HARRISONBURG, VA. — While Montana's football season ended on Friday night in the FCS quarterfinal round at the hands of James Madison, the Grizzlies still had a season to remember.
Montana won 10 games this year which was kicked off by a win over a ranked FBS opponent, and they made it back to the FCS playoffs for the second consecutive season, and this all comes after not even having a season last year.
The Grizzlies made a loud statement in the college football world when they opened the season with a win over then-ranked Washington in Seattle. The 13-7 victory was just the sixth FCS victory over a ranked FBS opponent in the last 40 years.
That win would set the tone for Montana throughout the year as the Grizzlies became a name thrown into title contention.
"I really love this team. I think this is a great football team," Griz coach Bobby Hauck said. "We didn't have enough in the tank (Friday night) to get it done but this is a special football team. They're really good, lot of big wins, any time you're winning 10 games it's a fine year and we're back in business where we're competing for it every year now and we're a young team, great things moving forward."
Injuries plagued UM throughout the year and became a harsh reality in their first loss to Eastern Washington back on Oct. 2 when UM lost quarterback Cam Humphrey, receiver Gabe Sulser, and also played without a number of starters on defense against the Eagles. UM came into the season down their top two options at running back in Marcus Knight and Nick Ostmo, and that position remained volatile throughout the season.
That element led to inconsistent play, especially on offense, and Montana would take its second loss to eventual Big Sky Conference champion Sacramento State two weeks later.
But the Grizzlies rebounded from there as they won six straight games which included emotional home victories over Montana State at the end of the year, and a revenge win over Eastern Washington in the second round of the playoffs. Humphrey returned under center against Northern Colorado, and the Grizzlies returned key starters like safety Gavin Robertson and defensive end Joe Babros who missed games early in the season, though the offense dealt with a few injuries during that stretch.
UM's defense will go down as one of the best in school history as this unit carried the Grizzlies throughout the season, even as injuries continued to take their toll all the way up to UM's loss to James Madison on Friday, but the defense kept Montana in games and often led them to wins. The Grizzlies finish the campaign currently leading the FCS in defensive touchdowns with six, are second in forced turnovers with 30 total (12 recovered fumbles, 18 interceptions), and are tied for sixth with 44 total sacks. They finished allowing just 16.31 points per game and 330 yards per game.
The Grizzlies will bid goodbye to 14 seniors who helped build UM back to perennial playoff contenders, including linebacker Jace Lewis and right tackle Dylan Cook, both former walk-ons and Montana natives who saw the program grow substantially during their time with the Griz.
"Montana's a special place, starting from the coaches down, the players, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," said Lewis, a Townsend native who wore the legacy No. 37 jersey this year. "From where I started to where I am now, it's kind of surreal sitting here knowing my career is done but I can't wait to come back and watch these guys go next year. It's been a great year for us."
"You can't beat it man," Cook, a Butte native, added. "I'm just grateful and blessed that coach Hauck took a chance on me and allowed me to come here and give my all and earn a spot. Griz nation, man, you can't beat it."
Records fell, as receiver Samuel Akem tied Marc Marinai's all-time receiving touchdown record with 29 in his time at UM, as he finished with 49 receptions for 689 yards and seven touchdowns. Linebacker Patrick O'Connell and cornerback Justin Ford established themselves as some of the best defenders in the FCS. O'Connell, who finishes with 14 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, 105 total tackles, four forced fumbles and two recoveries, is currently a finalist for the Buck Buchanan award while Ford, who finished leading the FCS with nine interceptions and also had a pair of fumble recoveries and three touchdowns on the year, was fourth in voting for the award. Both will be back next year.
The future is bright for Montana with those who will be joining them next season, including breakout stars like linebacker Marcus Welnel and offensive guard Hunter Mayginnes. Welnel replaced Griz legend Dante Olson and finished with 94 total tackles, 12.5 for loss, eight sacks and three interceptions, including the game-sealing one against Washington. Welnel also blocked a potential game-winning field goal against Southern Utah. Other young, budding stars made immediate impacts for UM this year as well including receiver turned running back Junior Bergen (493 rushing yards, 230 receiving yards, five total touchdowns), fellow running back Xavier Harris (leading rusher with 666 yards on the ground and two scores), tight end Cole Grossman (36 receptions, 463 yards, five touchdowns) and punter Brian Buschini, who has led the FCS in punt average most of the year.
Going forward, the Grizzlies will have question marks as to who will fill in next season, especially at quarterback. Humphrey (1,789 passing yards, 16 touchdowns), was injured against James Madison, and is now gone and both Kris Brown and Robbie Patterson played against the Dukes. Patterson finished the game and played the entire second half while Brown was Humphrey's primary backup. Who fills that role is to be determined, and the chance UM also brings in a transfer QB is another possibility.
The Griz will also lose three starters on the offensive line in Cook, right guard Moses Mallory and left tackle Conlan Beaver, plus Humphrey and Akem as other offensive starters. Defensively, Montana will also lose five starters in both starting defensive ends in Babros (5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) and Justin Belknap (37 total tackles, seven for loss and a pick-6), Lewis (100 total tackles, 15.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, three forced fumbles) at linebacker, and Robertson (31 total tackles, two interceptions) at safety and Omar Hicks Onu (43 total tackles, 11 pass breakups) at cornerback. The Grizzlies will also look to replace kicker Kevin Macias, who completed 19 straight field goal attempts to end the season, a school record, including a career-long 51-yarder against James Madison.
But among those mentioned coming back, established staples like wide receiver Mitch Roberts (55 catches, 683 yards, one touchdown), safety Robby Hauck (128 total tackles, six for loss, one sack), defensive tackle Alex Gubner (43 total tackles, nine for loss, one forced fumble) and receiver Malik Flowers (two kick return touchdowns, one rushing score and two more receiving touchdowns) will be back along with those players returning from injury like Knight, Ostmo and Sulser.
"We'll digest this one and the season a little bit," Hauck said. "Don't want to push on to next year too soon because there were so many great things this fall and was just fun to see the joy back in Griz nation."