MISSOULA — It took Montana coach Bobby Hauck a little while to leave the field Saturday, after his team’s 34-13 victory over Sam Houston State in an NCAA Division I-AA semifinal.
“I’ve seen the goal posts torn down several times, and not by the fans of the team I was coaching, so I stayed out there and watched that,” said Hauck, whose team avenged a 41-29 regular-season loss to Sam Houston.
“They tore (one) down when we were in Sam Houston,” he said, noting that it was the first time the Bearkats had knocked off the top-ranked team in the country.
Craig Ochs passed for 204 yards and three touchdowns, and No. 7 Montana (12-2) forced four turnovers in advancing to the national championship game for the fifth time in 10 seasons. Hauck is the fourth coach to take the Griz to the title game.
Montana, the national champion in 1995 and 2001, will face James Madison, a 48-34 winner over William & Mary Friday night in the other semifinal, in next week’s title game in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Tuff Harris set up Montana’s first two touchdowns with interceptions.
“Tuff’s play in the first half …,” Hauck said. “He’s directly responsible not only for our 14 points, but not allowing them to get in the end zone. That can’t be overstated how big a play that first pick was.”
The Grizzlies sacked Dustin Long six times, matching the number of times he’d been sacked all season.
“Montana’s defensive line did a nice job getting pressure on Dustin,” said SHSU coach Ron Randleman, whose team was playing in its first I-AA semifinal. “We didn’t protect him as well as we have through the year. We had two miscues, huge, in the first half, that you can’t have.”
Harris intercepted Long on a first-and-goal from the 9-yard line and returned the ball 75 yards to the SHSU 25.
“They were driving pretty good,” said Harris, who got burned on a 38-yard pass from Long to Jason Mathenia. “They had one on me earlier where I didn’t make a good play.”
On Montana’s first play after the turnover, Ochs hit tight end Willie Walden on a 25-yard touchdown pass.
No. 9 Sam Houston (11-3) pulled within 7-6 on field goals of 37 and 40 yards by Lance Garner. The Bearkats settled for the first field goal after driving to the Montana 15 and were forced to kick the second despite getting the ball on the 31-yard line after Robert Herron blocked a Montana punt and recovered the ball.
On Sam Houston’s next drive, Harris intercepted Long and returned the ball 34 yards to the SHSU 4-yard line. Two plays later Tate Hancock made a diving catch in the end zone, after the ball bounced off teammate Levander Segars with 1:25 left in the half.
“I looked back when Craig threw it,” Hancock said. “I think it bounced off his (Segars) shoulder pad and I was able to dive and make the catch.”
Sam Houston held Montana to just 20 yards rushing and four first downs in the first half.
The Griz opened the second half with a 12-play, 81-yard drive capped by a 14-yard touchdown pass from Ochs to Jon Talmage to take a 21-6 lead with 10:31 left.
“We didn’t execute very well on offense in the first half. Defensively, we made some mistakes,” Hauck said. “We just settled down,” in the second half.
Hilliard, Montana’s leading rusher, rushed 5 times for a minus-5 yards in the first half, but ran for a 7-yard touchdown with 4:42 left in the third quarter to give Montana a 28-6 lead. He finished with 14 carries for 38 yards and six catches for 43 yards.
Hilliard’s touchdown was set up when Dustin Dlouhy sacked Long and forced him to fumble. Blake Horgan recovered the ball on the SHSU 41-yard line.
Ochs, who completed 22 of 30 pass attempts, also led the Grizzlies in rushing with eight carries for 77 yards.
“We lost containment,” said SHSU defensive back Paul Donelson. “He did well scrambling.”
Long, a Walter Payton Award finalist, was 35 of 53 for 375 yards and two interceptions.