FARGO — Montana still has the swagger, but not much to back it up. Once the gold standard of NCAA Division I-AA football, the Grizzlies haven’t been at the top of their game since, well, almost since the Football Championship Subdivision was called I-AA.
That switch was made in 2006. The last Big Sky Conference championship won by the Grizzlies came in 2009. That was also the last time Montana made the playoff semifinals. Officially anyway. The Griz won the conference and advanced to the semis in 2011, but those accomplishments disappeared from the record books because then-head coach Robin Pflugrad’s program was hit with sanctions connected to a rape scandal.
Those days are long ago, but Montana is still looking to recapture the glory of days gone by when it won 14 straight Big Sky titles from 1995-2009. Included in that span were two national championships. The Griz remain one of the best-funded, best-supported, best-branded names in FCS football.
The results are not matching the potential, nor matching the hope in Missoula. The final from the Fargodome on Saturday in the second round of the playoffs was 49-26 in favor of North Dakota State, a game that saw the Bison rush for 453 yards, gain 511 total yards and stockpile four touchdown runs of 68 yards or longer .
This came two weeks after the Griz gave up 439 rushing yards and 561 total yards in a 55-21 shellacking at the hands of archrival Montana State. Brawl of the Wild? More like Maul of the Mild.
A Montana newspaper reporter asked Griz head coach Bobby Hauck about the state of his program in the postgame press conference, reminding Hauck that the program’s slogan is “Return to Dominance.” The Griz finished 8-5, with one victory over a team with a winning record.
“How do you feel about where the program’s at?” asked the reporter.
“I don’t know,” answered Hauck. “You know, we want to win every game.”
The Griz were not close to the Bison, the same way they weren’t close to Montana State.
Will there be questions asked? Hauck has one year remaining on his contract.
Give this to the Griz: They play hard and they play physical, even if sometimes that extends to the boundary of what’s acceptable.
The Bison, a team known for playing to the whistle and talking about it afterwards, almost came unglued when Montana offensive lineman Chris Walker took a shot at NDSU defensive lineman Spencer Waege as Waege was sitting on the dome turf during an interception return by teammate Nick Kubitz. Walker hit Waege from behind, folding over the 6-foot-5, 282-pound senior and injuring his back.
The seriousness of Waege’s injury remains to be seen, but he laid on the turf for several minutes while being checked by trainers. He left the game and didn’t return. Waege was seen walking stiffly outside the Bison locker room after the game.
Tempers on the field — and in the stands — were clearly flaring as NDSU players ran to Waege’s aid in front of the Griz bench. There was jawing, there was pointing, there was posturing. There was, notably, no flag thrown on Walker but NDSU was penalized twice on the play.
When asked about the heated moment, Hauck characterized the teams as “aggressive.”
“You know, it’s not tennis or soccer,” he said.
The Bison clearly saw it differently, considering head coach Matt Entz gathered his entire team on the field before play resumed and gave as animated a talk as you’ll see. His message?
“You need to be smart. We can’t play at that level. Our guys are proud, especially when they’re in the dome. We have these unbelievable relationships and that’s a captain laying on the ground,” Entz said. “I knew exactly how our guys were going to respond and we needed to bring them in and make sure that they understood being smart and handling yourself appropriately. That’s what Bison do.
“Did it maybe get a little chippy at times at the end? Probably and that’s frustrating and I don’t want to see that. That’s not football.”
Entz and Hauck had a longer-than-usual postgame chat at midfield as they shook hands, although when asked Entz didn’t characterize the conversation as anything unusual. Respect families. All the good stuff.
His players were a little more candid in their postgame comments.
One play after Waege was hurt, Bison running back Kobe Johnson was hit late out of bounds after a short gain. After the officials marched off the 15-yard penalty, Johnson broke the next play for a 73-yard touchdown run to give NDSU a 42-20 lead.
Asked if the touchdown cooled down the emotions on the field, maybe took the edge off, Johnson didn’t hesitate to say no.
“I will say things probably stayed a little hot for us,” Johnson said. “I will say that because prior to that the energy was a huge energy, out of this world. And we knew we had to take it and control it, use it the right way. We couldn’t, you know, throw cheap shots back at them. We had to line up and play ball, do it between the white lines. I feel like that’s what happened.”
Chippiness is a form of swagger, one supposes. It just seems empty when the results aren’t there to back it up. When the Bison follow Montana State by dropping the hammer on the Griz for 49 points and 453 rushing yards, the return to dominance seems a distant hope.