Griz in Rare Position as "Underdog"

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Travel day is upon us and a first-ever visit to the Dakotadome in Fargo awaits.

Is there anything like being voted the No 3 or 4 team in the country and being figured such an underdog that you might as well send the charter flight elsewhere?

If not now-when and if not us who I say as the Grizzlies look to strap it on with powerful North Dakota State.

It's a home-and-home arrangement with the Bison visiting Missoula for the first time since as a Division II they upset Montana in 2003, the last time the two teams met.

One of the more interesting stats to me is that NDSU not just rushes the ball to the tune of 242 yards a game in their first three but that they hand the ball off an average of 43 times an outing.

Conversely Montana rushes some 32 times a game while accumulating an average of 182 yards an outing, a bit more than half of their offense.

The Grizzlies have thrown the ball 88 times or an average of more than 29 times a contest.

Now those stats are a little skewed because rushing yards lost or gained because of pressure or quarterback scrambling play a role but you get the picture.

The Bison have won some 46 of the last 48 games at home and with 19,000-plus expected, it will be a great atmosphere but to me there something about playing inside that seems to swallow the uproar and with Montana's anticipated silent count, I don't see that as a critical factor.

Now adjustment - that's another story especially in the second half.

The three-time defending FCS champion just has not given up points in the second half and get stronger at the line of scrimmage, something much like the Grizzlies are known for.

The trenches will be a battle of behemoths but as much as folks have said the Grizzly offensive line is young and inexperienced, three of the five Bison offensive linemen - both tackles and a guard - are underclassmen and just four of their 10 returning starters are on that side of the ball.

It should be a beaut!

Why Not the Grizzlies?

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Eventually No. 1 ranked North Dakota State will be knocked from their pedestal ending their leading active winning streak standing now at 27.

So why shouldn't it be by the team that previously held the position and has played in more title games than only one other team?

The nation's collective FCS eyes will be focused on Fargo Saturday afternoon for what promises to be key matchup of the early season.

NDSU winning streak is the longest-ever in Missouri Valley (Gateway) Conference history and also the longest in Division 1 football exceeding Florida State's run by nine games.

 And the Bison have done nothing but be convincing that a four consecutive national title is a possibility by ripping Iowa State by 20 points in the opener then trip Weber State in a tough outing 24-7 before dominating outmanned Incarnate Word last week.

It promises to be football like the old days with North Dakota State being perfectly content to run the ball some 50 times - a strategy in a bit of a lesser amount familiar to Mick Delaney's Grizzlies - and holding opponents down with the nation's 10th best defense.

This is your grandpa's football game to the sheer delight of a sellout crowd approaching 19,000 with NDSU welcoming its two millionth fan through the Dakotadome turnstyles.

Defensive end Kyle Emanuel is the lynchpin of a NDSU defense that is second in scoring and   seventh in both third downs allowed  and turnover margin.

They held the Cyclones to 102 rushing yards and 57 yards of total offense after intermission, a staple of the Bison's game plan.

Concerning for Montana is points left off the board because of the kicking game and Wyoming transfer Dan Sullivan has been handed the reins for this one.

There often seems to be an "X" factor in this kind of game and I see coming down to special teams or turnovers.

The punters and returners are about even but knock on wood now, the Grizzlies have yet to put the ball on the ground or throw an interception, while the Bison though plus-two to Montana's plus-five have twice been intercepted and although they didn't lose the ball either time have fumbled twice.

I think Montana has surprises in mind as well and have the weapons to do so and are improving in each outing. It is by far not a finished product but there's not a one of the 58 on the travel roster who doesn't believe they'll be in it at the end with a chance to claim victory.

Montana probably won't win the pre-game - NDSU looks awesome - but does anyone remember highly heralded Northern Iowa in Don Read's second year in 1987?

Having lost to Portland State in the Stadium and falling at Northern Arizona, the Grizzlies were 1-2 after beating Nevada when they trounced Northern Iowa 33-16.

You just never know.

