John Nguyen has proven to be a ready-for-prime-time player for the Montana Grizzlies.
The diminutive running back — he’s all of 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds — topped the 100-yard rushing mark for the third straight game Saturday, each of which kept the Grizzlies’ postseason push alive.
His performance against surging South Dakota State with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, though, might have been his most impressive and was definitely his most clutch.
But for one 60-yard pass play to Ben Roberts, the Griz offense was at best moribund in the second half of the first-round playoff win. At one point, the Griz had run 15 plays for a total of 15 yards — that’s five straight three-and-outs, if you’re scoring at home.
After building that 24-0 halftime lead, Montana’s offense was dead in the water.
The Jackrabbits cut Montana’s lead to 24-17 with 4:44 left in the game and kicked away to the Griz, leaving it up to the SDSU defense to stop Montana once more as it had for the entire second half.
The final drive started with a 9-yard completion from Brady Gustafson to Ben Roberts. Then Nguyen moved the chains with a 3-yard gain. Another 9-yard completion this time to Jamaal Jones followed. Then it was Nguyen, Nguyen, Nguyen and Nguyen — as in win, win, win, win — for 31 yards on four carries.
"The last drive we threw the ball on first down and after that it was the John Nguyen Show," Montana coach Bob Stitt said.
"Our O-line decided they wanted to win the ballgame and John did a great job of running with it. It was a great drive, a great drive. You need those to win big ballgames. That’s the (No. 10) team in the country, it’s not just another team. That’s a good football team we beat out there."
Once Nguyen had worked his magic — he finished with 107 yards on 18 carries — it was time for the victory formation.
Nguyen has earned Stitt’s trust.
"It’s really fun just to have the ball in my hands," Nguyen said. "I’m grateful that Coach Stitt has faith in me, for me to hold onto the ball and have the game in my hands. It’s a great feeling."
South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier said the Jackrabbits changed up their defense on Montana’s final drive, trying to make a play to get the ball back to the offense.
"We pressed," he said. "We didn’t run our base defense. We knew we had to make a play and then we blitzed right into the gap and that kid danced around us and went about 15 yards. And credit to him; he’s a good football player. That’s a point where when you get second-and-2 on a slant or a run and you blitz, they responded well.
"Their offensive line does a really good job of sorting things out. They don’t fire off the ball, they just kind of pitter-patter and find out who’s in their gap."
Nguyen, too, credited the big guys up front with his success.
"Our offensive line is doing a great job being consistent, doing it every single play," Nguyen said. "That’s the main reason why our rushing game’s been going."
And Nguyen is actually able to use his small stature to his advantage.
"The defensive players don’t know where I am," Nguyen said. "They kind of sit there, then I kind of hit the front door or wherever it is and shock them."
Patience is also a virtue for most any running back.
"Hitting it front side was where I was hitting it most of the time, but being patient with it and making sure my O-line worked up to their guys and then hitting the hole," Nguyen said of his thought process after taking a handoff. "That really opened up a lot of holes when I was patient back there."
That patience paid off for both Nguyen and the Griz. The 4-minute, 40-second clock killer was Montana’s longest drive of the day.