Montana Grizzlies Football: 2011 Season a Great Success Despite Semifinal Loss

Bleacher ReportCorrespondent IDecember 23, 2011

In 2010, under first-year head coach Robin Pflugrad, the Montana Grizzlies finished the season 7-4, with a 5-3 conference mark and a loss to in-state rival Montana State. By Griz standards, it was a season to forget.

Heading into the 2011 season, the Grizzlies were not expected to do much better either. Montana was picked to finish third in the Big Sky Conference Preseason Coaches' and Media poll behind defending National Champion Eastern Washington and Montana State.

Additionally, most FCS media projected the Grizzlies would miss out on the playoffs for the second straight season.

Boy were they wrong.

After losses to FBS Tennessee and Sacramento State among their first four games, the Grizzlies pulled off seven straight victories in the regular season. Additionally, the Grizzlies avenged all four losses from the 2010 season against Cal Poly, Eastern Washington, Weber State and Montana State whom the Grizzlies defeated 36-10 in Bozeman to cap off the regular season and capture the Big Sky Conference Title for the 13th time in 14 seasons.  

Because of the Grizzlies' successes, head coach Robin Pflugrad received the title of Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year.

Heading into the FCS playoffs, the 9-2 Grizzlies received the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye. In the second round, the Grizzlies overwhelmed Central Arkansas 41-14. A week later in the quarterfinals, the Grizzlies made a strong statement on ESPN under the Friday night lights, defeating No. 5 Northern Iowa 48-10.

All that was standing in the way of a trip to the National Championship in Frisco, Texas for the Grizzlies was a semifinal matchup at undefeated and No. 1 Sam Houston State.After Sam Houston State scored three unanswered touchdowns in the first quarter, the game looked out of reach for Montana. However, quarterback Jordan Johnson led the potential comeback with 277 yards through the air and completing 21 of 33 passes.

The Grizzlies outscored the Bearkats 28-10 in the final three quarters, but it wasn't enough. Sam Houston State held on for a 31-28 victory, advancing to the National Championship. 

While many Montana fans are still recouping from the semifinal loss to Sam Houston State, the Grizzlies still had a great season and greatly exceeded expectations. The season also marked their fourth semifinal appearance in the past six seasons, and their 18th FCS playoff appearance in the past 19 seasons.

Additionally, Montana will make a presence in this year's NFL Draft. All-American cornerback Trumaine Johnson is projected to be a late-second-to-fourth-round pick.

Also, Big Sky Conference Defensive MVP linebacker Caleb McSurdy, defensive linemen Ryan Fetherson and Bryan Waldhauser, offensive linemen Jon Opperud and Charles Burton, tight end Kavario Middleton and kicker Brody McKnight will get looks at the next level.

While the Grizzlies lose 23 seniors, including nine starters on defense, Montana still has the ingredients to make another championship run in 2012.

Jordan Johnson will return at quarterback for the Grizzlies as he will look to improve on his 2,400 yards through the air on the season. Montana will also return its top three rushers from 2011 in Peter Nguyen, Dan Moore and Jordan Canada.

Defensive stars who will return for the Grizzlies in 2012 include linebackers Jordan Tripp and John Kanongata'a, defensive lineman Josh Harris and safety Matt Hermanson.

Montana's 11-3 season and semifinal finish in 2011 left many Montana fans happy. However, 2012 looks to have much higher expectations.

Can the Grizzlies continue to build on their storied tradition with a trip to the National Championship in Frisco, Texas in the 2012 season? The journey will begin September 1, 2012, as the Grizzlies travel to perennial power Appalachian State to kick off the 2012 season.