In 2011, the Sacramento State football team did something no other Hornets football team had done – beat Montana, the Big Sky Conference behemoth.
And the Hornets didn't just beat the Grizzlies for the first time in 17 tries, they humbled them, 42-28, at Hornet Stadium.
That's the same Montana team that finished 11-3 and advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals before losing to Sam Houston State 31-28. Montana's only other loss during the regular season was to Tennessee, though Montana was penalized by the NCAA in July and forced to vacate its last five wins of the season, its conference championship and its recognition of appearing in the FCS playoffs.
With No. 12 Montana (6-2, 3-2) returning to Hornet Stadium today for the first time since that loss, it's rekindled memories of one of Sac State's greatest wins in one of its most puzzling seasons.
Several Sac State seniors, then sophomores, remember the thrill of playing – and beating – Montana.
"Coach (Marshall Sperbeck) tried to tell us before the game that it was just another game, but we knew it was a special game, that we had a chance to do something that had never been done in school history," said senior linebacker Todd Davis, who had 11 tackles.
Montana entered the game having won or shared a record 18 Big Sky championships, including 12 in the previous 13 seasons.
"Them being such a good program and with all the things they had done and all the championships they had won, we knew beating them would be really big," said senior wide receiver Morris Norrise, who had a team-high six catches for 96 yards.
Sac State intercepted three passes and held Montana to 139 rushing yards, but Davis and Norrise agreed the pivotal play came on special teams.
With the Hornets ahead 21-14 early in the third quarter, Chase Deadder, who earlier had a touchdown catch, blocked a Montana punt and Markell Williams, now the Hornets' senior nickel back, scooped up the ball and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown.
"When we got the touchdown," Norrise said, "that's when we knew we could beat these guys."
With the victory, a special season seemed to be in the making, especially after the Hornets opened the year with a headline-grabbing 29-28 overtime upset of Oregon State, the football program's first win over a Pacific-12 Conference team. But Sac State won just two more games and finished 4-7 overall, 3-5 in the Big Sky.
"We definitely felt like we should have won more games that year," Davis said. "But there were times where we didn't play as a unit."
It didn't help, either, that the Hornets suffered several key injuries, including the loss of quarterback Jeff Fleming for four games.
If the Hornets can repeat their heroics against Montana today, they will be 5-4 overall and 4-1 in the conference and still in strong contention for the Big Sky title and the playoffs with three games to play.
"You look at the games we've won this year in conference and we've played well offensively, defensively and on special teams," Davis said. "When those things all come together, we play phenomenally and anything is possible."
Sperbeck, having been through several stomach-churning seasons with the Hornets, is more cautious.
"We didn't play (Montana) last year, and here we are today," Sperbeck said. "I don't know how much effect that win has on either team at this point."
Second-year Montana coach Mick Delaney, an assistant in 2011, is expecting a battle from a Sac State team that "notoriously plays better at home."
"It's a challenge to go to Sac State," he said. "We will have to execute, we have to play physical, and we have to play well – or we'll be in trouble."
MONTANA (6-2, 3-2 BIG SKY CONFERENCE) AT SACRAMENTO STATE (4-4, 3-1)
Where: Hornet Stadium (21,195)
When: 1:05 p.m.
Grizzlies at a glance: Montana's rally fell short in last Saturday's 42-37 loss to No. 3 Eastern Washington, jeopardizing the No. 12 Grizzlies' hopes of reaching the postseason. Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson (1,913 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, one interception) has excelled after sitting out last season, and wide receiver Ellis Henderson has 11 touchdown receptions. "You get (Johnson) trapped, you think you have him for a loss, and he can escape and get out and make plays," Sac State coach Marshall Sperbeck said. "That's probably where he's actually best is when he's out playing the game and freelancing a little bit." Jordan Canada leads Montana in rushing with 580 yards and eight touchdowns, but Travon Van (459 yards, four TDs) and No. 3 rusher Joey Counts (207 yards, one TD) have ankle injuries. Montana's defense leads the Big Sky in fewest points allowed (20.1 points per game) and interceptions (13).
Hornets at a glance: After a week off, the Hornets hope for a repeat of two years ago, when they beat Montana for the first time, 42-28 at Hornet Stadium. After posting a minus-eight turnover ratio in their first three games, the Hornets are a plus-seven in Big Sky play. In their last three games combined, the Hornets have been penalized seven times for 50 yards. Junior quarterback Garrett Safron has thrown 18 touchdown passes in the last six games and is averaging 300 total yards. "They have a quarterback who is as good as anyone in the conference," Montana coach Mick Delaney said. "He can extend plays with his arm and his legs." Senior linebacker Todd Davis, who had two sacks and an interception in a 31-7 win at North Dakota on Oct. 19, is fifth in career tackles for the Hornets with 302, four behind Matt Logue (2002-05) for fourth.
Series: Montana leads 16-1.
TODAY'S OTHER AREA GAMES
UC Davis: vs. Cal Poly, 4 p.m., 1140
Cal: vs. Arizona, 12:30 p.m., PAC12, 810, 950
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.