   

#GRIZvNDSU Steeped in History

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It's all about winning the Big Sky Conference but also putting enough games in the left hand column to get to the post season and nothing could go further to that end than beating the three-time FCS champion on their home turf.

Sweet revenge for decades of sour feelings is in the offing for a bunch of Grizzlies who weren't born when the misfortune of defeat by North Dakota State in the Camellia Bowl occurred in Sacramento.

It was the smaller college version of the national championship in those days and both in 1969 and 70, the Grizzlies enjoyed 10-0 seasons only to have the NCAA rule that junior college transfers would not be allowed to participate in the post-season contest.

Now in those days northwest JC ranks were ripe with major college players who for one reason or another went to the lower college ranks in advance of enrolling in a major institution.

 And take my word for it, it was tough, hard-nosed football often in those days dominated by Dwight Poole's Columbia Basin College in the Tri Cities.

It was a diverse league with long bus trips to places like Wenatchee, Ontario Ore., Grays Harbor, Everett and Bremerton to name a few.

 Equipment was slight, coaches were up-and-comers and training staff-well you get the picture.

 And as fate would have it, the Grizzlies fell 30-3 to NDSU in 1969 and in even a more dominant 10-0 season, lost again to the Bison 31-16 in 1970.

Now those were not the days of dominant Griz football although Jack Swarthout teams posted a 51-41 mark in his nine years at the helm after succeeding Hugh Davidson in 1967.

But in both seasons Montana claimed first ever Big Sky Conference football titles.

They were not to win another until Larry Donovan's 1983 team with Joe Glenn shared the circuit crown after an 11-year drought.

While the series between the two stands even at three, the Griz victories occurred before WWII in 1914, '21 and '41.

Yes the Bison certainly are on a roll with a trio of consecutive championship banners but they are by no means unbeatable.

Weber State (with eight FBS transfers) was on the one, down 14 in the second half but couldn't get into the end zone eventually losing 21-7.

NDSU has not been scored upon after the intermission and yes it is a daunting task that could define a season for both teams.

Quite a day!

 

A Look at the Bison

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The buzz on The Sports Network Monday was all about five of the 10 Missouri Valley Conference teams once again ranked in the top 25, eight of the circuit's 10 entities winning over the weekend and their league outscoring opponents 359-148.

The only FCS loss in 16 games by a Missouri Valley Conference team occurred in Missoula Saturday night as the Grizzlies topped South Dakota.

In fact with Indiana State's defeat of Ball State Saturday both the Sycamores and North Dakota State sport wins over FBS teams and Indiana State was picked to finish last in the league.

But while Fargo hosted Game Day for the second time in consecutive years last Saturday, they did so a week early as when Montana invades the Bison this week all FCS football eyes will be focused on the outcome.

Now let's face it the Grizzlies make the trek as an underdog, a role I relish, and have surrendered their football superiority to what NDSU has been able to accomplish the last three seasons with consecutive national championships.

 They are the runaway No 1 choice of voters and have won 27 straight, surpassing the record shared by Montana at 24.

But just in case people outside of Griz Nation have forgotten, it is Montana with the second-most championship game appearances (7) and that pair of national titles of their own in 1995 followed by 2001.

And while Montana certainly is young and inexperienced on the offensive line and has left points on the board because of the kicking game, the 4th ranked Grizzlies will not be cannon fodder in Fargo Saturday afternoon.

While it is how you play in November that speaks volumes and Montana's road schedule is brutal, it is all about weekly improvement and the challenge of measuring up at the Fargodome can do nothing but pay future dividends.

And if you are a fan of football in the trenches - the Bison depth chart in the dirt resembles an NFL roster - this promises to be a game to delight.

You can find out all about the matchup Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Mick Delaney Show at Brooks and Browns inside the Holiday Inn in downtown Missoula.

And of course there is ancient history to recall as well with NDSU claiming back-to-back Camellia Bowl titles in the Jack Swarthout-Jack Elway years of 69-70.

