Griz in control of own destiny

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The Grizzlies face a remaining season of no room for error as league play continues Saturday in Missoula.

With an initial league loss in California last week Montana no doubt is facing a win-out scenario if they are to capture the Big Sky Conference and automatic post season bid. 

But one thing is for certain - and it is something the team has been able to say even after three defeats in eight games - they remain in control of their own destiny.

And with league leading Montana State traveling to San Luis Obispo Saturday night it will be interesting to see if the Mustangs suffer a letdown after a big win over the Grizzlies or if they can sustain momentum and move into a tie for first place by winning a fifth consecutive game.

But for Montana there will be no scoreboard watching.

With the next two games on the road in tough venues and against highly touted quarterbacks before facing the Bobcats, it is a Sacramento State team left to the spoiler role with three league losses that poses the immediate challenge.

The Hornets have never won in Missoula and have defeated the Grizzlies just once, in 2011, but it took overtime in the California capital last year before the Grizzlies snuck out of town with a 51-48 verdict.

But Sac State (4-4) is coming off a bye and unlike last week in SLO the Hornets can be expected to fill the air with pigskins.

Quarterback Garrett Safron did just that a year ago when he threw for north of 400 yards and four TDs while rushing for an additional 93 yards and another two scores.

The Hornets average better than 39 a game by on five occasions scoring better than 40 but they allow about 39 while the Grizzlies pace the conference allow just 21 and change.

One noteworthy stat: Sacramento State has thrown for 22 TDs while Montana has allowed a league-low eight scores via the airways.

Much like Cal Poly's Chris Brown, Safron leads the Hornets in rushing and stands fifth in pass efficiency.

But in league play he's been intercepted a half dozen times leaving the Hornets minus six in turnover margin where Montana is plus two in league and on top of the circuit in overall games.  

It's a bounce-back must-win scenario for the Grizzlies with four games remaining.  

It's that time of year

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In the midst of the season's color change and the home stretch for football, it's hoop season officially unveiling the 2014-15 Griz and Lady Griz teams.

I'm looking forward to the unveiling of a new regime on the men's side and the Lady Griz Wednesday at the Adams Center.

The Griz men under the tutelage of rookie head coach Travis DeCuire take the floor for the Annual Silver-Maroon scrimmage at 5:30 p.m. followed by Robin Selvig's Lady Griz.

For the men the scrimmage is in advance of the initial; exhibition game next Monday (Nov. 3) against Whitworth College.

There are a lot of new pieces for the Grizzlies who finished tied for the runner-up spot in the Big Sky Conference last season and compiled a 17-13 record in Wayne Tinkle's final season at the helm.

The group is headed by a single starter, guard Jordan Gregory, who was last season's third leading scorer at just south of a 14-point clip.

Sophomore point guard Mario Dunn and senior wing Mike Weisner also saw considerable floor time last year starting about half of the team's contests.

The Grizzlies season came to an early end in the first round of the league tournament falling to Portland State as Weber State claimed the tournament title and subsequent NCAA automatic bid.

A quartet of other lettermen return along with University of Washington transfer Martin Bruenig who had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

But Bruenig caused plenty of challenges for his teammates as he battled them hard on the practice floor and is expected to make an immediate impact this season while also returning are sophomore guard Riley Bradshaw, Brandon Gfeller, Chris Kemp and Jack Lopez.

Thus far DeCuire has been impressed with Gfeller's shooting. He had streaks last season but connected on just 17 of 53 (32 percent) from long range on a team led in three-point range by Weisner who connected on almost 47 percent from outside the arc.

DeCuire also looks for JC transfer Jermaine Edwards Jr. to have an immediate impact

The power of Griz Nation

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When you live where we live everything sometimes has a tendency to seem so far away-you know it can't happen here.

But it seems we are touched by tragedy wherever it might occur.

The incidents of school violence seem to be all around us and last week's shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High school certainly is no exception.

Grizzly team physician, Missoula orthopedist and former Seattle Seahawk draftee Larry Stayner went to the high school which is some 45 minutes north of Seattle on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.

While no motive was established early on the shooter identified as Jaylen Fryberg entered the school cafeteria Friday and opened fire on a table that included reportedly his two best friends who also were cousins.

While the grief surrounding such incidents is hard to fathom I wanted to let Griz fans know what then took place because of a former Grizzly. 

No. 93 Jay Turner was a defensive tackle for Montana (91-94) who along with halfback Damon Boddie was named the team's top junior in 1993.

He also was a multi all-academic Big Sky Conference choice who prepped at Marysville High School where he was all-area and all-conference.

But the meat of the story is not his achievements as an athlete at Montana or back in his Washington state prep days.

