MISSOULA, Montana – After a slow start against No. 2 Montana, the Northwestern State football team found its footing midway through the first half of Saturday’s season opener.
Then in a 109-second span near the end of the first half, the Grizzlies recaptured the momentum and re-established the tone in a 47-0 win for home-standing Montana at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“When you play this type of football team in this type of atmosphere, you can’t have the penalties we had, the turnovers we had, the field position we had, especially in the first half,” fifth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “They controlled it. We left a lot of things out there. Credit to them, but this game will not define our football team the rest of the season.”
Montana (1-0) jumped to a 13-0 lead 12 minutes into the game on a pair of touchdown passes of 30 and 13 yards from Lucas Johnson to Mitch Roberts before the Purple Swarm defense began to slow the Grizzlies’ attack. John Daigle’s first career blocked kick kept it a 13-point game as the sophomore defensive end got a hand on Camden Capser’s extra point try.
For much of the first quarter, the Demons (0-1) struggled to gain traction against the Montana defense, which ranked 24th nationally a season ago, allowing 330.7 yards per game.
NSU put together its best drive of the half midway through the second quarter.
Highlighted by the first career catch for Jaheim Walters, the Demons crossed into Grizzlies territory for the first time before a chop block penalty erased a first-down gain and put the Demons in a first-and-25 situation.
After that moment, the Grizzlies scored a pair of touchdowns in less than two minutes to double their lead entering halftime.
Marcus Knight’s 7-yard touchdown run capped an eight-play, 54-yard drive that put Montana ahead 19-0 before a failed 2-point conversion.
That score was compounded by a three-and-out by the Northwestern State offense that set up a blocked punt Tyler Flink returned 32 yards for a touchdown that extended the Grizzlies’ lead to 26-0.
“It was still 19-0 at that time,” Laird said. “We hadn’t really gotten anything going offensively yet and had made some big plays defensively. Not to say that was the turning point in the game, but it was a big momentum boost for them going into halftime.”
Penalties and turnovers conspired to work against Northwestern State. The Demons were whistled for 10 penalties covering 100 yards and lost the turnover battle 5-0, suffering their first shutout loss since a 33-0 loss to Stephen F. Austin on Nov. 19, 2011.
The Demons suffered a tipped-ball interception at the end of the first half on a Hail Mary attempt and lost a fumble with 10 seconds left in the game. Montana converted the remaining three Demon giveaways into just seven points, but the Grizzlies’ ability to keep the Demons pinned in their end loomed large throughout.
Northwestern State started just one of its 15 drives beyond its 30 – beginning its final first-half drive at its 43 following Scooter Adams’ 40-yard kick return with 27 seconds remaining in the half.
“We knew what it was going to be like coming in here,” said senior quarterback Miles Fallin, who went 29-for-42 for 183 yards and two interceptions in his first start as a Demon. “We were prepared for it. It was a good atmosphere. There were a lot of things that were out of our control, and we focused on controlling what we could control.”
Fallin distributed the ball to 12 different receivers, hitting fellow transfer Ke’Nard King and Javon Antonio six times apiece. Facing long fields most of the day, the Demons were outgained 464-219.
Linebacker Race Moser led the Purple Swarm defense with a career-high 10 tackles.
“The biggest thing was we had to get settled,” Moser said about the defense’s ability to rebound from its early struggles. “They’re a really good team, very disciplined. Their tendencies were throwing us off a little bit, but once we got settled in, we played better. We’ll go back and fix the mistakes we made.”
The Demons return to action next Saturday, facing Grambling in the Shreveport Classic presented by the Caddo Parish Commission. Kickoff for that game is set for 6 p.m. at Independence Stadium in Shreveport.