stop 474.

The Griz will now travel to Fargo next weekend to take on NDSU.