Turner is now the head football coach at nearby fierce football rival Oak Harbor which was scheduled to meet Pilchuck in a critical matchup Friday night. The game of course was cancelled but what happened next deserves notice and speaks as an example of what so many Griz athletes do and how they influence   in their post collegiate time.

As a show of support Turner forfeited the game to Pilchuck serving more than subtle notice that sports has its place in both competition and compassion.

This was passed along to Griz assistant coach and Turner teammate Scott Gragg by Bob Fenton, another Griz teammate.

"An extremely classy move by a former Griz and someone we can be proud to call a former teammate," wrote Fenton in an email. "Thought someone should know."

And now we do and it makes us all proud.






Looking back to Cal Poly

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Any chance of a miracle at San Luis Obispo disappeared in the hands of Buchannan Award possibility Nick Dunzbar who recovered a high-bouncing onside kick at the Mustang 41-yard line after the Grizzlies pulled within 13 points and six minutes and change remaining.

Montana probably will fall from the top 10 as their four-game win streak ends at the hands of an upstart Cal Poly team that moved into a tie for second place in the loss column by winning their fourth consecutive game.

After falling behind by 20 points on the third unanswered score in the second half, the Grizzlies drove 79 yards in nine plays culminated by a Jamal Jones scoring pass but while Jones kept the kick attempt alive by tipping the bounding ball the Mustangs recovered and controlled the remainder of the game.

It was all Jordan Johnson to Jones on the drive as the duo connected for 21 on third-and-20 and 41 yards on fourth-and-10 before the junior hauled down the two-yard scoring toss.

Jones continued his recently hot play with eight catches for 134 yards while for the second consecutive week Johnson threw for better than 200 yards with a 248-yard outing for three Tds but this one was dominated by Mustang quarterback Chris Brown.

Second in the Big Sky Conference in rushing, Brown hardly made a mistake rushing for 226 yards and throwing for an additional 107 as the Cal Poly run game burned the Grizzlies incredibly for 421 yards and 27 second half points.

Methodical is the Mustang mantra and they scored all six times in the red zone while converting 13 of 18 third-down opportunities and dominating time of possession by nine minutes.

The game was tied at 14 at the break after Cal Poly drove 74 yards to consume most of the last four minutes before intermission.

But on the initial drive of the third quarter Brown found Kori Garcia for the tally and drives of 95 and 55 put this one out of reach.

Cal Poly (5-3. 4-1) entertains the Cats next Saturday while the Grizzlies face Sacramento State before hitting the road for back-to-back contests.

While there's plenty of football remaining, make no mistake Montana with a 5-3 mark is now  up against it.



Griz set to face potent Mustang oufit

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Once beaten Cal Poly has real aspirations for a post season berth and the Mustangs hold court in San Luis Obispo as well as any home team in the Big Sky Conference.

Saturday night's game is another in a series of make-or-breakers.

Unbeaten in three league games and tied for the circuit lead everything remains on the table for the 7th ranked Grizzlies.

 But at 5-2 it also is no secret that there is not much room for error if a league championship is on the horizon.

Not yet in the home stretch as Saturday's game marks the halfway mark of the league season but with co-leaders Montana State and Eastern Washington remaining on the slate, while it's not hill for climber the schedule certainly presents some challenges.

First up in a two out of three California road swing are the Mustangs whose only league loss is a three-pointer 38-35 at Northern Arizona.

Cal Poly has won 51 of the last 63 home games and seventh-year head coach Tim Walsh, a Big Sky veteran in his seventh year after a stint at Army and Portland State, is 21-6 in the home confines.

My first trip to San Luis Obispo was the week before 9/11 and produced a Griz win before heading to Hawaii where the eventual championship team would lose to Timmy Chang's Rainbow Warriors.

Montana also won in the Central Coast in 2008 but while losing by a field goal in 2010 have a 15-2 series lead with the other loss coming in the 2005 FCS playoffs.

The Griz won in Missoula in 2011 and again in the 2013 playoffs at Washington Grizzly Stadium 21-14 in overtime. Of course Walsh was the head coach for both losses and the 2010 triumph.

With Cal Poly it is all option all the time.

Junior quarterback Chris Brown is second in the league in rushing, third in passing efficiency (65 percent) and wants the ball in his hands.

He's thrown for seven TDs, rushed for eight and even caught a 23-yard scoring toss back.

But a dozen different players have figured into the diverse offense by either rushing or receiving.

You never have enough time to scheme for the option or have the athletes to simulate the attack but Mick Delaney told us on Tuesday's Coach's Show the scout team has done an admirable job portraying the Mustang attack.

There are a lot of different start times listed so be advised this one is a 7:07 p.m. kickoff Pacific Time, 6:07 p.m. Mountain. 

Griz offense has a hole to fill

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I'm saddened with the loss of junior wide-out Ellis Henderson for the remainder of the season but here's hoping that after returning to Portland he can come back stronger than ever next season and finish his career in grand style.