 

 

How it happened: Griz 28-20 USD

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Continuing their mastery over South Dakota the 4th ranked Grizzlies sent the Coyotes packing to set up the biggest FCS game of the year to this point.

After the Grizzlies kept the turnover slate clean through three games and despite their place kicking failures, Montana was strong enough to drop USD for a fourth consecutive time and third straight season.

And while the game appeared to be settled several times with leads of 15, 11 and eight points, the Coyotes wouldn't go away and with a bit less than two minutes to play made it a one-possession game with Eric Shufford's 31-yard TD reception from sophomore backup QB Ryan Seager.

But the onside attempt went awry and the Grizzlies disposed of their 27th straight non-conference opponent before a capacity record crowd at Washington Grizzly Stadium.

Focused on continuing to rush the football, the Grizzlies rushed the ball 40 times with Jordan Canada leading the way by eclipsing the Century mark for the ninth time.

Canada did not see the field in the first quarter - disciplinary matter said Mick Delaney - stepping aside for Travon Van and John Nguyen but his 114v yards was eight more than the senior gained in the first two contests.

While dominating from the get-go, Montana didn't get points on the board until the last 39 seconds of the first quarter after Nguyen culminated a 15-play, 72-yard drive with a robust nine yard tally.

Jordan Johnson was an efficient 16 of 27 for 127 yards and his pair of touchdown passes vaulted the senior into fourth on the all-time list passing Grady Bennett, who was doing the television commentary.

He also moved into seventh on the all-time pass yardage list.

The story of the evening might well have been the defense which completely stifled the South Dakota rushing attack holding them to 134 yards and held the Yotes without a first down until midway through the second quarter.

Buchannan list defensive end Zack Wagenmann paced the unit with a trio of both tackles-for-loss and sacks.

The Missoula senior now stands just 51/2  sacks back of the all-time leader, the late Tim Bush, and passed Trey Young for sixth on the list of career tackles-for-loss.

Now at 2-1 it's on to Fargo to face streaking North Dakota State

Here come the Coyotes

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Montana will have its hands full with a two-headed rushing attack of South Dakota Saturday night and the defensively with a three-man front the Griz face a third different defense alignment in the last three weeks.

South Dakota is young on the defensive front starting a redshirt freshman and junior at the ends and a sophomore in the middle.

And although D end Drew Iddings goes 290, they're not particularly big on defense where there also is a pair of sophomores at four linebacker slots.

A 12-game starter last season, Iddings is a pre-season all-league pick who had tackles-for-loss and eight hurries last season.

The Coyotes didn't have a sack against either Oregon or William Penn and had 10 tackles-for-loss in the two games.

Backup free safety Tyson Graham leads USD in tackles with an even dozen of his 15 stops of the solo variety while sophomore inside backer John Wessel has just one less stop.

The numbers aren't really indicative because besides top-three ranked Oregon, William Penn was an outmanned NAIA that gave the Coyotes little difficulty.

South Dakota is a bit deficient in punting with Miles Bergner booting for 47, 40, 31 and 25 yards but he drilled a 47-yard field goal at Oregon and is perfect in four attempts.

But their return game with backup running back Jasper Sanders and receiver Eric Shufford is solid.

Senior inside backer Auston Johnson also is a pre-season all-circuit nominee who was third on the team with 69 tackles last season but has just a half-dozen stops so far.

Former Montana defensive coordinator Mike Breske's son Adam coaches the backers for Glenn and Jason Petrino, whose uncles Bobby and Paul both are Division-1 head coaches, is the defensive coordinator and in his third stint with Joe.

The Yote secondary could be suspect as all four starters graduated and six new players have rotated.

But I expect pound the rock to be the scenario for both teams.

It could be chilly Saturday night and given the two teams propensity to run the football one might be advised to layer and bundle and get set for a three-plus hour game.

  

 

 

  

Coyotes come calling

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Nobody can accuse University of South Dakota of not playing a challenging schedule.

