MISSOULA – Chad Chalich threw for 279 yards and gave his coach the fast start he wanted and Montana downed Northern Arizona 23-14 in the Big Sky Conference opener Saturday.
Chalich set up John Nguyen’s 22-yard scoring run with a 57-yard bomb to Jamaal Jones, and Montana (1-0 in the Big Sky, 2-2 overall) had the lead for good with the game barely a minute old.
It was the first start at Montana for Chalich, a transfer from the University of Idaho. He completed 29 of 45 passes with one interception, and hit Chase Naccarato with a 3-yard scoring pass to put UM’s homecoming game out of reach with 2:04 remaining.
First-year UM coach Bob Stitt was happy with the junior’s first start as well as his finish.
“We talked about it all week and felt like we were really ready to go,” said Stitt. “It was nice for our offense to take the ball down and get a couple scores early. We really wanted to play from ahead, and that hadn’t been the case in most of the games leading up to this point.”
Montana dominated the first half statistically while building a 16-0 lead, and then weathered a second-half comeback by Northern Arizona (0-1, 2-2). The Lumberjacks cut the gap to 16-14 with two touchdown passes from Case Cookus to Emmanuel Butler, covering 57 and 34 yards. The second came with 5:26 left in the third quarter.
In between, NAU’s Marcus Alford intercepted a Chalich pass and took it into UM territory. Montana, which had 355 yards of offense by intermission, finished with 474.
“We struggled a little bit on both sides in the third quarter,” Stitt said. “But, man, the defense gets the ball back for us, we take it down and the offensive line is getting some great blocks, John has some great runs, we get that touchdown and make it a two-score game.
“That showed a little bit of what our team is made of.”
Three short field goals by Danny Sullivan padded UM’s lead in the first half. His first, set up when Tucker Schye recovered a fumbled kickoff by NAU, made it 10-0 at 11:03 of the first quarter.
Northern Arizona (0-1, 2-2) found some momentum after halftime, chewing up yardage and keeping the Grizzlies’ defense on the field. The Lumberjacks had two fourth-quarter chances at the lead, but lost the ball on downs at UM’s 37 with 11:33 left, and later punted.
Northern Arizona’s first drive of the second half ended in a tip-drill, end zone interception by Montana’s Yamen Sanders.
“I’m disappointed in the way we played,” said veteran NAU coach Jerome Souers. “I thought our opponent had their team very well prepared and disrupted a lot of things we wanted to do on offense. It kind of started there. It was just a tough outcome for us.”
Cookus was 13 of 22 passing for 187 yards, with one interception but was sacked eight times, including four by Tyrone Holmes. A homecoming crowd of 26,136 didn’t make his task easier.
“There’s no getting through it until you get through it,” Souers said of playing at Montana, where he was an assistant coach from 1986-97. “It’s a tough place to play. The crowd noise led to some communication problems. We just had a lot of mental errors and physical errors that disrupted what we were trying to do.”
Butler, who has seven touchdowns on the season, caught four passes for 126 yards for the Lumberjacks.
For Montana, Jamaal Jones had seven catches for 113 yards. Nguyen ran for 71 yards on seven carries.
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