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.

 

 

         

Positive Takeaways

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The Montana defense, while besieged by a North Dakota State rush offense that gobbled up rush yards spent two-thirds of the game on the field and an average of almost six yards per play but somehow stifled the high scoring Bison by holding them to a single touchdown.

The Griz can only say "what if" as they head to the friendly confines to open the Big Sky Conference season against Northern Colorado.

Hoping they have a second chance to challenge the three-time national titlist, unless the wheels came flying off the NDSU season, would no doubt return Montana to the Fargodome but that's easily nine or 10 games away and in the realm of highly unlikely.

The task at hand, facing a pair of North entities, one from Colorado and the other from Dakota as circuit play begins in earnest.

Results from Bozeman Saturday certainly is an indication either that Eastern Washington and the Bobcats can't defend anyone or Montana State has a high-powered offense, something we already knew about the Eagles.

In Fargo, the Bison are exactly as advertised: NDSU does not allow anything after halftime, features a diverse rush defense, has somewhat an Achilles when it comes to the airways and keeps the ball out of their opponents hands with a grinding usually straight-up rush attack.

The Bison ran 79 offensive plays to Montana's 48, allowed but nine first downs, just three on the ground after 68 yards gained on 19 carries, gave up three of 13 third down conversions and didn't turn the ball over.

There was improvement in the Montana kicking game with transfer Dan Sullivan booting two of three kickoffs into the end zone, booting a chip-shot 20-yard field goal and converting an extra point.

There also was improvement in the penalty phase of the game with Montana being flagged just a trio of five yarders, well under their season average in the first three games.

While superlatives are scarce in a game like this the 38-yard completion to Ellis Henderson after being blasted into the padding behind the Grizzly bench plays earlier and the 72-yard catch and run by Jamal Jones were highlights of the day.

A near sell-out throng is expected Saturday as that other Bear tries to break a 12-game losing streak to the Ursus Horribilis.

 

   

       

A Look at the Top 25

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North Dakota State solidified its spot at the top of The Sports Network Top 25 far outdistancing Eastern Washington with the majority of all but nine of the first place votes but in defeat the Grizzlies fell to just seventh.

Unbeaten after four games Montana nemesis Coastal Carolina moved to its highest poll position (3rd) after slamming winless Florida A&M 48-3.

But I needed this - The Sports Network story documenting the move of the Chanticleers (Shon-ti-cleers) aptly described the meaning of their mascot as a rooster who rules the barnyard with cunning and wit.

Wow and I didn't find that one when Coastal Carolina came to Missoula in the second-round playoff game last year.  I am slipping.

Even though Coastal Carolina lost almost half their starters to graduation their Wall Street executive coach has them believing in themselves and powering about the Big South Conference.

So with three of four Big Sky Conference teams losing the league continues to spiral a bit in conference power which obviously is paced by the Missouri Valley headed by NDSU.

South Dakota was the only MVC to lose last week and Joe Glenn's troops rebounded with a single-TD verdict over Northern Arizona. 

Seven of the Top 25 was defeated and three, NAU, Furman (2-3) and Sam Houston State (1-3) fell from the elite list.

Joining Montana (2-2) as a bit surprising in the top 10 is Northern Iowa, which blasted Homecoming opponent Northern Colorado 46-7. It was their first win in the initial three games.

Southeastern Louisiana took the largest drop eight spots from No 3 after dropping just a one-point decision to Southeast Missouri State.

Despite losing to No. 2 Eastern Washington, the Cats moved up a spot to No. 13.

I boosted unbeaten CAA team Albany onto the list and voters landed them into the No 24 spot, while Eastern Kentucky looks formidable and after stomping UT Martin 49-24 they moved four spots to No. 19.

Illinois State and Delaware were new teams that made the list.

And in week five, now things really get interesting.    

No time to dwell on the past

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It was a battle of good old-fashioned smashed mouth football between titans of FCS, and in the end the home team prevailed to win for a 28th consecutive time.

No excuses are offered and none are required as the close to 19,000 fans at the Fargodome were treated to a gridiron struggle deserving of the pre-game accolades and anticipation.

And while Montana dropped the non-conference game, I see no need to hang their head or be inconsolable but rather to acknowledge defeat by no means dwelling on the outcome but rather to sharpen their fangs for what now is a weekly restart to post-season opportunities.

That it took a record setting field goal performance by Adam Keller to post the majority of the afternoon's points (15) and North Dakota State was held to three scores less than their season average certainly is an indication of how a Grizzly defense that spent some two-thirds of the day on the field played.

But coaches will tell you this week, it just wasn't good enough and any time your opponent rushes for 280 yards and runs 30 more plays, while the noose was taunt, it wasn't cinched and the Bison exposed what comes at a price - not only do you have to keep a rushing attack from getting to the second level, you simply have to have a run game of your own.

The Grizzlies are not a team that is going to wing the ball some 50 times an outing on the other side of the ball Saturday's top three Montana tacklers - all in double figures - were the starting linebackers and the majority of their stops were of the solo variety.

NDSU certainly executed a superb game plan. Credit the three-time defending national champion with being what they're advertised - a hard-nosed, consistent, finely-oiled rushing juggernaut that just keeps bringing it and while not spectacular play extremely sound defense.

Young athletes however are incredibly resilient and by the time you read my words, their nose will be firmly planted on the grindstone and with conference play starting with the Homecoming game remember that every pre-season goal remains on the table.

Yet a two-game blemish leaves little room for err and adds a premium to every minute of remaining competition.

To the victor goes the spoils and NDSU has it goin', there little doubt of that. Now it's time for the Griz to answer the bell and I have no doubt - to use that old baseball axiom - they're ready to step up to the plate.              

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.

 

 

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