The Coyotes feature seven of the top 25 FCS teams and the Grizzlies are USD's fifth straight top-20 team dating back to last season.

Joe Glenn's South Dakota team heads to Missoula Saturday night admittedly with their hair on fire as the Grizzlies go under the lights before hitting the road two of the next three weeks.

The Coyotes haven't had much success in Missoula not winning here since the 60's and lost what was for the former Grizzly mentor a heart breaker in Vermillion last season, the fourth straight loss to Montana and third in as many years.

A South Dakota alum, Joe's been a head coach for 27 years - his 193 coaching victories are sixth-most among active FCS coaches - but you can bet upending Montana at Washington Grizzly Stadium is high on the 65-year-olds bucket list.

While the Yotes are heavy with returnees on offense (8) much like Montana five true freshmen and 10 redshirt freshmen have played in the team's split of games with powerful Oregon and NAIA William Penn.

South Dakota is hard-nosed at the point of attack averaging 300 lbs across the front five and interesting enough their backups average a robust 290.

The Coyotes stand 12th nationally in rushing at 262 yards-per-game and both running backs eclipsed the century mark last weekend.

With starting quarterback Kevin Earl out with a broken thumb, Ryan Saeger performed admirably but he wasn't directing an offense out of the north end zone against one of the toughest rush defenses around.

Jordan Johnson returns for the game and expects to atone for the three picks he threw in last season's game especially since he was picked just five times all last season.

Senior Travon Van, who contributed 153 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns last week, didn't play at South Dakota last season and seeing the speedster with the football in space certainly is worth the price of admission.

Myself I can't wait to see him with the ball on a fly sweep, an inside handoff, or with the ball on a bubble screen cutting back against the grain.

Griz fans have not seen it yet but Montana is a big-play team on both sides of the football and they'll certainly be ready for explosive football especially in this nighttime atmosphere.  

Looking ahead to South Dakota

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Former Montana National Champion coach Joe Glenn certainly is hoping the third time is a charm when he brings his South Dakota team to Missoula Saturday night.

But the fourth ranked Grizzlies are set to send the Coyotes yapping back home to Vermillion.

Glenn and his team no doubt feel a bit snake-bit as the last two years since the Grizzlies have just figured out a way to pick up victories over their South Dakota counterpart.

In the opening game of 2012 - the last time South Dakota came to Missoula - Montana sent them packing but just by 11, while last season in the Dakota dome Ellis Henderson's 98-yard kickoff return with 96 seconds remaining propelled Montana to a 31-27 comeback victory in a game statistically dominated by USD.

South Dakota stands 1-1 after being blasted by Oregon in their opener, then coming home to capture a 12th opening 41-16 home victory over William Penn University.

The Coyotes pounded the rock against the NAIA foe rushing for 357 yards on 54 carriers (6.6 ypc) while attempting just 13 passes.

Sophomore Trevor Bouma, who ran for 147 yards against Montana in the Griz win last season on 25 carries, eclipsed the century mark with 115 yards while senior Jasper Sanders added 110 yards on 18 totes.

In his inaugural collegiate start sophomore QB Ryan Saeger rushed for 79 yards and passed for 111 on just eight completions.

With 10 minutes to play William Penn trailed just 24-16 before the Coyotes cashed in a couple of turnovers to put the contest away with a field goal, a seven-play scoring drive and a 46-yard fumble recovery TD.

The South Dakota defense, which starts four underclassmen including two on the three-man front, proved suspect to the run game allowing more than five yards a carry and 335 yards.

Six players rushed for more than 30 yards but the Statesman did not complete a pass while only attempting eight throws, two of which were picked. After rushing for the first score and a 7-0 lead, Penn starting QB Taylor Parsons was injured in the first quarter and did not return.

The Griz have dominated the series winning 11 of 17 and with two of the next three games on the road in North Dakota you can bet they'll be looking to set the table with league play on the horizon. 

 

Picking the top 25

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It is always a challenge as I sit down Sunday to vote in the Sports Network poll of top 25 FCS teams.

