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.            

This week in the Big Sky

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The Griz have one conference win in the books and are headed back to North Dakota.

Defense was the word of the day as Montana held Northern Colorado to a single touchdown and allowed but a single second half field goal in trouncing the Bears by 25 points.

North Dakota State of course remains the nation's top ranked unit but is still not a unanimous choice as eight voters favored Eastern Washington after the Eagles 23-point domination of UC Davis.

You already know my feelings about that.

The defending champ is the number one team until someone proves otherwise and while the Bison had a bye last week, they're unbeaten in four outings.

Filling out the Top 25 had little challenge this week since No. 22 Liberty was the only beat to catch a defeat ripped by previously unranked but 3-1 Indiana State 39-19.

That vaulted the Sycamores into No. 25, the first time they've been ranked since late 2012.

The Grizzlies remained at No 7 with Montana State standing No. 13 after defeating North Dakota easily 29-18.

What did I say about the top-ranked Missouri Valley Conference - Well there are seven teams from the league in the Top 25, one more than the CAA.

The only upset I see in the Big Sky in the first week was in Pocatello where Mike Kramer's Bengals defeated Sacramento State decisively by 20 points.

Davis played Eastern Washington straight up in the first half, trailing just 9-7 but it was all Eagles after the break and quarterback Vernon Adams continues his charge to the top of the circuit TD mark with two more.

He's now three back of the all-time record.

Jerome Souers picked up a thrilling victory scoring from the 12 on fourth down with 21 seconds to play to prevail by three as quarterback Chase Cartwright, who connected on a quartet of TD scores, took the Lumberjacks 71 yards in a minute and change to please the Flagstaff faithful.

Conference activity continues in earnest Saturday with 12 of the league's teams facing off and looking at box scores this might be a season of outstanding QB play.



The Homecoming that was

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Much the same at Homecoming at Washington Grizzly Stadium and that certainly is a good thing.

Having lost just 26 games in the history of the Stadium and winners of 21 of the last 22 "Get Back to Campus" celebrations, the Grizzlies dominated outmanned Northern Colorado early on then coasted to victory without tallying a second half touchdown.

More than 25,000 relished the pre-game extravaganza then settled in to enjoy a penalty-filled afternoon that saw Montana hang four first quarter TDs on the Bears who struggled to match the early intensity.

Mick Delaney thought the Griz had a scheme to block a punt and sure enough after back-to-back procedure penalties, they sent the house and over matched UNC's personal protectors and with Addison Owen's block took possession at the 10-yard line and Jordan Johnson found Jamaal Jones on the second play for Montana's first score of the Big Sky Conference season.

Northern Colorado back-up QB Jonathon Newsom gave the Bear some spark by out running a good share of the Griz D on a 74-yard TD rambling up the middle of the field to get the Bears on the scoreboard and cut the first-half advantage to 21 and a second quarter field goal made the score respectable but Johnson's third scoring pass made it 35-10 at the break and this one was pretty much in the book as the teams only traded second-half field goals..

Johnson also ran in a TD to match the second most touchdowns in Griz history which also was accomplished earlier this season by Travon Van and moved into third all-time with 59 passing TDs passing Cole Bergquist.

Newsom was at the helm after one series when starting QB Sean Rubalcaba was sidelined with a shoulder injury noticed during warm-up. Improvisational under some intense Griz pressure, he was able to often elude Montana defenders and completed 22 for 198 yards.

Buchannan Watch List defensive end Zack Wagenmann had quite an afternoon but I thought his best move came after his television interview with Jen Mueller when an adoring young man sprinted toward him and into his arms.

Like throughout his stellar career Zack never missed a beat and casually caught him and walked into a larger crowed of fans.

That was my play of the day befitting Homecoming.   


FCS Rising

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So when is the last time that the two Montana teams played the top two FCS teams in the country and neither came away with a victory.

Actually I doubt if Montana and Montana State have ever faced off on the same day against the nation's top two teams let alone neither taste victory.

Let's face it. There has been a shift in FCS and it's been mostly fueled by the emergence of North Dakota State as a perennial power and the surge of Eastern Washington to national prominence.

While the Grizzlies had their dominant run, they haven't finished as season as the nation's top team since the championship run of 2001, although they were ranked second at the end of 2004, 2008 and 2009.

Now I am certainly not to intimate that the proverbial sky is falling but Montana has not won the league since the unbeaten 2009 session and haven't been the circuit runner-up since 2010.

The Eagles, favored by both coaches and media prior to this season, have won the league or been runner-up the last seven years.

And Eastern Washington has claimed or shared the championship three of the last four seasons.

I only point this out because we are on the eve of the start of league play, only the second with a 13-team schedule, in the league's 51st season.

Interestingly the Big Sky Conference is dipping in strength trailing the Missouri Valley, CAA and Ohio Valley, just ahead of the Southland and the Ivy League.

But no better time to start to turn of the tables kicks off in Missoula with a Homecoming tilt against hapless, at least thus far, Northern Colorado.

The Bears start a trio of sophomores on the offensive front yet appear in the first three games (1-2) to want to run the football.

Senior back Robert Holland leads the rushing attack averaging just south of five yards a carry, while Darius Graham, who is slightly bigger, has nine less carries but leads UNC with three TDs.

Quarterback Sean Rubalcaba completes 69 percent but has tossed a single TD against one pick.

But defensively the Bears are ball hogs leading the league with nine picks and by seven different players.

5-foot 6 redshirt freshman Ellis Onic is a serious kick return specialist who is averaging 24 yards on six returns, while leading receiver Dimitri Stimphill (13 receptions for 237 yards and a score) has pitched in returning three for about an average of 15.

Let the dominance of UNC continue.




The Other Bears Come Calling for Homecoming

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Saturday's Homecoming opponent has never defeated the Grizzlies in Missoula and in fact only shows a single victory over Montana and that occurred a decade before any member of this year's team was born.

The last time the Bears were victorious in the series between the two teams came in the first game, a 27-19 victory in Greeley in 1976.

Since then the Grizzlies have won 12 straight, seven consecutive in Missoula and seven in a row since UNC opted to join the Big Sky Conference.

And it really has not been a competitive series with the average margin of defeat just south of 23 points a game with the closest outcome of 10 points occurring in Greeley in 1979.

It has been a rough go for fourth-year head coach Earnest Collins Jr., who has but a 7-30 record.

Northern Colorado finished at the bottom of the circuit last year, failing to win a league game and finishing with a 1-11 overall mark.

But in this year opener in Vegas, the Bears gave UNLV all they wanted, falling just 13-12 after missing a chip-shot field goal that would have given them the lead with five-plus to go.

But last week they were easily measured at No. 10 Northern Iowa 46-7 after disposing of Houston Baptist of the Southland Conference 28-20 the previous week.

While Wyoming transfer Dan Sullivan was anointed the place kicker after his performance against North Dakota State, the kicking challenges continue to grab a headline as punter Stephen Shaw sustained meniscus damage to his knee, said Mick Delaney, and will not be available Saturday and may face a scoping after the swelling decreases.

Shaw will be replaced by left-footer Chris Lider.

Delaney revealed on Tuesday's Coach's Show that Sullivan, who hasn't played in two years, suffered a serious stroke during the summer of 2012.

Having been there myself a year ago, I can tell you after the extensive rehab required, I'm amazed he is back on the football field in any capacity.

I'll go in the foxhole with Dan Sullivan any time.

I sincerely hope a huge crowd shows up on the Oval at 8 p.m. Friday night for traditional Homecoming activities, then on to the Holiday Inn and quite frankly I am amazed there were still tickets available as I write this.




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