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Griz host Yotes on the hardwood

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Almost time for a few days of Christmas break for the Grizzlies but first there's hoop Sunday afternoon wrapping up three days of bucketball action at Dahlberg Arena

Montana hopes to expectorate its recent road woes at the friendly confines Sunday when they meet the University of South Dakota.

The Yotes are coming off a Thursday engagement in Vermillion against Montana State while the Grizzlies had a seven-day respite after the humiliation in Milwaukee.

But with one of the top 20 most-difficult schedules in the country one thing's for sure, this will be a battle hardened Montana team that opens league play at home in just a couple of weeks.

And while their record might not indicate it, take this to the bank, they're comin'.

True that field goal defense and rebounding remain a work in progress but with senior wing Mike Weisner on the shelf with an ankle injury the last pair of games, players like Brandon Gfeller, Fabijan Krslovik, Jack Lopez and Chris Kemp have seen quality floor time that will do nothing hut enhance this group down the line.

Even with foul trouble, Martin Breunig has often proven virtually unstoppable and is the early choice for the circuit's Newcomer of the Year but the Big Sky Conference looks as strong at the top as I can remember.

As for the Coyotes they're a perimeter oriented team led by senior Brandon Bos who shoots a quarter of his shots from outside the arc and averages just north of 17 an outing.

South Dakota is a veteran group that's been starting all upper classmen with its share of drop-downs and transfers including 6 foot 10 Australian post James Hunter from Washington State.

In fact their roster features just a half dozen of 16 listed players who didn't initially play elsewhere and they're from seven states, Canada and of course Australia.

Las Vegas guard Tyler Larson, a senior who originally played at Casper College where Daniel Nwosu transferred here from, contributes about 16 an outing and connects on almost half of his field goal attempts while along with Bos and Casey Kasperbauer carry the majority of the three-point load leaving just a pittance for the remainder of the roster for a team shooting about 35 percent.

It's a 1 p.m. start and I hope to see you there.

Stitt has been there, done that

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In advance of Montana's new head football coach meeting the media for the first time on Friday Griz Biz thought they'd take the opportunity to examine of the new head man's coaching background.

Much has already been made about the offensive prowess that Bob Stitt bring to the Grizzly program after 15 years at the helm of the Colorado School of Mines.

He has been described in some corners as the best offensive mind and head coach that no one has ever heard of, but in the coaching ranks Stitt is far from being an unknown.

Many will draw similarities to the hiring of Joe Glenn who made his name winning a pair of Division-II National Championships at Northern Colorado before taking the helm at Montana.

But Glenn's influences may run even deeper than just the Cinderella story of a lower division coach excelling at the D-1 level.

Stitt also graduated from Doane College, Glenn's Alma mater, where Joe became the youngest head coach in the country when he was hired at the Nebraska school in 1976.

Stitt was a three-sport star there at running back and return specialist on the gridiron where he was the All-State College Offensive Player of the Year, played left field on the baseball team and still found time to run the 4x100 meter relay.

And after following Glenn to UNC for a year in 1989 while he earned his master's degree - his son is named after Joe which should surprise no one -   he returned to Doane for four years serving as the offensive line coach and offensive coordinator.

After a stint at Austin College (Texas), Stitt assumed the offensive coordinator position at Harvard where his 1989 team led the Ivy League in rushing and set school marks for total offense in a game (640 yards), single-game passing yards (405), and points (63).

So just where was the School of Mines at before he arrived you might ask.

Well suffice it to say when the Orediggers finished 7-4 in Stitt's second season in 2000 it was their first winning season since 1991 and most wins since 1958.

And when they finished 7-4 the nest season in 2002, it was the school's first back-to-back winning season since 1974-75.

And it got better from there.

I couldn't be more excited. 

Welcome Coach Stitt

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The first thing I did when it became official Tuesday was send incoming head football coach Bob Stitt a personal Facebook message to welcome him to the insanity and that certainly is not a bad thing of Grizzly football.

And at the same time I shared to Facebook a recent television interview to just provide a snippet about where he comes from and what his players think about him becoming an FCS head coach.

The hiring of Mick Delaney's replacement didn't happen fast enough for a myriad of football fans but worked perfectly for this Vox.

And while journalists certainly did their job writing about who might land the prestigious position and in fact reported late last week that the position had been offered, quite frankly until the agreement is officially finalized and the dotted line completed it is only up to the prognosticators to forecast which direction things are going and up to the guy who does the hiring to make darn sure everything is done according to Hoyle.

