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Northern Arizona Upsets #13 Montana for First Win of Season

The Lumberjacks came to play in their Big Sky opener.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Northern Arizona at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Not many folks thought expected what they saw in Flagstaff on Saturday afternoon. Why would they? The home team, after all, had yet to win a game this season and the visitors from Montana had yet to lose. Sure, the Grizzlies had struggled in a few of their victories but Northern Arizona had shown no signs of doing anything notable this season. It was the Lumberjacks, though, that flipped the script to pick up their first win of the 2023 season.

Early on it seemed as though NAU would pick up right where they left off in last week’s lopsided loss to Utah Tech. On the opening drive, quarterback Adam Damante threw an interception to give the ball to Montana. The Grizzlies offense, however, only went backward and had to punt.

The Lumberjacks’ special teams stepped up and blocked the punt, setting themselves up deep in Griz territory. From there it only took the Lumberjacks offense one play to capitalize. Damante hit receiver Hendrix Johnson for a 24-yard touchdown much to the delight of the Walkup Skydome.

After another Montana punt, NAU extended their early lead thanks to an impressive 15-play march that chewed up over eight minutes. Devon Sterling capped the lengthy drive with a two-yard scoring run. Against all odds, the ‘Jacks led it 14-0 early in the second quarter.

The Grizzlies finally got a breath of life with under 10 minutes until the break. Damante threw his second pick of the afternoon, this one to Trevin Gradney. Gradney turned it up field and set up UM deep in Northern Arizona territory. QB Sam Vidlak found Aaron Fontes for the short four-yard touchdown to put Montana on the board. The PAT, though, was missed.

Northern Arizona’s defense locked it down for much of the afternoon. With 5:10 remaining until the break, Eloi Kwete sacked Vidlak and forced a fumble. Whatever momentum the Griz had up that point was completely erased and NAU was in business again.

Again it only took the Lumberjacks one play to capitilize. Chase Belcher took the flip from Damante on a trick play and aired it out to Marcus Phillips Jr. Phillips got behind the Montana defense and cruised in for the 48-yard touchdown to put Northern Arizona up 21-6.

The Grizzlies needed something to get excited about and they needed it fast. Xavier Harris gave them that something with a 24-yard touchdown run on the next possession. The two-point try was good and in a blink, Montana was right back in it 21-14 at halftime.

Despite the surge before halftime, the second half started off on the wrong foot for the Griz. Vidlak overshot his receiver on 2nd and short and the pass was intercepted by NAU’s Alex McLaughlin who returned it 25 yards. For the third time, the offense returned the favor and got a touchdown out of it. Keyonta Lanier’s four-yard touchdown run made it 28-14.

Missed field goals plagued NAU down the stretch but their defense rose to the occasion. The Lumberjacks stopped UM’s offense on fourth down three separate times in the final 30 minutes and surrendered no second half points.

It was a total team effort from Northern Arizona who is now 1-0 in Big Sky play. The defense held Montana to just 2-of-12 on third down and gave up a mere 31 rush yards. Damante finished his day with 212 passing yards and a score while Sterling led NAU’s rushers with 67 yards on 19 carries.

For the Grizzlies, Vidlak had trouble staying upright for much of the game, taking four sacks. He completed 23 of his 37 throws for 210 yards and touchdown along with a pick. Keelan White posted a team-high nine catches for 92 yards but in the end it wasn’t enough.

For the Lumberjacks, this win couldn’t have come at a better time. Starting the conference slate 1-0 is just what the doctor ordered after losing the first three out of the gate. The Grizzlies, though, have to be concerned despite being 3-1 still. The schedule doesn’t get any easier from here and NAU was, in many ways, supposed to be one of the “easier” games.

The ‘Jacks will now get ready to take on Sacramento State on the road next weekend while Montana returns home to face Idaho State.