DALLAS — Save for one drive, Montana State’s defense played well enough to join the ranks of FCS teams to topple FBS foes in the first two weeks of the season.
However, it was one drive that made the difference.
SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert connected with Darius Joseph for a 4-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds left against Montana State on Saturday to give the Mustangs a 31-30 victory, stunning the No. 3 team in FCS.
“It was a tough weekend. It had a chance to be great,” Montana State coach Rob Ash said. “I’m just disappointed for our team that we couldn’t get that one more pass knocked down.”
After forcing a Montana State punt, SMU (1-1) took over with 3:46 remaining on its own 19. Led by Gilbert, who finished 35 of 48 passing with 317 yards, the Mustangs took 14 plays to drive the remaining 81 yards for the win.
Joseph caught three passes on the game-winning march, finishing with 12 grabs for 113 yards.
The Bobcats (1-1) were looking to become the 12th FCS team this season to knock off a team from the top tier.
The top-two FCS teams, North Dakota State and Eastern Washington, both won games against the top tier of college football last weekend. The Bison topped Kansas State, while Eastern Washington defeated Oregon State.
Eight FCS teams beat FBS teams in Week 1, and three more FBS teams fell to lower-division teams Saturday.
Early on, Montana State looked like it would join them in the win column.
Gilbert’s late-game heroics spoiled an otherwise solid game from the Bobcats, and helped erase a number of SMU miscues early on.
“Defensively, we had two turnovers and almost every stop in the red zone,” said Montana State linebacker Alex Singleton, who had three sacks. “That was huge.”
Montana State raced out to a 22-5 lead before taking a 22-19 advantage into halftime. Cody Kirk and the Bobcats offense ate up the clock in the second half and kept the pass-happy SMU offense off the field.
Kirk finished with 107 yards and two touchdowns; including a 13-yard run that gave Montana State a 30-19 lead with 9:28 left in the third quarter.
He was complemented by quarterback DeNarius McGhee, who grew up in nearby Euless, Texas. McGhee completed 17 of 27 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown, but he was sacked on Montana State’s penultimate possession to set up a punting situation that Gilbert and SMU took full advantage of.
His sack put them from the 22-yard line to the 34, and resulted in a shanked, 15-yard punt.
“That sack took us out of yardage. We were trying to get into field-goal range,” Ash said. “We knew we had to get 10 yards to get into field-goal range. We would have liked a better punt.”
SMU scored just one offensive touchdown before the game-winning drive, as the Mustangs settled for three field goals and turned the ball over twice inside the red zone. The Mustangs notched a safety in the first quarter to open the scoring, but it was their only lead until the final 12 seconds.
“We had some opportunities to make some plays, but we didn’t,” SMU coach June Jones said. “They played the way we thought they were going to play.
The way the Bobcats played was limiting SMU’s vertical passing game early.
The Bobcats built a three-score lead early by controlling the line of scrimmage on offense and preventing the Mustangs from stretching the field on defense.
“I feel like they underestimated us,” Montana State guard Quinn Catalano said. “They thought we were smaller. We wanted to show what Montana State football is about, and the FCS.”
While Gilbert was 17 of 26 in the first half, he only had 113 yards passing with a long of 18.
One of Gilbert’s best plays of the opening 30 minutes was a pooch punt on fourth and 10 near midfield, which downed Montana State at its own 1. On the next snap, Kirk was tackled in the end zone by Stephon Sanders to give the Mustangs a brief, 2-0 lead, before Kirk put Montana State up 8-2 with 2:23 remaining in the first quarter.
SMU’s comeback attempt was aided by JaBryce Taylor’s 55-yard punt return for a touchdown when time expired in the first half. Taylor fielded the ball in traffic, and then ran a near-straight shot to the end zone untouched.
To help regain control, and keep Montana State’s defense in check, the Mustangs started running the ball more with sophomore K.C. Nlemchi, who scored on a 2-yard run on his first collegiate carry. He finished with only 38 yards rushing on six attempts, but Gilbert was able to spread the ball around more and extend the field, avoiding an upset and 0-2 start.
“It was a good win,” Jones said. “I’m glad we’re not in the Oregon State, Kansas State column,” Jones said.
NOTE: QB DeNarius McGhee was listed as questionable on the team’s injury report. McGhee will be examined and evaluated on Monday, according to the team. A clarification will be issued at some point following the examination.
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