Thus came Director of Athletics Kent Haslem's Saturday denial that the job had been offered after Fox Sports reported it was indeed a done deal.

Now don't think I had inside information more than any other Grizzly fan and know this not only I don't expect any nor would I ever in my current position push for such knowledge.

While I certainly as interested as any of you in Griz Nation and am more than curious, I guess after pushing for such access and information as a journalist I'm comfortable, no make that confident, both with the process and the people making the decision.

And you see I am not employed by the University, actually I am not employed by anyone but rather an independent contractor, I hold no allegiance other than to a yearly contract which by the way I cherish.

Stitt brings a wealth of offensive prowess, innovation and energy and will grab the helm of the best-followed and most successful FCS program since 2000, cherish it like the baby we coddle, fine-tune to his liking and with the support of all of you with the generosity required to bring facilities back to a division-leading level, continue to beat the Cats, compete for a Big Sky Conference title, advance to the playoffs and contend for a third National Championship with the student-athletes that the community and the state will continue to be extremely proud of.

And Griz Nation can ask for nothing more. 

Welcome Coach Bob Stitt.      

 

Griz hoops ready to return to Missoula

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It will be a relieved men's basketball team that returns to Missoula after a trouncing at the hands of Wisconsin-Milwaukee but with finals out of the way and only a single game and a short Christmas break in the offing there won't be much time for the Grizzlies to catch their breath before the start of conference play Jan. 1.

After hopefully solving my internet and computer snafus just some thoughts about Sunday afternoon's date with the Panthers in Milwaukee.

Travis DeCuire said in the pre-game show that this would be a physical undertaking and indeed that's how it went early-on as UWM jumped Montana on the boards and missed but one trey in seven attempts in quickly building a 21-point lead.

And while Montana made a run at the end of the half to pare the margin to a dozen, it just wasn't going to happen in Milwaukee Sunday.

And when Martin Breunig picked up two quick second-half fouls and went to the bench the Griz were left with little inside presence and fell for the sixth time in nine games.

Senior Jordan Gregory finally caught fire and scored 17 points, including 14 straight, in the last 16 minutes and Montana actually again crawled within 12 at the last media break.

Gregory notched a fourth consecutive 20-point outing but had just four first-half points and Montana didn't connect on a trey until Jermaine Edmonds dropped one in the second stanza.

Although Mike Weisner was on the trip and off crutches and not wearing a boot, the senior is still hobbled and may not be available for Sunday's game against South Dakota.

While DeCuire was not completely thrilled with the zone the Grizzlies threw at the Panthers, it did stifle their shooting and after a torrid beginning Milwaukee shot just a percentage point better than Montana for the game.

Besides the early shooting dominance, the biggest difference in the contest was rebounding where the Panthers dominated Montana and free throws where UMW went to the line 11 more times and scored 11 more point.

Remember the Coach's Show is tonight in Missoula at Brooks and Browns and across the network and it will feature an hour of Griz hoop since the Lady Griz are on the road.

Big challenge by the Bay for Griz Hoops

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Grizzly hoops faltered out of the gate Sunday and San Francisco jumped all over the inadequacy bursting to a quick 10 point lead never looking back to send Montana to a 76-57 road loss.

The Grizzlies visit the Bay Area for a pair as part of a seven-day road trip.

Martin Breunig continued to have foul problems, playing just 24 minutes against the Dons, but again led the Griz in scoring with 14 points to go along with eight rebounds after a double-double at home last week against Carroll.

Jermaine Edmonds Jr. is starting to show signs that he may be the team's best pop-up and clean shooter and added a career-high 13 including three of nine from outside the arc.

But Montana (2-3) was badly outpaced in the paint (40-18) and shot 21 less throws and while improved play after the break gave them a slight chance, USF pulled away for their seventh straight victory over Montana.

But Wednesday they face even a tougher challenge as they venture into Berkeley to challenge California of the Pac-12 who are unbeaten in three home games and stand 5-1.

They defeated then No. 25 Syracuse 73-59 before losing to Texas in a tournament championship 71-55 and Sunday won at Fresno State by seven.

Sophomore guard Jordan Mathews paces Cal at almost 17 an outing and connects on just south of half of his third-point attempts.

6-foot 5 Tyrone Wallace is right at his heels and drops about five dimes an outing and leads the Bears in rebounding while shooting some 46 percent from the field.

Sophomore Jabari Bird adds about 13 an outing and 6-foot 10 David Kravish also contributes double figure scoring while grabbing about five boards a contest.