The Grizzly receiving corps got a boost Saturday with the return of Sean Haynes and tight end Mike Ralston but Henderson's departure makes one realize there when it comes to athletics there just isn't anything to be taken for granted.

The transfer from Hawaii came into the season with 16 TD receptions, tenth on the career list, and better than 1,300 yards and seemed poised to be the go-to wide-out of an inexperienced group of receivers with redshirt freshman Josh Janssen and sophomore Ryan Burke joining the tested Washington transfer Jamal Jones.

But while he continually battled to solve his medical issue and played in five games, he caught only a dozen for 110 yards and didn't get into the end zone.

What "Hendo" meant to this team might be epitomized by what Jamal Jones said in the post-game press conference Saturday about his acrobatic TD catch just channeling Henderson's monster grab at North Dakota State.

In the Grizzlies we have the seventh ranked team in the country, winners of three straight and four of five games that have compiled a 5-2 record, despite the numerous obstacles that present themselves when you sustain key injuries.

I guess it was all characterized Saturday when not only both punter Stephen Shaw and placekicker Dan Sullivan were unable to play but coaches didn't know they would be without the two players until warm-up for Sullivan and after the first punt for Shaw.

Tight end Mike Ralston returned and Sean Haynes made it to the lineup for the first time this season after two surgeries but Chase Naccarato was making his way around the field with his leg on a cart after knee surgery that will sideline him for the season.

And it is plenty challenging to develop a new offensive line when half of the group have been sidelined like seemingly every other position because of ongoing injuries.

At North Dakota for example there were 11 players who played the previous season there who were still eligible but for one reason or another were not available for the game.

Now there are no excuses here and you won't hear any elsewhere either but this is quite a game group to be tied for the Big Sky Conference lead.

And you know what they say about defense and playing your best football in November. 

How they fared in FCS

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There were four top 25 teams idle last week and seven of the elite FCS teams met defeat but little will change in the top dozen as the season moves past the halfway mark.

Some teams fired shots across the bow with victory while others made some league standings at the least more interesting.

North Dakota State continued to dominate the Missouri Valley Conference defeating No. 22 Indiana State 34-17 to extend their record-setting win streak and move to 7-0.

But Northern Colorado made things interesting for Eastern Washington before falling 26-18 and maybe that will prompt those few folks who are still voting the Eagles at the top of the poll to realize the Bison have done nothing to not be a unanimous choice.

But then I'd like nothing better than to be facing the nation's No. 1 team in the country for the   second time in a season in Cheney in three weeks.

Unbeaten Coastal Carolina, New Hampshire and Jacksonville State all were idle while No. 5 Villanova kept a clean slate in the CAA by edging No. 15 William and Mary 35-31.

No. 8 Southeast Louisiana kept their league leading Southland Conference slate clean with an easy 41-24 verdict past Central Arkansas while the Cats probably will remain at No. 9 after surviving a pretty effective challenge in Bozeman from winless Weber State.

No. 10 Illinois State stayed tied with NDSU in the Missouri Valley with a field goal victory over 3-5 (1-3) Western Illinois and McNeese State stayed on the heels of Southeastern Louisiana by beating Abilene Christian 31-20.

At No 12 Fordham (6-1) was idle but that is where things got interesting with seven losses sustained by the next dozen teams.

No. 5 Villanova's triumph over William and Mary might not have been a surprise other than it came by just a 35-31 count as they chase New Hampshire in the CAA but Tennessee Tech pulled a stunner upsetting league leading Eastern Kentucky 39-31 in the Ohio Valley while No 21 Youngstown State claimed a two possession victory over No. 14 Southern Illinois which fell to NDSU last week.

With the shuffling with losses also by Northern Iowa, Indiana State, Charleston Southern and Sam Houston State, I elevated unbeaten Harvard from No. 25 and moved Missouri State and Bryant into the top 25.     



Griz back to winning ways after bye week

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The league slate remains clean as the Grizzlies entertained a huge pink-clad Missoula crowd by putting together arguably the best half of the season in defeating a game yet winless in league UC Davis squad.

Montana wins for the third consecutive time and now have claimed victory in four of the last five outings.

But it didn't come without a strong challenge from a never-say-die Aggie team that had the game tied at the half and continued to reclaim momentum as the Grizzlies attempted to stretch the second-half advantage.

The two teams at opposite ends of the league standings bobbed and weaved in the first quarter before Montana drove 84 yards in eight plays to move to a seven point lead with 29 seconds remaining on an acrobatic TD catch by Jamal Jones, the day's leading receiver with five receptions and a career high 146 yards.

But as they did all day some two minutes later, UC Davis answered with sophomore quarterback Ben Scott finding junior go-to receiver Ramon Vargas for the first of two scores from nine yards out.

