North Dakota State had Montana right where they wanted them – leading late, 35–28, with the ball and a chance to run out the clock for yet another signature win. It doesn’t get much bigger than the stage set Saturday at Missoula’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium. A nationally televised audience watched on ESPN as the Bison and Grizzlies traded punches in college football’s 2015 opener, a game that wasn’t decided until the final play from scrimmage.
Unfortunately, in a change of script for NDSU, they were the ones reeling after a late-game knockout punch in the form of a one-yard touchdown plunge with two seconds left sent them to the canvas. The touchdown gave Montana a dramatic 38–35 comeback victory. The Bison were, well, out-Bison’ed by the Grizzlies. “We missed some opportunities that we usually don’t miss and we’re going to take it, learn from it,” said Bison coach Chris Klieman on his coach’s show Sunday morning. “We have an open week, we’ve got to get better.”
There is no question NDSU has plenty to work on after losing a season opener for the first time since 2009. The Grizzlies piled up 544 yards in 92 plays against a typically stout Bison defense, a unit tasked with replacing seven starters from a group that was one of the best in the Football Championship Subdivision in 2014.
On the other side of the ball, after a big first half where they exploded for 28 points, the much vaunted Bison offense managed only a single touchdown in the game’s final 30 minutes. While the offensive struggled to find consistency in the second half, the defense could not get off the field on crucial third and fourth down plays. This, coupled with a costly turnover, provided Montana the window they needed to hang around and pull the upset.
“I think we just ran out of a couple plays down the stretch, second half I was a little disappointed we didn’t stay on the field long enough,” said senior quarterback Carson Wentz, who finished 16 of 28 for 198 yards and two touchdown passes, adding two more scores on the ground. “We’ve got to get better, we’ll learn from it,” Wentz said.
Leading 35–28 with 6:47 in the game, the Bison had the ball, first down in Montana territory, when a miscommunication between Wentz and freshman wide receiver Dimitri Williams led to a botched handoff the Grizzlies recovered. After a Montana field goal brought them to within 35–31, the Bison offense could not produce a first down. On the game’s final possession, facing fourth-and-10 from midfield, Montana connected for a 31-yard pass to their tight end down the seam to NDSU’s 19-yard line, setting up the final touchdown.
“They came out and they executed and we definitely left some plays out there we wish we could get back,” said junior linebacker Nick DeLuca. “We’re definitely going to learn from it and move on.”
While it certainly was not their best performance, the Bison have proved as good as anyone in bouncing back from tough losses – something they’ve done on the way to three of the four national championships in their impressive streak. This includes winning six straight games, five of them versus ranked opponents, culminating with a national championship after a tough loss to Northern Iowa last November ended a 33-game winning streak stretching back to 2012.
At the end of the day, despite the uncharacteristically inconsistent performance, the Bison found themselves with a chance to win the game in the closing seconds against a very good Montana team in a stadium where the Grizzlies are 62–8 in their last 70 games.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s this. The Bison will only get better, and have a month to do so before starting Missouri Valley Football Conference play. Starting cornerback CJ Smith, who missed the Montana game with an injury, should be ready by then. Likewise, Wentz will have some time to rest a dinged up ankle, whose severity likely won’t be known until the home opener against Weber State in two weeks.
The bye weeks and two nonconference games will, perhaps most importantly, give the Bison time to correct the mistakes made against the Grizzlies.
“Our guys are going to learn from it and I think it will make us better going forward,” said Klieman. “Who knows, we may get an opportunity to play them again.”