Cal is a high scoring lot (77 per outing) and allows opponents just some 35 percent and less than 60 points from the field.

The Bears only turn it over less than double figures while outrebounding opponents by better than six a contest.

California's bench scoring in the early season looks suspect but nine players contribute double-figure court time with the double-scoring quartet playing an average of some 28 minutes an outing.

Tipoff at 8p.m. MT Wednesday    

Victoribus Spolia

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Yes it was supposed top happen this way but no sometimes in competition when something looks to be a shoe-in result all goes awry.

Well I fled the chill and headed to San Francisco for Wednesday hoop against the California Golden Bears.

If you had seen me a couple of hours post-game Saturday wheeling my scooter around the Stadium to the south lot, through the Adams Center then back around the stadium to the north, you would realize my excitement to take a respite from the elements.

But don't think I am complaining. Saturday gave me that continued joy of Grizzly athletics.

And we just hope the pictures we painted allowed you to share our enjoyment to the Nth degree.

Now make no mistake that a non-scholarship league whose recruiting base knows no bounds making an inaugural visit to the post season coming off a 34-3 loss to a fellow Big Sky school (Cal Poly) and facing a hot Grizzly team at home is prime for a spanking.

And when John Nguyen became the second member of his family (Peter) to return a punt for a TD advancing the score to 21-0 about 17 minutes into the contest, the rout was on. 

"Finish It" was the demand in the locker room after Montana added a quartet of second quarter tallies to a 14-0 first-quarter advantage and except for late, inconsequential tallies, they just did the deed.

Credit to the University of San Diego that they continued to stay attuned even given the obvious outcome and played hard throughout.

And I am sure they will cherish the atmosphere and their brief visit to what was anything but a Garden City as the temperature dropped some 19 degrees by the time the final gun had sounded. 

Make no mistake that Eastern Washington claimed the circuit's crown jewel, a third straight league title, but it promises to be quite the rematch on the Inferno.

I never doubted that the playoff road would go through Cheney but this Griz team is on a mission and while the Griz loom as the underdog, there isn't a team in the country that looks forward to facing their rampage.

This one is for far more than bragging rights and the Great Eight awaits the winner. "Victoribus Spolia."  

Toreros come calling in FCS playoffs

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Griz hoops picks up a record-evening victory and happy belated Thanksgiving.

Given the challenges of a rigorous non-conference schedule any game in the left-hand column certainly is welcomed, as Montana next challenges the Dons of San Francisco Sunday after trouncing Carroll on T-Day eve.

But not putting the horse before the cart... it is playoff football in the offing Saturday with the Lady Griz completing a three-game set in Cancun.

The University of San Diego is making an inaugural visit to the FCS playoffs after claiming the Pioneer League title three of the last four seasons.

Butler claimed the automatic bid last season and was ripped 31 zip by Tennessee State.

The Toreros imposed a voluntary penalty to forego playoff participation last year after a Pioneer League investigation.

San Diego had it rolling with an eight-game winning streak but concluded the regular season in southern California with a 34-3 drubbing at the hands of Cal Poly.

The Mustang's triple-option attack approached 500 yards of offense and gave the Griz coaching staff plenty of film to analyze the Toreros matching up with a common opponent.

Cal transfer running back Jonah Hodges, who has rushed for more than 1,100 yards and returns kickoffs at better than a 24-yard average, paced USD with just 56 yards on 14 carries.

For a dozen seniors, it was just the second loss in 23 games at Torero Stadium over the last four seasons.

Wide-outs Brandon White and Reggie Bell corralled seven receptions but little yardage as quarterback Keith Williams was just 14 of 29 for 153 yards.

Placekicker David Last produced the sole USD points with his 12th straight field goal to narrow the gap to 7-3 but it was all SLO from there.

While the Toreros score at nearly a 30-point clip while giving up about 24, they twice have eclipsed the 40-point mark and in a third game put up 39.

USD has been relatively stingy on D allowing just 347 an outing but just south of 200 have come via the airways.

Mick Delaney said they could be subject to front-four pressure that was so effective last week against the Cats and USD has put the ball on the ground 13 times while losing eight.

They also have suffered 10 picks while their defense has responded with 11 interceptions.

Kickoff at 2:05 and maybe some welcome weather for our California visitors. 

Saints come marchin' in

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It is not an average Carroll College team that is visiting Dahlberg Arena Wednesday to challenge the new-guard Grizzlies.

The Saints come marchin' in off a six-game winning streak before being upended by Dickenson State Saturday.

