MISSOULA – Bobby Hauck called it “a heck of a night for the Montana Grizzlies.”
It didn’t start that way.
Montana found itself in a 21-point hole in the third quarter, but that’s when Malik Flowers returned a kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown to help spark a 34-24 come-from-behind victory over Southeast Missouri in the first round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The victory sends Montana (8-4) into the second round where it will face third-seeded and defending FCS champion North Dakota State (9-2) on Saturday in Fargo, N.D.
“I’m excited about it, first of all,” Hauck said of the NDSU matchup. ”We really have a high regard for them. They’re the gold standard. There’s really no other way to put it.”
Yet it took a big comeback effort to make it possible.
Southeast Missouri was firmly in control thanks to a 14-play, 92-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half and a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive at the start of the second half. Both clock-eating drives were capped by short TD runs by workhorse running back Geno Hess and gave the Redhawks a 24-3 lead with 8:41 left in the third quarter.
But that’s when Flowers made his mark. After Hess' second touchdown, Flowers ranged to his right to field the ensuing kickoff, bobbled the ball, corralled it, then found a lane down the left side of the field all the way to the end zone to pull the Griz within 24-10.
After forcing a punt, UM scored again on a 17-yard touchdown throw from Lucas Johnson to Keelan White.
Then — not to be outdone by Flowers — Junior Bergen returned a punt 58 yards for a touchdown to tie the game 24-24 in the third.
Nico Ramos’ second field goal and a final TD throw from Johnson to Cole Grossman in the fourth quarter cemented the comeback.
Flowers’ return was the seventh of his career, tying the all-time FCS record held by Weber State’s Rashid Shaheed.
“I kind of took my eyes off it and it bounced off my helmet and I was scrambling looking for the ball,” Flowers described. “The guys kept up their assignments and stayed on blocks and I was able to find a seam. It’s always nice scoring and the guys up front did a great job.”
Montana safety Robby Hauck also set a record, becoming the Big Sky Conference’s all-time tackles leader with 474 total stops. Hauck eclipsed the previous record of 473 held by Eastern Washington’s Ronnie Hamlin.
Hauck finished with 15 tackles in the game.
Bobby Hauck said the comeback was reminiscent of a 2009 playoff game in which another kickoff return for a touchdown — that time by Marc Mariani — was the spark the led to a big comeback win over South Dakota State. He even mentioned it to his scuffling team at intermission on Saturday.
“We were holding the rope, trying not to let it slip out of our hands in the first half. It was all we could do to just hold the rope,” Hauck said. “I’m not joking when I say we talked about it at halftime. Obviously we were down 21 and then (Flowers) went to the house and then it was at the forefront of my mind. A lot of similarities.
“I bet I’ve got a text or two on my phone.”
After a slow start, Johnson finished 18-of-37 passing for 306 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Flowers had a big impact in the passing game also, catching seven balls for 108 yards.
Flowers finished the game with 250 all-purpose yards (108 receiving, 142 returning).
Johnson, who lost a fumble that was returned for a SEMO touchdown in the first quarter, said he “probably couldn’t have started any worse, but not one guy let me (hang) my head. This whole team was holding me up, and fortunately we were able to go out in the second half and play how we’re capable of playing.”
Hess carried the ball 30 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns. SEMO quarterback Paxton DeLaurent, returning from injury, completed 25 of 49 passes for 277 yards and one interception.
Ryan Flournoy had 11 catches for 161 yards for the Redhawks.
SEMO coach Tom Matukewicz said the outcome was decided by four of five key plays. Montana’s return game was a big part of that.
The Redhawks, co-champs of the Ohio Valley Conference, finished their season with a 9-3 record.
“At the end of the day, right now you just need to get through the night,” Matukewicz said. “Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened. It’s as close and tight of a team as I’ve ever been around.”
It was a program-building year for Southeast Missouri. But in the end, Montana is marching on.