Heartbreaker in Montana

Chris Mangan

Chris Mangan

For two-and-a-half quarters, the Jackrabbit football team was dominating unbeaten – and top-seeded – Montana, cruising to a 48-21 lead.

But just like that, the lead had vanished. Completely disappeared.

Montana scored 40 unanswered points for a miraculous comeback against the Jacks, toppling them 61-48 in the first round of the NCAA Division I-AA football playoffs Nov. 28 in Missoula, Mont.

“That was a tough locker room,” SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier said. “That is not something I thought I’d have to do today. To be where we were and have that slip away, that marked those young men.”

The game changer came on Marc Mariani’s kickoff return for a touchdown after the Jacks had taken the 27-point lead. Just like that, all of the Jacks’ momentum had swung to the Montana sideline.

“We kind of drew something up in the dirt that we haven’t done for a couple of years,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “And they executed it perfectly. It makes you wonder why we practice.”

It was all downhill from there for the Jacks, as Montana would keep piling it on, scoring five touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

On their final six drives of the game, SDSU managed just 91 yards of offense. The Jacks punted four times and quarterback Thomas O’Brien threw two interceptions. In comparison, Montana put up 270 yards of offense on their final five drives, scoring on all five possessions. Mixed into those five drives was the Mariani kickoff return for a touchdown and a Severin Campbell interception return for a touchdown.

“You’re going to have to play almost perfect in every phase if you’re going to win a football game like that one,” Stiegelmeier said. “We had four turnovers. We average about three or four penalties a game, and we had 10 today. But we still had a chance to win the football game; we just came up short.”

Things couldn’t have started any better for the Jacks, who were making their first playoff appearance since 1979. The Jacks scored the first 17 points of the game on a pair of Colin Cochart touchdown receptions and a Kyle Harris field goal. Cochart would finish with three touchdowns.

The Grizzlies answered back, scoring the next 14 points on a Chase Reynolds 1-yard touchdown run – his first of three on the day – and a Tyler Palmer touchdown reception from Andrew Selle.

But, unlike later in the game, the Jacks had an answer for everything the Grizzlies did early, scoring the final 17 points of the half to take a 34-14 halftime lead.

Things continued to go the Jackrabbits’ way early in the third quarter, as Ross Shafrath blocked a Montana punt, which Corey Jeske recovered in the end zone to put SDSU up 41-14.

The Grizzlies quickly answered, as Thomas Brooks-Fletcher scored from two-yards out to get within 20 and slowly start to swing the momentum back to their side.

It didn’t take the Jacks long to answer the Montana score. On the first play from scrimmage after the kickoff, O’Brien found Glen Fox for a 61-yard completion down to the the 1-yard line. Kyle Minett found the end zone from a yard out two plays later.

With the Jacks up 27, the next round of the playoffs looked like a lock.

That is until the ensuing kickoff, which Mariani returned for the score. The Jacks never recovered.

Selle, who struggled in the first half, came out firing in the second half, completing 21-of-26 for 241 yards after the break.

“To say I played bad in the first half is a little bit of an understatement,” Selle said. “I knew that I had put my team in a bad situation.

“As a quarterback you have to have the shortest memory of anybody. As bad as the first half was, I knew I had to forget about it. I knew I had to come out and perform.”

But Mariani was the hero for the Grizzlies.

Mariani caught 12 passes for 171 yards and two scores for the Grizzlies, who will host Stephen F. Austin in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. Mariani was also a game-changer on the return team, averaging 44.5 yards per kickoff return.

Derek Domino led the Jacks on defense with 12 tackles, while Cole Brodie added an additional 12 and an interception.

On offense, Minett led SDSU, rushing for 131 yards – 108 coming in the first half – and two scores on 35 carries. O’Brien finished 14-of-27 for 198 yards and three scores in addition to three interceptions. The Jacks finished their season at 8-4.

“I’m not the official historian, but that’s the greatest comeback in one of the greatest games in school history,” Hauck said. “I’ve been a part of my share of them, and it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s just unbelievable.”