With the parity especially at the top of the nation's 252 teams in 15 conferences and independents and especially this time of the season when teams are either playing up in money games or down to fill their home schedule it often is difficult to compile an accurate ranking.

While most football fans are pinned to the television switching channels to follow the performances of their fantasy team players and their favorite NFL team, this modest scribe is back at it with not just poll results and voting but writing blogs and recording the first-of-the-week daily programs.

Now don't think I don't love every minute of it since I have been fortunate enough all these years to follow a chose avocation that I easily could say has never been a job but a dream.

I certainly came to realize that even more when a health scare caused me to miss the road basketball games but all is well and I'm as stoked as on the eve of that first Lady Griz game some 30 years ago.

But enough: My point is while there are dominant FCS teams, as was evidenced by the superb performance of quarterback Vernon Adams and Eastern Washington in taking the University of Washington to the brink of defeat, it is still difficult to decide when voting in the weekly poll things like: should unranked Southern Illinois jump substantially into the mix after trouncing No. 16 Eastern Illinois on the road? Is McNeese State a top five team given a close call in losing at Nebraska, or should No 22 Towson be dropped from this week's significance after being shutout 54-0 at West Virginia?

Yes while it certainly isn't brain surgery, woe is me.

A top 10 would be so much easier, or would it?

No doubt North Dakota State, a Griz opponent in Fargo Sept. 20, remains No. 1 and Eastern's showing leaves the Eagles my No. 2 although it was tempting to elevate 2-0 Southeastern Louisiana into the runner-up spot with the Griz record-evening victory over Central Washington leaving Montana fourth.

(I moved McNeese into the top five followed by Coastal Carolina even though they won just 31-30 at North Carolina A & T).

No. 9 Jacksonville State proved up to muster beating winless Chattanooga in Tennessee by an overtime field goal to get to seven on my ballot followed by idle Northern Iowa and New Hampshire.

By the time you read this you will be aware of how else in the country agrees and who does not but if you have read this far, here's a bonus.

On Tuesday I'll reflect on the demise of daily beat sports journalism.

Hall of Fame Game

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You might not realize that Saturday afternoon's opener is the Annual Hall of Fame game.

And while these two running backs being honored plied their trade on the gridiron a half-century apart, both Dick Imer and Yohance Humphery both were dominant running backs whose names are etched highly in the University of Montana record book.

One probably has to be of my generation to remember Dick Imer of Highland, Ind., who played in 1953-54 in the Skyline Conference.

While Montana won just six games under Ed Chinske in two seasons yet twice beat the Bobcats, the University of Washington transfer was twice accorded honorable mention All-American laurels and the "Little Penguin" as he was tabbed, still stands at the top of several Grizzly career lists.

Imer's 8.17 average yards per carry (86 rushes for 703 yards) in 1953 on a 3-5 team with losses against BYU, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico and Utah State is simply remarkable.

Still ranked 12th in career rushing with 1,592 yards in only 16 games, he also is the standard-bearer in average all-purpose yards 157.7.

Imer's 8.0 yards per carry in 1954 tied him with Penn State halfback and later Baltimore Colt great Lenny Moore for second in the nation and he stood ninth in the country in '54 in kickoff returns (24.3))

He and wife Betty of Hardin celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in February.

Now I fondly remember the last time I interviewed Yo Humphery who came to Missoula from Eagle River, Alaska. We were on the charter plane our way home from Chattanooga after the Grizzlies claimed a second National Championship in 2001 by ripping Furman in a 13-6 which does not even speak to Montana's total dominance. .

Yo remains UM's all-time rusher and holds the single season mark he established at 1,658 in the title run.

Against Furman in '01 he packed the freight 30 times for 142 yards and scored UM's sole TD.

His single-game mark of 265 yards was set against Weber State in 2001, a game in which he tied game marks with four rushing scores and 38 carries.

Well deserved and outstanding examples of Griz football-Dick Imer and Yo Humphery.        

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