Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson came back from the brink last weekend.
After 58 minutes of frustration against Cal Poly, Johnson took the Grizzlies 82 yards in less than 2 minutes at the end of regulation play, tying the game and eventually winning 21-14 in overtime.
It was just another comeback, and nothing as momentous as the one Johnson embarked on last spring, after he was acquitted of sexual assault in a trial that cost him the 2012 season.
The day after the trial ended, Johnson was reinstated to the team.
“Jordan’s an extremely hard worker, very dedicated to his schoolwork, and he’s been very mature in his transition back through the spring and summer,” said coach Mick Delaney, who’s made quite a transition after coming out of retirement last year to replace fired head coach Robin Pflugrad.
Together, they’ve made up for lost time, leaving behind the turmoil of last year’s 5-6 record. Going into Saturday’s home game against Eastern Washington, the Grizzlies are 6-1, ranked 10th in the FCS and eager for redemption.
Johnson’s return has been almost seamless. The redshirt junior from Eugene has completed 100 of 169 passes for 1,564 yards, 18 touchdowns and one interception.
“He’s a great playmaker … and has a great feel for what we’re doing on offense,” Delaney said. “He understands it inside out, he understands it sideways and every which way you can think of.”
Johnson also excels at extending plays and giving his receivers a better chance to get open – similar to Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams, the only quarterback in the Big Sky Conference with a higher passer rating than Johnson.
“He looks really good out there, throws an accurate ball and gives his receivers a chance to make a play on the ball,” EWU cornerback T.J. Lee III said of Johnson.
In the third quarter against Cal Poly, Johnson fumbled into the end zone to lose one scoring opportunity.
“I just said, ‘Jordy, you’re going to get another chance,’ ” Delaney said.
Johnson did, and made the most of it, much like he has all year.
Eagles expect physical game
Last year in Cheney, the Grizzlies offense dominated the line of scrimmage in the middle quarters and ran the ball 61 times for 407 yards before the Eagles rallied to win 32-26.
The Eagles expect more of the same Saturday. The Grizzlies are averaging 5.2 yards a rush, led by the same back, Jordan Canada, who ran for 169 yards on 19 carries last year at Roos Field. Newcomer Travon Van, a transfer from Marshall, is averaging 6.3 yards per rush and has four touchdowns this year but is questionable with a high ankle sprain.
“Most importantly, they like to smack the defense in the mouth,” Lee said.
The Eagles plan to push back.
“They look pretty physical, so it should be fun,” Eastern defensive end Evan Day said. “We’ve got some stuff in mind, but I’m not going to say much about that right now.”
Landmark game in Missoula
Saturday’s game will be the 200th at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Since the stadium opened in 1986, Montana is 175-24 at home, but Eastern has won four times in that span, the most of any team.
Last year Montana went 3-3 at home, marking the first time the Grizzlies lost more than twice in the same season.
Montana continues to lead the FCS in average attendance. The Grizzlies drew 25,913 last week, and are averaging 25,906 fans per game. James Madison is second at 21,470. Montana State is fourth in average attendance at 19,960.
Montana State, Montana and Eastern Washington are all averaging more than 100 percent of the listed capacity of their respective stadiums.
Three Big Sky teams are ranked in the top 10 of both major FCS polls this week. In the Sports Network Poll, Eastern Washington is third, Montana State fifth and Montana 10th. In the coaches’ poll, Eastern Washington is fourth, Montana State fifth and Montana 10th. Northern Arizona is also ranked in both polls. … Northern Arizona’s Zach Bauman rushed for a career-high 266 yards and two touchdowns in the Lumberjacks’ 39-30 win over Idaho State. Bauman ranks fifth on the Big Sky’s all-time rushing list with 4,570 yards. Bauman needs 171 yards to move past Portland State’s Ryan Fuqua into fourth place.