Kick ‘em while they’re down

The University of Montana Grizzlies (5-6, 3-5) got little help from special teams on Saturday as they hosted the Bobcats (10-1, 7-1) at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The defensive struggle and punt-riddled game was decided by field position and field goals, with MSU capturing their third consecutive Big Sky Conference Championship in the 16-7 win.

The Griz had the first opportunity to score, driving 84 yards only to be denied in the redzone by the MSU defense to force a 23-yard field goal attempt that UM kicker Chris Lider missed. The Bobcats then took advantage of a forced fumble by MSU linebacker Jody Owens and recovery by linebacker Cole Moore deep in Griz territory. Bobcat kicker Rory Perez hit a 42-yard field goal to put the Cats up 3-0.

The Griz answered with a quick, 76-yard rushing touchdown by running back Peter Nguyen making it 7-3 Grizzlies, but the Cats were able to escape with the lead at halftime thanks to sophomore wide receiver Brian Flotkoetter, who made three first down receptions to extend the drive for McGhee. “He’s really, pretty good,” said coach Ash of Flotkoetter. McGhee finished the drive by hitting a wide open receiver, Kruiz Siewing from 16 yards out to take a 10-7 lead.

McGhee and the Bobcat offense had a chance to extend the lead just before halftime. After a great catch by Jon Ellis and a 15-yard personal foul penalty, the Cats were in field goal range with 34 seconds left until halftime, but McGhee was intercepted by Grizzly free safety Matt Hermanson at the five yard line to end the half.

The Griz had a golden opportunity to tie the game on a 37-yard field goal attempt early in the third quarter, but Lider missed wide right, again, and MSU took over with their 10-7 lead intact. McGhee proceeded to hit running back Cody Kirk for a 26-yard first down reception to get the Cats in field goal range, and Rory Perez hit a 38-yard field goal to extend the lead to 13-7.

Then, later in the fourth, Perez bounced a 57-yard punt that UM returner Gerald Kemp failed to field, and the Cats downed the ball on the four yard line. “Instead of an 80-yard field we ended up with a 96-yard field,” said Grizzly Head Coach Mick Delaney.

Perez averaged 43.3 yards per punt, six yards better than his Griz counterpart, Stephen Shaw, but his most impressive kick was still to come. With 8:55 left in the game, the Cats finally found a way to run the ball against the big, physical Grizzly defense. Though Kirk averaged just 2.5 yards per carry on the day, he was better able to finish his runs and pick up three or more yards late in the game, and McGhee started to use his legs more effectively in the fourth as well.

Their newfound ability to pick up first downs on the ground burned time off the clock, and Perez hit a 22-yard field goal with 2:32 left in the game to make it a two score lead for the Cats, 16-7. “He punted really well,” said Ash, “and all three of those field goals were clutch.”

As expected, MSU had trouble running the ball, and the UM defense hit McGhee early and often, but McGhee used his legs to escape sticky situations and gain first downs in the second half. He turned the ball over once and had another close call on a pass that was tipped from behind and ruled incomplete rather than a fumble, but overall, McGhee finished with 247 yards on 26 of 47 passing attempts with a touchdown and was sacked just once.

“He’s the best winner I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Ash after the game. “He doesn’t care about stats. He just wants to win.” McGhee credited his offensive line and defense and said he told his Bobcats, “We will not be denied today,” and they weren’t.

The defense certainly deserves the credit for this one, especially senior defensive end Caleb Schreibeis, who finished with 16 tackles and a sack. Laughs erupted from coach Ash and DeNarius McGhee when they first heard those statistics, shocked that a defensive end would lead the team in tackles. The humble Schreibeis simply remarked, “We have tough players — mentally and physically.”

With the regular season over, the Cats will have a bye as the third seed in the playoffs and await to host either Stony Brook (9-2) or Villanova (8-3) at Bobcat Stadium on Dec. 1 at 5 p.m. The 2013 NCAA Division I Football Championship Game is scheduled for Jan. 5, 2013 at 11 a.m. in Frisco, Texas.