2001 national championship ranked No. 23 on Big Sky list
Dec. 5, 2013
(by Jon Kasper, Big Sky Conference)
A banner hung in the lobby of the Marriott in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn., when the Montana Grizzlies arrived at their hotel for the 2001 Division I-AA National Championship game.
It read: "Chattanooga, The Final Bite.''
Montana coach Joe Glenn was fond of asking his players how to go about eating an elephant. The answer was one bite at a time. The task of returning to the national championship game for a second straight season was monumental, and couldn't be done in a day. The journey toward fulfillment had to be done step by step, practice by practice, meeting by meeting, game by game.
It was those homespun phrases and his positive personality that made Glenn a fan and player favorite during his three-year stay in Missoula. The man who claimed to, "never have had a bad day,'' no doubt thoroughly enjoyed the 2001 season as his Grizzlies went 15-1 and captured the program's second national championship. The Grizzlies' run to the 2001 championship ranks 23rd on the Big Sky Conference's list of "50 Greatest Men's Moments.''
"Joe's personality, and just his genuine care for every single player on the football team shined through,'' said John Edwards, who was the junior starting quarterback in 2001. "It had everything to do with our success in my opinion. Joe was an incredibly loyal guy. You knew you could go out and play, make some mistakes and survive. Joe had your back. Joe's positive attitude and ability to manage a football team kept everyone's spirits up. It was a huge factor in our success.''
There was a little doubt the Grizzlies would be good in 2001. Montana won 13 straight games during the 2000 season before falling 27-25 to Georgia Southern in the National Championship game. Edwards came on in replace of injured Drew Miller and nearly led the team to victory. Long after the game ended, Edwards and Miller were still in the locker room coping with the difficult loss.
"For me it was about how much it takes to get there, and that initial disappointment,'' Edwards said. "We made a run through the playoffs. The ball bounced our way, and we were so close. It was a matter of what it was going to take to get back. We had a lot of senior leadership on that 2001 team.''
The 2001 Grizzlies were led by senior running back Yohance Humphery, from Eagle River, Alaska, wide receiver Etu Molden, from Sacramento, Calif., and All-American guard Thatcher Szalay, from Whitefish, Mont. The defense, coordinated by Mike Breske, featured All-American safeties Vince Huntsberger and Trey Young, as well as the speedy Calvin Coleman at cornerback.
The team opened the campaign with a solid road win at Cal Poly and then headed to Maui for a game against the FBS Hawai'i Warriors. Montana played well, but lost to the June Jones coached club. It would be the Grizzlies' only loss. The Griz returned home and began to prepare for a stiff home test against FBS Idaho. Then, Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, the world changed.
"It was a crystal clear day in Missoula, just one of those great fall days,'' Edwards remembered. "We were all watching it on TV. I remember one of the coaches came in and told us to turn it off, that we needed to get to work. As the day unfolded, it sure as hell put a college football game in its place. I'm glad we canceled that game on September 11. No one wanted to play."
The Idaho game was rescheduled for the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and the start of the I-AA playoffs were pushed back a week. There was a lot of football left between then and the first week of December, though.
Montana's magical season nearly hit a snag in the conference opener at home against Eastern Washington. The Grizzlies ended up winning 29-26 when Molden caught a TD pass in overtime. Just prior to that touchdown, however, Humphery appeared to fumble. EWU recovered and began celebrating. Officials, however, ruled Humphery was down prior to the ball coming loose.
"That right there could have changed the entire scope of the season,'' Edwards said. "We got a break. When you get those, you have to take advantage of the break.''
The Grizzlies finished conference play 7-0 and stood at 10-1 overall heading into the Idaho game. Montana had positioned itself for a top seed and homefield advantage in the playoffs, but a loss to the Vandals could have ruined everything. In the second overtime, Yohance Humphery scored on a 25-yard run to seal an emotional victory as UM headed into the postseason on high.
"I loved the series with Idaho, and they were always spectacular games,'' Edwards said. "I didn't like the fact we had to play it at the end of the season, but it was great to play a highly-competitive game at the end of the season. I don't know if it helped us with momentum or not, but who knows what would have happened if we would have lost.''
The Griz recovered from a bad first half to beat Northwestern State 28-19 in the first round, and then rolled Sam Houston State in the quarterfinals 49-24. Northern Iowa stood in the way of a return trip to Chattanooga.
Montana steamrolled Northern Iowa 38-0, scoring 31 points in the first half. The Grizzlies and the nearly 20,000 fans were amped from the get-go. Northern Iowa first-year coach Mark Farley irritated the UM coaching staff, and in turn the fan base by initially refusing to exchange game film.
"We were absolutely rolling, and to be honest we didn't know our coaches didn't have the tape,'' Edwards said. "We were so focused on the game plan. Once that game kicked off, it was in the books. We were focused, confident, and doing our jobs.''
Slowly, Montana had digested the elephant. Fourteen wins in 15 games, and just one more remained. The confident Grizzlies headed to Chattanooga favored against Furman, which knocked off defending champion Georgia Southern in the semifinals.
Furman was led by 2000 Walter Payton Award winner Louis Ivory at running back, and All-American linebacker Will Bouton. UM's plan was to be conservative, with the hopes Humphery could grind up yards and keep the chains moving. The defense had to control Furman's run game.
"Coach Glenn and Coach (Bill) Cockhill preached all season that we had a great offensive line, a great running back and a solid defense,'' Edwards said. "As a quarterback, I needed to make sure we were in the right plays and we didn't turn the ball over. That's exactly what we did the whole game. We did a lot of dump passes. If it wasn't there, we were going to live to fight another day.''
Montana's only touchdown in the 13-6 victory came on the team's best drive of the season. UM drove 99 yards on 16 plays in the second quarter and Humphery finished the march with a 2-yard TD run. Early in the drive, Edwards scrambled for 9 yards on a third-and-seven from the 4-yard line. It might have been the most important offensive play of the game.
"That was one of those plays where I dropped back to pass, and it wasn't really there,'' Edwards recalled. "You feel out the play. The defensive end crashed in front of my face, and I was able to use my feet to get us a first down. We got some momentum. Our offensive line could feed off that, and that's exactly what happened. We relied heavily on Yohance to make plays and our guys to protect us up front.''
Humphery, who rushed for more than 2,000 yards in the 16 games, gained 132 yards on 30 carries. Molden had 10 catches for 74 yards. Huntsberger finished with 10 tackles, a fumble recovery, an interception and a pass breakup. Safety Dan Dave DeCoite had a forced fumble and interceptions.
Montana's defense forced three turnovers. Ivory, who was nursing an injured knee, was held to 33 carries on 12 yards. Furman managed just 121 rushing yards, 124 below its season average. UM's defense was on the verge of recording the first shutout in championship game history. But, on the game's final play, quarterback Billy Napier heaved a long pass. It was batted down by Huntsberger, but James Thomas snagged the ball before it hit the ground and scored on a 54-yard touchdown.
It didn't matter. UM fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts.
The squad was inducted to the school's Hall of Fame in 2012. Sadly, one of the emotional leaders wasn't there. Defensive end Tim Bush, who had five tackles in the championship game, died in a tragic mining accident in 2010.
"This team was all about hard work,'' Edwards said. "That certainly came to mind after Tim died and we were there for his funeral. Like Tim, this team worked their assess off and nobody was concerned about attention. We showed up and went to work. I've carried that with me for the next 12 years of my life. That's something that Coach Glenn instilled. You get out of bed, go to work, do your job, be prepared, and good things will happen to you. That's exactly how this team did it week in and week out.''
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