MISSOULA — Bob Stitt is off and running at the University of Montana — at four-time defending national champion North Dakota State’s expense.
Joey Counts scored on a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal with 2 seconds left to give the Grizzlies a 38-35 victory Saturday in the Football Championship Subdivision showdown.
“Here’s my statement: How about that?” Stitt said. “That was unbelievable. It was pretty crazy how calm I was and everybody all around us was. The players, man, they were so focused.”
The innovative Stitt took over at Montana after 15 seasons at Colorado Mines, replacing the retired Mick Delaney. The debut was a smashing success in front of a record 26,472 fans who braved smoke from forest fires to pack Washington-Grizzly Stadium for the Football Championship Subdivision showdown.
“I’m so happy for our kids, because this is what they came to play for,” Stitt said. “They came here to win every game. They came here to be first. We didn’t play today to be second.”
North Dakota State lost for the fourth time in its last 62 games.
“They made one more play than we did,” Bison coach Chris Klieman said. “It was a great game and my hat’s off to Coach Stitt. I thought they did a better job than we did the second half.”
Brady Gustafson was 30 of 55 for 434 yards and three touchdowns in his first start for Montana. The 6-foot-7 junior completed passes of 15 yards to Jamaal Jones and 31 yards to Reese Carlson on the winning 15-play, 80-yard drive that started with 1:39 left.
“Brady was awesome,” Stitt said. “He did everything that we asked him to do. He had a few situations when he didn’t hit things, but he never lost focus. He just kept grinding, and he never, ever panicked.”
Carlson’s catch came on fourth-and-10 and moved the ball to the 13 with 21 seconds left. Gustafson then hit Ellis Henderson for 12 yards to set up first-and-goal. Montana needed four plays to get in and spent its final timeout after Counts was stopped inches short on third down.
Counts broke through on the left side for the score.
“I know as soon as Joey ran into the end zone my eyes started tearing up,” Jones said. “Those are the kinds of things you dream about, especially as a senior, especially it being my last, first game. That was picture perfect.”
Montana tied it at 28 in the third quarter on Gustafson’s 62-yard pass to Henderson. The Bison regained the lead on King Frazier’s 7-yard scoring run with 10:37 left in the game.
The Bison got the ball back with 9:19 left on Gustafson’s fumble, but Montana’s Kendrick Van Ackeren recovered a fumble after North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz’s bad exchange on a handoff.
The Grizzlies pulled within four on Daniel Sullivan’s 28-yard field goal with 3:33 left, then forced a three-and-out to set up the winning drive.
Gustafson also had TD passes of 7 yards to Jones and 38 yards to Ben Roberts. Roberts, a senior who spent three seasons playing baseball at Washington State, made a leaping grab between two defenders in the second quarter.
Montana ran 92 offensive plays, 46 in each half.
“We knew if we could get between 45 and 50 (plays) we would have them gassed, and we’d have a chance to win in the fourth quarter,” Stitt said. “We came out and were a little slow in the third quarter and our defense kept us in it.”
Henderson had seven catches for 133 yards, Jones finished with eight receptions for 119 yards, and John Nguyen ran 19 times for 86 yards. The Grizzlies had 544 yards of offense.
Limping at times in the second half, Wentz was 16 of 28 for 198 yards and two touchdowns — strikes of 27 yards to Chase Morlock and 10 yards to Zach Vraa — and ran for 70 yards on 13 carries.
“It’s not an excuse, but I don’t think it helped that Carson wasn’t 100 percent,” Klieman said. “It took away our quarterback run game.”
Frazier ran 15 times for 91 yards for the Bison.
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