That defeat followed a come-from-behind 75-67 victory over Cal-Maritime as Carroll returned from a six game road spin starting with an exhibition against Purdue.

With eight wins that's one less than the Saints put in the left column all last season.

And they've done it with some flair bouncing back from a 10-point deficit and poor first-half shooting against Maritime finally flipping the lead with nine minutes to go, after taking overtime to get Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala.

Before returning to the Capital City, Carroll merely traveled nearly 9,000 miles with trips to Alabama, North Dakota and Indiana.

As for travel upon returning from Gary after beating Indiana-Northwest, their flight was on final when the crew deemed wintery conditions made landing too hazardous so the flight circled the airport for about an hour.

Meanwhile the Grizzlies were all set to sleep their way home on a special sleeper bus as they did last week from Boise but it broke down leaving the travel group stranded overnight until repairs could be made and the trip continued.

But it was a gritty affair at Key Arena where Montana picked up the four-point victory over Seattle University in the inaugural Marv Harshman Classic.

Brandon Gfeller was the sharpshooter with five treys to establish a career high and was supplemented by the free throw shooting of Mario Dunn and the solid play ironically of University of Washington transfer Martin Breunig, who take my word for it will be a force to be reckoned with.

The Saints game is a homecoming for Pat Colberg, the power forward freshman from Hellgate and junior Everett Johnson of Loyola who both are on the roster.

While certainly not minimizing the competition, the Grizzlies gear up again on the weekend with an afternoon game Sunday on the hill at iconic memorial Colisum vs. the University of San Francisco then to Travis DeCuire's old haunts with a Wednesday game at Pac-12 Bears Cal Berkley who last week upset a Top 25 team.

Playoff football returns to Missoula

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The University of San Diego was at the end of an eight-game winning streak, a Pioneer League title and a trip to the post-season when they matched up with Cal Poly last weekend.

But any hope of waltzing to the automatic FCS playoffs riding a wave of momentum after claiming the league championship for the third time in four years was swept aside by the Mustangs who hung one on the Toreros (bullfighter) to drop San Diego for just the second time this season.

The men's basketball team remained on the road after their sleeper bus broke down Sunday night en-route from Seattle after the exciting win over Seattle University.

So much for classes and a break before facing Carroll College at home Wednesday-The best laid plans ya know.

But back to playoff football as a glance at the Pioneer League, which receives one of 11 automatic bids for the first time this season.

San Diego won the circuit by two games with just Dayton and Drake showing winning records on the season to claim a post-season appearance for the first time since 1956.

Previous to SLO, the sole Toreros loss this season came in week two when they fell 35-18 to Jacksonville.

Freshman Keith Williams operates the helm, completing 55 percent for 2,093 yards and 21 TDs while being picked just nine times.

The rush game is headed by Jonah Hodges, who posted almost a 1,200-yard season and ran for a half dozen of the team's 15 rush touchdowns. He ran for 273 yards vs. Stetson this season.

A pair of all-league selections head the receiving corps with Brandon White (6-3) grabbing 55 for better than 800 yards after corralling 47 receptions for 590 yards and a dozen scores in earning honorable mention status last season.

First-team all-league receiver Reggie Bell, a 1,000-yard performer last season with 65 catches for nine scores, has snared 39 for 775 yards, almost a 20-yard per catch average.

Ross Dwelley is a 6-foot 5 tight end who also has contributed and combined with Hodges is responsible for an additional 42 catches and close to 400 yards.

It is certainly advantageous that the Grizzlies have recent game film against a common opponent.

 

 

Griz win on the gridiron and on the hardwood

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The new regime of Montana hoop coach Travis DeCuire claimed an inaugural victory Sunday over Seattle University behind the sharpshooting of Brandon Gfeller and a clutch bucket by Martin Breunig followed by clutch free throw shooting of Mario Dunn.

The victory capped quite a weekend for the Grizzlies who played their way into the post season with a dominating victory over Montana State. 

The 66-62 victory over the Redbirds in the Marv Harshman Classic in Seattle brings the Griz back home with a 1-2 road mark to face Carroll College Wednesday night.

But the talk of the weekend came from the gridiron as Montana trounced the No. 12 Bobcats sending both teams into the FCS round of 24 teams where they welcome home games Saturday.

The Griz defense claimed the day in shutting down one of the highest scoring entities around by intercepting backup quarterback Jake Bleskin an amazing five times and with a pair of fumble recoveries advanced their nation leading turnover margin to plus-17.

