A Grizzly Sight
This is what college football is supposed to be all about: a packed, pulsating stadium on a sunny afternoon, with one of the division's best quarterbacks playing against one of the division's top defenses and with the national title on the line. The NCAA Division I-AA championship game between Montana and Marshall at the Thundering Herd's home in Huntington, W.Va., last Saturday had all of this and a down-to-the-wire finish. Trailing 20-19 with 4:41 left in the fourth quarter, Grizzly quarterback Dave Dickenson completed 6 of 8 passes and moved his team 72 yards to the Marshall eight-yard line. Then, with 39 seconds left, Andy Larson kicked a 25-yard field goal to put Montana ahead 22-20.
However the Thundering Herd still had one last crack at beating the Grizzlies. The players on the Marshall sideline held one another's sweaty hands, hoping for a miracle, as the record crowd of 32,106 rose to its feet. Freshman quarterback Chad Pennington moved his team to the Montana 46 with two seconds left, leaving Tim Openlander with a 63-yard field goal try. When the ball died 15 yards short of the goal posts and the clock blinked to 0:00, Montana players and coaches spilled onto the field to celebrate the school's first national championship.
Everyone was jumping and hugging and singing the Grizzlies' fight song—everyone but Dickenson. He was busy looking for the guy who had put him on his back for most of the afternoon. B.J. Cohen, a 6'3", 240-pound end, had three of the 10 sacks logged by the Marshall defense and knocked down Dickenson countless other times. What would Dickenson do once he found Cohen? Wag his index linger in his face? Raise his arms in victory and gloat? Talk some trash?
When he finally found Cohen, Dickenson extended his hand and said, "Congratulations. You played a great game. You had some good shots. Your team played hard. You should be proud."
The game had promised to be a struggle between Montana's high-octane offense and Marshall's stingy defense. In the regular season Dickenson led Division I-AA quarterbacks in total offense (382.6 yards per game) and passing yards (379.6), and the Grizzlies averaged a division-best 42.5 points per game. In three playoff games leading up to last Saturday, Montana outscored its opponents by a combined 163-14. For Marshall's part, its defense had allowed just 246.4 total yards per game and 15.7 points in the regular season. Then in the playoffs the Thundering Herd yielded 15 points per game in three victories, including a 25-13 win over top-seeded McNeese State in the semifinals, in which they held the Cowboys nearly 20 points below their season average.
But in the championship game it was the unheralded Montana defense that rose up and took control, keeping Marshall out of the end zone in the first half, which ended with the Grizzlies leading 10-3. Dickenson scrambled and twisted and turned and ducked, but most of the time he found a way to get the ball to his receivers, tossing a pair of touchdown passes to 5'7" senior wide-out Matt Wells. The Grizzly quarterback ended up completing 29 of 48 passes for 281 yards, setting a I-AA tournament record with 1,500 yards passing in the four playoff games. And on Monday he was named the winner of the Walter Payton Award, which is Division I-AA's version of the Heisman Trophy.
"I'm not beating anyone with physical skill," said the 5'11", 175-pound Dickenson, who has a 3.84 grade point average in molecular biology and plans to become a doctor. "Most people we play say, after the game, 'How did he do that?' "
"He has many strengths, and if there is a weakness, it's that he doesn't have one dominant strength," said Montana coach Don Read. "In other words, he can't throw from here to Cincinnati, but he can throw it plenty good. He can't run faster than most guys, but he runs fast enough. He's shorter than most guys, but to say he isn't physical or tough isn't correct, because he gets hit more than most quarterbacks in the country. He isn't a giant of a quarterback, but he's not hampered by not being as tall as some."
In the days preceding the game, the Grizzlies were ribbed by Marshall players about Big Sky Country being in the middle of nowhere. "All week we heard about cowboys and Indians, and the closest neighbors being five miles away," said Grizzly defensive end Yohanse Manzanarez.