Junior quarterback Garrett Safron put on one of the greatest individual performances in Sacramento State football history Saturday at Hornet Stadium.
But it wasn't enough to beat No. 12 Montana in a Big Sky Conference showdown.
Jordan Johnson's 25-yard pass to a wide-open Ellis Henderson in the right corner of the end zone lifted the Grizzlies (7-2, 4-2 Big Sky) to a 51-48 overtime win, ending a valiant comeback effort by Safron and the Hornets (4-5, 3-2).
Sac State tied the score 45-45 with 23 seconds left in regulation on Safron's 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cole Hikutini (Pleasant Grove High School), which was tipped before the freshman came down with his second touchdown reception of the game.
The Hornets took a 48-45 lead on Brad Cornish's 25-yard field goal to start the overtime.
Safron completed 41 of 58 passes for 412 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 93 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns. He threw no interceptions.
The Santa Monica product set Sac State single-game records for completions, passing yards and total offense, and his six touchdowns tied the school mark.
"He's such a warrior; he keeps fighting," said seventh-year Sac State coach Marshall Sperbeck. "Considering who we were playing, considering the amount of hits that he was taking and a lot of the critical situations to get us back into the game, it's definitely one of the top performances at the quarterback position in my tenure here."
A crushing hit by Montana linebacker John Kanongata'a as Safron threw a pass away landed the quarterback on his head late in the third quarter, leaving many of the announced crowd of 6,361 in stunned silence. Safron was down for nearly five minutes.
"I got flipped on the side of my head and was in shock for a little bit," he said. "I was good. They did their concussion test, and then I got back in there."
With Safron on the sideline, backup quarterback Marcus McDade fumbled on the next play as he was stripped while trying to scramble for yards. Montana's Jordan Canada zigzagged for a 33-yard touchdown run on the following play to put Montana up 38-24 with 14 seconds left in the third quarter.
But Safron returned and engineered touchdown drives of 73 and 74 yards, the first capped by his 10-yard keeper, the second by a 4-yard touchdown pass to DJ Maciel that tied the score 38-38 with 7:07 to play.
Safron completed the pass despite having the wind knocked out of him by a Montana defender, the second time in the game he had to be assisted from the field.
Henderson returned the kickoff to midfield against a Hornets special-teams unit that struggled throughout the day, and Canada rushed for his fourth touchdown, a 1-yard effort with 3:38 to play.
Safron and the Hornets again responded, this time starting from their 23.
Safron completed five passes three to DeAndre Carter, who had 12 catches for 165 yards and a touchdown and rushed three times in setting up Hikutini's touchdown catch.
"What a fine performance (by Safron)," Montana coach Mick Delaney said. "He kept getting up off the deck. He's every bit as good as the guys we have played. He does a lot of things. He's very accurate. He's tough physically and mentally."
Henderson, a sophomore transfer from Hawaii, also did a lot of things for the Grizzlies.
He kept stretching out the Hornets' defense and special teams with acrobatic catches and big runs. He finished with 357 all-purpose yards, including five catches for 180 yards.
But none was easier than the last, as he had a 7-yard cushion while making the game-winning grab.
Sac State defender Osagie Odiase bit on Henderson's inside move, then lost his balance trying to spin around as Henderson reversed course.
"We ran some slants and crosses with him earlier," Delaney said of Henderson. "We had a pump fake, their kid bit on that, and Ellis broke for the corner and Jordy made a nice throw."
Sac State, dressed in black instead of its usual green and gold, hoped to duplicate its 42-28 upset of two years ago, the Hornets' first win in 17 games against the Big Sky's most successful program.
Sac State was penalized 10 times for 102 yards and fumbled three times. Montana had no turnovers.
"Our guys were resilient; they kept fighting back," Sperbeck said. "Give (Montana) credit and No. 7 (Henderson); they did a good job. But it's tough to overcome the penalties and the turnovers."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.