MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) _ Montana coach Bobby Hauck said senior running back Lex Hilliard “was a little rusty.”
“Most of the game I spent trying to catch my breath,” added Hilliard, a Walter Payton Award candidate who missed the 2006 season after rupturing his Achilles tendon.
Once the rust wears off, Griz opponents better watch out.
Hilliard rushed 22 times for 108 yards Saturday, including a 2-yard touchdown run just over three minutes into the game, and Montana used a 20-point fourth quarter to down Southern Utah 37-17. It was Hilliard’s 12th career 100-yard game.
“I haven’t taken a live snap in about a year and a half,” Hilliard said. “But overall I felt pretty good.”
Hilliard’s score was set up by a 53-yard kickoff return by Marc Mariani.
“It was set up really, really well,” Mariani said. “Running behind those big guys makes it a lot easier.”
Cole Bergquist passed for 150 yards and two touchdowns to Eric Allen and ran for another score, while Dan Carpenter kicked three field goals of 41 yards or more for the Grizzlies, ranked second in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision. The Griz also forced four turnovers.
“I summed (the game) up in two words for our team _ efficient and mechanical,” Hauck said.
Montana (1-0) of the Big Sky Conference took a 14-0 lead on a 14-yard pass from Bergquist to Allen midway through the second quarter.
The Thunderbirds (0-1) of the Great West Conference cut the lead to 14-2 with 3:55 to play after Bergquist fumbled the snap on the Montana 4-yard line, recovered the ball in the end zone and was tackled by Derrick Brown.
Southern Utah threatened late in the first half, driving to the Montana 9 before Colt Anderson picked off a Wes Marshall pass in the end zone with under a minute to play.
“That interception obviously hurt us,” said SUU coach Wes Meier. “It would have been huge getting those points going into halftime.”
Instead, the Thunderbirds open the second half with a long drive, capped by 1-yard touchdown run by Johnny Sanchez to pull to 14-9.
Montana answered with field goals of 42 and 41 yards by Carpenter and Bergquist scored on a 14-yard run _ his first rushing touchdown _ to take a 27-9 lead with 9:21 remaining.
“I just saw a little lane and did what I had to do to get in,” Bergquist said.
Southern Utah pulled to 27-17 on a 2-yard run by Sanchez and a 2-point conversion pass from Marshall to Jeremy Edwards with 5:14 remaining.
The Griz defense set up Montana’s final 10 points and prevented Southern Utah from getting any more.
One play after Loren Utterback intercepted Marshall, Bergquist hit Allen on a 29-yard touchdown pass with 3:16 remaining.
SUU’s Craig Gritton, who had 116 yards receiving, fumbled with just over three minutes to play. Alex Hawthorne forced the fumble and Shann Schillinger recovered, leading to Carpenter’s final field goal, a 41-yarder. Carpenter also kicked all four extra points.
Schillinger intercepted Marshall on SUU’s next possession.
“We started the season off with a great Montana team,” Meier said. “I felt like we did a pretty good job. But we knew for us to challenge, we had to have a mistake-free game. We did pretty good for a while, but we had a few mistakes near the end of the game that hurt us.”
Marshall completed 19 of 32 passes for 218 yards, but was intercepted three times. He also rushed 13 times for 65 yards. Sanchez rushed 11 times for 28 yards.
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