As senior safety Matt Hermanson grabbed a trio of picks and senior MVP Zack Wagenmann broke the all-time sack record held by the late Tim Bush before an all-time record crowd of 26,352 boisterous fans, Montana moved to a 27- 0 halftime lead and put this one away early.

Jordan Johnson authored another outstanding performance and accounted for 392 all-purpose yards by playing the zone option perfectly for 80 rush yards and connected on 22 of 36 for 313 yards and three TDs against no picks.

And for the 13th time Jordan Canada eclipsed the century mark toting the rock 27 times for 119 yards.

The Cat offensive attack was held some 200 yards under their season average and a pair of Grizzlies, Travon Van and Mitch Saylor, went over 100 yards receiving.

The Cats draw South Dakota State of the powerful Missouri Valley Conference with the winner heading to three-time champ North Dakota State while Montana entertains San Diego, a 9-2 team from the Pioneer League.

South Dakota State has been ranked for the majority of the season and handily defeated Joe Glenn's South Dakota team Saturday.

Meanwhile the Toreros have been receiving votes but are not currently ranked.

Game time in Missoula is 2 p.m. Saturday with a berth in the sweet 16 in the offing.

Griz head to SUU

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Well one thing about heading south it's gonna be warmer even if it isn't that far.

It is now or never for the Grizzlies as they face a team on their home turf with nothing to lose.

And if you think Southern Utah is a push over and Montana can look anxiously forward to the regular season finale with the Bobcats, well I hope you will think again.

There's little doubt it was a bitter loss in Cheney and when you look across the stat board you come to realize they indicate the opposite outcome with the Grizzlies controlling most of the categories except the score.

And thus is the nature of statistics.

The Grizzlies outgained the Eagles and Jordie Johnson put up better numbers, which happen to be career bests, than "Big Play V.A." (Vernon Adams) who returned from a four-week layoff hardly missing a beat.

But let's face it: Eastern Washington is a far greater commodity than just Adams as they sport a phalanx of running backs, who were controlled I might add by the Montana rush D headed by Herbert Gamboa, and more than a equal number of top-notch receivers, two of whom made incredible catches for touchdowns.

And while sophomore Cooper Kupp hardly saw the ball in the first half, you had to know he would get his and if there's a better all-around player in FBS I don't know who it might be.

I have seen as good an all-around player at our level but I don't think I have seen one much better and combined with a healthy Adams I predict that will enable the Eagles to make a deep playoff run.

There was quite a discussion on the Coach's Show Tuesday night about the touchdown that I say was and that Mick Delaney said further justifies the need for replay.

My only question on the bang-bang was whether Sean Haynes bobbled the ball because it was on my side of the field and his body shadowed the catch.

It clearly was not a bobble but while it was a tough call to lose like any game there certainly were other opportunities.

And about the Thunderbirds: well they lead the league in passing and are last in pass defense.

And so?

  

A look around FCS

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You just have to admire the bias involved in the rankings of FCS football. Now while I realize everyone has their form of it, sometimes it just seems ridiculous.

It is Veterans Day - and thank each and every one for your service - let's just glance at the top 25 since it makes little sense to me.

North Dakota State's amazing FCS-record 33 game winning streak came screeching to a half after a through thumping by No. 19 Northern Iowa which threw the Missouri Valley Conference into a quagmire.

But while voters rightfully elevated once-beaten New Hampshire to the top spot for the first time since 2006, 19 voters still cast their ballots for the top spot to NDSU.

Now let's see since the Bison lost by 20 to an in-league opponent and New Hampshire won an eighth straight since losing the season opener to Toledo beating winless Rhode Island 41-14, that justifies picking North Dakota State ahead of New Hampshire or even unbeaten Coastal Carolina, the Big South co-leader that is one of just two unbeaten FCS teams?

The Chanticleers did pick up 55 first-place nods and Ohio Valley Conference Jacksonville State headed up 13 first-place nods but to still waste a vote for the Bison for the top spot made about as much sense as not calling them the unanimous top team all that time when they were unbeaten and three-time defending champ.

J-State did beat No. 16 Eastern Kentucky 20-6 but to leave Eastern Washington as the No. 5 team after talking down Montana by double digits also is an insult to the Eagles who I predict will make a deep playoff run and for that matter the Big Sky Conference.

That is why I think some polls are irrelevant and I am sure are not exactly given measures of consideration when it comes to the post-season playoff field to be selected Sunday, Nov. 23.