And nine-and-a-half minutes later the Aggies put together the drive of the day, 90 yards, 12 plays in 6:28 with running back Gabe Manzanares grabbing a Scott toss for the go-ahead tally.

But Montana had the answer with Jordan Johnson scoring just his second rushing TD of the season at the end of a 75-yard drive to send the two teams to the intermission tied at 14.

But while Manzanares seemed to gain rushing yards at will in the first half, a subtle defensive adjustment tightened things down after the intermission and a quartet of second stanza scores, three from running back Jordan Canada in about 13 minutes, and seventh ranked Montana outdistanced the Aggies who fell to 1-6 (0-4).

Johnson put up his best totals of the season with 280 yards missing on just nine of 27 throws in moving into fifth on the all-time passing list. His 61 scoring tosses trail only Brian Ah Yat and Dave Dickenson.

Canada eclipsed the Century mark for the tenth time with a season-best 151 yards including a 74-yard romp, fifth longest in UM history.




A Look Around the Big Sky

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With a trio of home wins on their slate, Montana leads the FCS schools in attendance with an average of 25, 423 fans clicking the turn styles at Washington grizzly Stadium.

Well, either stadium capacity needs to be altered at a quartet of league facilities, or the Fire Marshall better look away since Montana joins the Cats, Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona in averaging more fans than their listed capacity.

Montana State is fourth in the country in attendance while Northern Arizona is drawing 10,525 after a standing-room-only throng of 1,000 more than that attended last week's victory over Cal Poly.

Weber State stands 14th after 14,577 were counted for the Wildcat home opener.

Just how great a season is Eastern's Vernon Adams having you ask?

Already passing for 20 TDs, he now has 95 ranking fourth in league history and just a single tally behind Montana's Dave Dickenson and EWU's Matt Nichols and just four back of establishing the league record.

Thirteen FCS players have thrown for 100 touchdowns - The all-time record is 140 by Grambling's Bruce Eugene.

 Adams also is closing in on 10,000 yards of total offense and he has posted 8,758 passing yards, leading the nation in four offensive categories and standing second in pass efficiency.

Before you ask, consider this - Adams has played in just 32 games while Higgins set his totals in just 48 games, Nichols in 47 and Dickenson in just 35.

Talk about a scoring machine. EWU receiver Cooper Kupp caught his 28th TD pass last Saturday against UC Davis and he has hauled in a scoring reception in all four Eagle games this season and in 18 of 19 games in his two-year career.

Home teams were 5-1 on opening weekend and the league has won just four of 35 road contests.

North Dakota is unbeaten in two home games this season and the Grizzlies are trying to win the buffer game after UND won the first of three consecutive Grand Forks games against Montana in 2012.

UND stands last in scoring offense, total offense and rush offense but ironically lead the circuit in rushing D while standing second behind Montana in scoring D. North Dakota also trails just Montana with 13 sacks but stands last in third-down conversions.

The Grizzlies have a bye next week while UND hosts Portland State before a week off. 

Griz head back to Grand Forks

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Back to Grand Forks for the third consecutive year for the Grizzlies who look to pick up that first road win of the season.

Montana looks to send UND to straight league losses and basically eliminate any post season aspirations.

The "No-Nicks" stand 2-3 and with both wins at the Alerus Center after falling to No. 13 Montana State 29-18 last week.

UND has struggled offensively, scoring just north of 11 a game, and have been shut out thus far in the first quarter.

And their offense, hampered by the departure of four receivers, basically has been anemic rushing for just an average of 90 yards a game and totaling just 223 yards against 341 yards gained by opponents.

In wins at home over Robert Morris and Stony Brook, UND scored but 16 and 13 points respectively.

But while they have are even in turnover margin, that's mostly because their defense has caused a dozen fumbles, amazingly recovering nine.

But they have put the ball on the turf nine times themselves, losing five while also being intercepted five times.

Joel Molberg is the starter at quarterback who has completed just half of his throws for 652 yards and a trio of TDs.

Molberg did put up a season-high 222 yards against Montana State and the offense also posted a season-high with 293 yards of total offense but the Cats jumped all over UND in the second quarter and led 26-7 at intermission.

His 22 completions were more than he totaled in the previous three games.

Redshirt freshman Kyle Norberg played on both sides of the football against Missouri State when he rushed 27 times, the most by a UND back this season, while also seeing time at linebacker.

He appears now to be the starting back and has rushed 51 times but just for 2.5 yards a tote.

UND has been hurt with injuries to running backs Cedric Simmons and Adam Shaugabay who both were sidelined during the Missouri State game.

Through the first four games, 14 different players have started on defense and 11 were first-time starters.

Senior cornerback Alex Tillman, a drop-down from Houston, has impacted the lineup. He returned an interception 92 yards for a score against Stony Brook.

Kickoff is 12:30 MDT.            

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