Nothing like a 43-point road win over the defending Big Sky Conference co-champions to not only end a three-game losing streak but mostly erase it from memory. That’s how good Montana was on Saturday.
The Grizzlies scored on their first three possessions of the game to build an early lead and on three of their first four possessions of the second half to blow it open as Montana defeated Southern Utah 57-14 at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City.
Dalton Sneed threw five touchdowns, Jeremy Calhoun ran for 99 yards plus a score and the Grizzlies totaled 635 yards of offense and 33 first downs on their way to their most lopsided road win since 1999.
“It was fun to see us play four quarters instead of two or three. That’s been a point of emphasis not just this week but the last 10 months. We went after them pretty good,” said coach Bobby Hauck, whose team led UC Davis 21-3 at the half last weekend before giving up 46 second-half points in a 49-21 loss.
There would be no such storyline this Saturday. After Southern Utah pulled to within 30-14 at the half, Sneed threw three third-quarter touchdowns — two to Samuel Akem, who now has six in the last three games — to put the game out of reach as the Griz defense didn’t allow a second-half point.
“It was fun to have a dominating and total and complete victory,” said Hauck. “We saw signs of it the first half last week, when it was like it was supposed to be. Our guys, they’re getting it. We’re a young team getting better.”
Young, yes, but it was the seniors who had themselves a day in Cedar City. Calhoun looked like a man among boys every time he got into space, which was often, and Keenan Curran had six catches for 91 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
His first touchdown catch, a 21-yard strike from Sneed, made it 20-0 less than 10 minutes into the game. His second came over the middle, when he held on despite getting roughed up by a pair of defenders after making the catch in the end zone. That made it 44-14.
“Our seniors are tremendous guys for a lot of reasons, but the reason I love this group the most is they bought in totally and completely the first day we got to Montana in December,” said Hauck. “They give us everything they’ve got every day, and I love them for it.
“You like to see your seniors who are in their stretch run, like Keenan, rise up and produce and play well, which he did.”
One of the few missteps on the day happened on the very first offensive play of the game, when Jerry Louie-McGee dropped a pass he catches 99 out of 100 times. And probably blindfolded. He more than made up for it the next 59-plus minutes.
He scored the game’s first touchdown, a 14-yard pass from Sneed, and he wouldn’t stop tormenting SUU until he’d recorded 171 all-purpose yards: 87 receiving, 48 in punt returns and 36 rushing.
And that doesn’t include the 90-yard punt return for a touchdown he had late in the third quarter that was called back because of a holding penalty.
Calhoun put Montana up 13-0 with a nine-yard scoring run midway through the first quarter, and Curran made it 20-0 less than two minutes later, after Josh Buss intercepted a pass that Reggie Tilleman batted his direction at the line of scrimmage.
Southern Utah pulled within 30-14 late in the first half, and when Montana failed to score right before the break — Sneed’s 14-yard scoring run was called back by a holding penalty, Semenza’s 31-yard field goal attempt was wide left — the Thunderbirds maybe had their first break. And maybe a pulse.
They were going to receive the second-half kickoff in what was, in theory, still a two-possession game.
Any hope was dashed the first play of the second half, when Josh Sandry intercepted Tyler Skidmore. Three plays later, Sneed found Akem for a 16-yard touchdown and the rout was on.
Southern Utah didn’t record a first down in the third quarter and had less than 100 yards of offense in the second half.
“(Our defense) played hard. They’re fierce. We’re good tacklers. They played the way it’s supposed to be played,” said Hauck, whose team didn’t have a single turnover on Saturday after giving it away a dozen times in its losses to Portland State, North Dakota and UC Davis.
“Kind of magic how that happens. It was terrific by our guys. Our team is evolving in the right direction. We’re certainly not there yet, but we can feel pretty good about ourselves after that effort today.”
After Akem’s two touchdown catches in the third quarter and Curran’s second of the game, Alijah Lee finished off the scoring with a fourth-quarter touchdown run of nine yards.
It was Montana highest scoring output in 23 games, since laying 62 on Idaho State back in 2016.
The win was the 85th for Hauck at Montana, tying him with Don Read for the most in program history. It was also Hauck’s 100th as a head coach and his 50th Big Sky Conference victory.
For as much as Hauck dislikes talking about his own milestones, it gave him an opportunity to redirect the spotlight and attention on Read, who did the heavy lifting of building the program. Hauck has only been adding to what he was blessed with when he took over. Both times.
“It’s a good opportunity to pay tribute to the great Don Read and the magnificent job he did to lay the groundwork for all of this,” said Hauck.
“It’s pretty special because he’s a guy I consider a mentor. A lot of the things we do in our program are based on how he did things.”
And after a day like Saturday, Read would be pleased.