Off a seven-point victory over a 3-7 Portland State team the Cats were elected three spots to No. 12, while the Grizzlies deserving dropped five spots to No. 16.

Northern Arizona's Jerome Souers picked up victory No. 100 by 2 over a one-win UC Davis and climbed three places to No. 22 while surging Idaho State's two-point victory over previous No. 21 Cal Poly left them in No. 27 as Cal Poly dropped to 31st.

Just two more weeks and the polls won't mean anything as FCS football starts settling it all on the field with the top eight teams receiving first-round byes and the next 16 facing off.

Just cuz you asked ... or not ... beating Southern Utah and Montana State to finish 8-4 I believe would still get the Grizzlies into the round of 24.

   

 

 

  

  

Recapping the EWU game

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The Grizzlies were one of the five top FCS teams to suffer defeat Saturday but that certainly doesn't make it any easier to swallow.

Hopes of an upset against the high-flying Eagles fell by the wayside as Eastern Washington drove the field for a game clinching field goal to prevail by ten.

You had to know that Montana could not survive a shootout and when they fell well back at 33-10 the casual observer probably had to figure this one was in the books.

But this group of Grizzly continued their never-say-die attitude and came charging back even after the disheartening dagger Eagle score at the end of the first half brought it to 20-10.

A pair of missed EWU PATs helped to make the second half interesting and when the Griz cut it to seven, even though they had just a single time out remaining, I figured we were headed to another one of those classic Montana-Eastern finishes.

While he didn't have his astronomical yardage figures, quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. proved the four-week layoff because of injury affected him little.

After a six TD performance last year, he threw for a mere quartet of scores for 399 yards to seal Montana's fate.

Grizzly quarterback Jordie Johnson had a career day hitting 29 of 50 for 447 yards to pass Cole Bergquist and move into fourth all-time with 7,739 yards.

Jamal Jones continues to be the go-to receiver with a career-high nine catches for 139 yards.

And on defense linebacker Herbert Gamboa simply was outstanding with three sacks, an equal number of stops for loss and 10 total tackles.

Zack Wagenmann picked up a sack and now trails only Kroy Biermann by a half sack and is one behind the late Tim Bush, the school record holder.

With Idaho State's 30-28 upset of Cal Poly, a quartet of teams remain with a single league loss and certainly not overlooking Southern Utah on the road next week, Montana's playoff hopes seem to come down to the outcome of the Cat game.

With Northern Iowa ending North Dakota State's streak, McNeese State, Richmond and Youngstown all losing, it lo0oks to be quite the 24-team FCS playoffs.

A look at the Eagles of EWU

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So just how do the Grizzlies get on a late season run and win a second road game against a potent Eagle team of Eastern Washington?

There is little doubt Roos Field is going to be rockin' as the Grizzlies take the three-hour jaunt to meet arguably the Big Sky Conference's most potent and arguably top team.

The Eagles are a TD against Washington and a point in Flagstaff from being unbeaten and with a single game remaining after Montana a post-season lock.

But cast a further glance at their schedule and you discover that they are eight points from quite a different fate since Eastern Washington crept by the Cats in Bozeman 52-51 and only mastered Idaho State in Cheney 56-53, almost spoiling Hall of Fame Day.

And the Eagles came close to tripping against Northern Colorado finally prevailing 26-18.

So you see EDWU is also just 12 points from a lackluster campaign.

So what does all that mean?

Well nothing really but you have to admit it does get you thinking and lends to questioning whether the Eagles are a dominate power or if the league is just that balanced.

It promises to be a prideful Grizzly defense anxious to avenge last season's 42-37 loss to the Eagles in a No 3-No 10 matchup during which Montana scored the game's last 20 points in the final stanza but couldn't make up a 42-17 deficit.

That one was all about Vernon Adams Jr. who merely threw for six TDs in three quarters and freshman standout wide receiver Cooper Kupp who hauled in 11 for 182 of the Eag's 457 passing yards.

EWU scored on the six of its first 10 possessions and led by 11 at the intermission before adding a pair of penultimate-quarter TDs.

But in less than eight minutes Jordan Johnson led the Grizzlies back connecting for three TDs, two to Ellis Henderson, but an onside attempt after the final tally went awry and the Eagles claimed a second victory over Montana in three games.

The Griz lead the league in defense and nothing will be needed more on Saturday but it is also incumbent on the Griz offense to keep the D off the field and rested as they put together lengthy possessions culminated by points on the board.

      

Griz hoops pick up first win

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The first one is in the books and there was plenty to like and a load of entertainment as the Grizzly men blew the lid off the exhibition season with a pair of 47-point halves.

