MISSOULA – The battle of green quarterbacks went to freshman Gresch Jensen Saturday, after he threw for a career-best 423 yards to lead Montana past banged-up North Dakota 41-17 in Big Sky Conference football.
Making his fourth start, Jensen threw for three touchdowns and ran for another score as the Grizzlies moved to 5-2, including a 3-1 mark in the Big Sky. His first start came on Sept. 23, a 48-41 loss to Eastern Washington.
“Definitely (feel) a lot better after the game,” said Jensen, who was 23 of 35 passing with two interceptions. “We’ll take the win. I was just a lot more comfortable.”
The Grizzlies withstood three first-quarter turnovers by Jensen and pushed to a 20-3 halftime lead over the Fighting Hawks (2-5, 1-3), the defending Big Sky champions.
Jensen threw an interception on a deep pass on his first snap, then fumbled at his own 32 on Montana’s third possession. He added another interception on a fourth-down play in North Dakota territory.
“I was a little rough,” the quarterback said. “I have to get better protecting the ball. That fourth down, I was just giving our guy a chance. But yeah, I’ve got to protect the ball better.”
The Fighting Hawks punted after each turnover. Senior quarterback Keaton Stusdrud didn’t play because of a leg injury, leaving sophomore Brad Heidlebaugh to make his first start.
“Obviously not the result we wanted,” North Dakota coach Bubba Schweigert said. “A bright spot on defense was causing some early turnovers. But we needed to turn those into points to get some momentum here on the road.”
The Grizzlies led for good when Jensen hit Samori Toure for 31 yards on a screen play at 9:17 of the first quarter.
Brandon Purdy added the first of his two field goals early in the second quarter to put Montana up 10-0, and Jensen answered a North Dakota field goal with a 55-yard scoring pass to Keenan Curran. It came just after cornerback Evan Holm was injured for UND and made it 17-3. Purdy added a 23-yard field goal just before halftime.
Andrew Zimmerman took over at quarterback at halftime but the Fighting Hawks could not close. Montana started the third quarter with touchdowns 79 seconds apart.
A 2-yard run by Alijah Lee was set up by Curran receptions covering 24 and 28 yards. Then a 64-yard catch and run by Jerry Louis-McGee led to Jensen’s scoring run, covering 15 yards at the 11:19 mark. That made it 34-3.
Montana’s defense held standout running back John Santiago to 32 yards on 14 carries.
The Fighting Hawks’ first touchdown came on James Johannesson’s 56-yard run with 47 seconds left in the third quarter. Zimmerman later hit Stetson Carr for 62 yards and a score.
Jensen threw a 29-yard pass to Curran for Montana’s final score, with 11:18 left in the game.
“It’s just guys making plays,” said Jensen, who moved up when senior Reese Phillips was lost for the season. “A lot of it was just dumping it off for the receivers. It was just awesome to see.”
Safety Josh Sandry had an interception that he returned 74 yards and forced a fumble that Connor Strahm recovered for Montana. The Grizzlies netted three points off the turnovers.
There’s so much we can clean up,” Jensen said. “So much room for improvement. I’m just excited going forward.”
Keenan had five catches for 151 yards, and Lee rushed for 57 yards for Montana. Johannesson ran for 93 yards on just seven carries for the Fighting Hawks.
“Our kids came out and really gave us a great effort for a seventh week,” said Montana coach Bob Stitt. “When I saw our defense play in the first series, there was no question that we were win.”
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