It rained treys early on for Montana but the "fool's gold" slowed a bit after intermission.

Montana came out of the gate connecting on eight of 13 from long range but while the treys didn't fall quite as readily (3 of 9) in the second half Montana missed but nine of 25 field goal attempts.

Whitworth, a Division III powerhouse from Spokane, jumped Montana early and led by seven points some five minutes in but the Grizzlies hit a spurt to take a 16-point halftime lead.

And behind senior Jordan Gregory's 22 points they looked to have the game put away, leading by as many as 19, before the Pirates came charging back and cut it to a three-possession game in the late going.

But Montana put the hammer down and walked away with a 94-79 verdict.

There is no lack of athleticism with this group with a quartet of players in double figures and point guard Mario Dunn finishing a point short of a double-double with 10 assists.

University of Washington transfer Martin Breunig is everything as advertised as he displayed quick and dynamic hops as did Fabijan Krslovic who netted 16 and 10 respectively.

Jermaine Edmonds also drained five of seven from outside the arc for 19 points while sharpshooter Brandon Gfeller drained az pair of treys and Riley Bradshaw added eight points.

Breunig, Dunn and Chris Kemp were atop the rebound list with a half dozen as the two teams were even on the boards.

But Whitworth, which finished 23-6 with but two league losses last season, took advantage of defensive lapse in the second half connecting on 14 of 26 field goals although for the game the free-wheeling Pirates were but one of eight from three.

Montana made the most of a dozen offensive rebounds by netting 18 second-chance points and tallied eight more points in the paint.

Tonight is the Mick Delaney Show at Brooks and Browns at 6 p.m. while the men are back in action next Saturday after football in Cheney against St Martin's. 

Griz Hoops and Coach DeCuire

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Whitworth University is Monday night's Griz hoop opponent with exhibition play tipoff scheduled for 7:05 on the Grizzly Sports Network.

New head coach Travis DeCuire takes his charges to the floor for the first of a pair of exhibition games before the non-conference season gets underway in mid-month with road games at Colorado State and Boise State.

And it will be a challenging non-conf run before league play opens in Missoula on New Year's Day against Northern Colorado.

Besides facing Carroll College Nov 26, the Grizzlies are only home to North Dakota State, Davidson and South Dakota. 

Talk about getting your feet wet also with games at San Francisco and the University of California.

While the first-year mentor said Saturday he hasn't yet settled on a starting lineup, expect returnees Jordan Gregory, who is nursing a sore ankle, Mike Weisner and point guard Mario Dunn to play key roles.

In Whitworth, a Division III team from Spokane, Montana will face a Pirate team coming off an outstanding 23-6 season but with just two returning starters.

I'll have the pre-game show at 6:30 p.m.

Well what a quagmire we have at the top of the Big Sky Conference football standings with almost half the league, six to be precise, tied for a share of the lead with a single circuit loss.

What it is really going to come down to, with some teams with fewer games remaining than Montana's four-game remaining schedule, is who faces off with contenders and whether they play at home or on the road.

But with the parity top to bottom as evidenced by Weber State's break-out lead over Northern Arizona Saturday is who, if anybody, will blink first. 

While some say Montana State falling to Cal Poly is an example, I disagree since to me the Mustangs are the league's hottest team now having won five straight.

And with the relatively low ranking of the league among FCS conferences, one has to wonder whether a trio of BSC teams will get into the post season. With the 24-team field, I also believe there will be room for a team or two with four losses.

So just how torrid will the Inferno be on Saturday?

Here come the Hornets

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Torrid shooting highlighting Wednesday's Annual Silver-Maroon scrimmage as the lid comes flying off Montana hoop.

With Montana's unimpressive field goal production this year maybe kickers can take a cue from the hoop team's trey success in the opening scrimmage.

Brandon Gfeller was torrid from outside the arc hitting 18 of his 20 points from three-point range on six of nine shooting as eight Grizzlies contributed on 16 of 36 from long range.

Montana opens the exhibition season Monday against Whitworth College and we'll have all the action on the Grizzly Sports Network.

A last look at Saturday's football opponent, the offensive-minded Hornets of Sacramento State, might lend one to believe the Grizzlies are in for a shootout.

While Sac State has never won in Missoula in nine games these two teams have played some barnburners including the overtime affair last season in Sacramento.

Of course you all remember the "Pam" game and how about when secure in victory Hornet quarterback Rickie Ray mistakenly pitched the ball to Damon Porker instead of just falling down at mid-field and DP took it to the house for the 24-20 Griz victory in 2000

Quarterback Garrett Safron will get his yards like he did a year ago when he torched the Griz both with his arm and his feet.

He established team standards in pass completions, passing yards and total offense.

Add to that mix sophomore Jordan Robinson who has amassed better than 600 yards with just 105 carries and a pair of senior receivers, DeAndre Carter and Nnamdi Agude, who have combined for more than 1,600 yards.

But the Hornets have to get it done on offense because their defense has been porous allowing almost 50 points a game and some 558 yards on the average.

Carter's stats make him the second best receiver in the Big Sky Conference with 61 catches and the senior has a nose for the counter with 11 scoring grabs.

Star mike backer Darnell Sankey was just added to the Buck Buchanan watch list but injured a knee and is not expected to be on the trip, while the Grizzlies look for the return of offensive tackle Jackson Thiebes and possibly placekicker Dan Sullivan.

It is Military Appreciation Day with an exciting announcement on the field between the first and second quarter. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:10 p.m.

  

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

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.

 

 

         

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.

 

 

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.  

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.

Looking ahead to the Wildcats

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When he Grizzlies faced off in the opener against the University of Wyoming most of their game prep focused on what the Cowboy's new head coach Craig Bohl did at North Dakota State in winning 43 of the last 45 games and three national championships.

For the upcoming afternoon game against Central Washington, which has not yet opened the season, Montana's game prep will focus on what the Wildcats' new head coach Ian Shoemaker did as offensive coordinator at St Cloud State in Minnesota.

The Grizzlies open the home season at the second of eight different start times this season.

It's a 3:37 affair against the school that in 2008 pushed Montana to the final tick of the fourth quarter clock before Brody McKnight booted the three-point winner 38-35.

But don't expect this edition of Division-2 CWU to put six TDs on the board against the imposing  Grizzly defense that leads the nation after the opening weekend with six sacks and at least a half dozen tackles for loss.

Combine those statistics with a fumble recovery and an interception and one has the looks of a victory.

This week, however, the Grizzlies likely face at Central Washington team which will run a spread offense with quarterback Jake Nelson engineering head coach Shoemaker's zone-read offense.

Nelson threw for 1,282 yards and ran for an additional 261 last season.

Add to the mix third-year sophomore running back Jordan Todd, who contributed more than 1,200 yards rushing last season and a couple of quality receivers and you have the makings of a group that will bring a quite different look than Wyoming.

And defensively the Wildcats, according to Mick Delaney on the Coach's show, may well resemble Rich Ellerson's flex alignment at Cal Poly SLO that resembles a 3-5 look in the box.

Ben Weyer, who was injured in the first quarter in Laramie and didn't return, is day-to-day but may well miss Saturday's game with the possibility sophomore McCauley Todd will get the starting nod at right guard.

Two of the finest running backs ever to play at Montana, Dick "The Penguin" Imer and Yo Humphrey, will be inducted the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame Friday night.

Remember kickoff this week at 3:37.

#GRIZvCWU

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Junior weak-side linebacker Kendrick Van Ackeren sure made the most of his inaugural start Saturday as the Hawaii transfer headed the Griz defense with 14 tackles - six solo and one for loss - and a sack while his strong side counterpart, converted safety Herbert Gamboa also registered double figure stops (10).

A quartet of the top six tacklers at Laramie were new starters as Montana sacked Colby Kirkegaard six times and turned in nine tackles-for-loss.

With Tonga Takai's recovery of Tyrome Holmes' forces fumble and Jeremiah Kose's pick the team that led the league in takeaways last year starts the season at plus-two in that all too important category.

Although Stephen Shaw had a punt blocked when the Cowboys sent the house, three of his eighth punts went for 50-plus, three were placed inside the 20 and his 43.9 average adds to the pace that would set a team all-time net-punt average.

On offense both Grizzly touchdowns both came from newcomers as Josh Janssen hauled in a 26-yarder and Mike Ralston grabbed the 16-yard tackle-eligible scor4ing toss in the back of the Cowboy end zone.

On Saturday rookie head coach Ian Shoemaker debuts his Central Washington University team in Missoula.

The Ellensburg, Wash, group are coming off a 7-4 Great Northwest Athletic Conference runner-up finish and return 13 starters including six on offense and both kickers.

The two teams have met but once but the Wildcats just about pulled the upset in Missoula in 2008 with the Griz claiming but a 38-35 victory in the early stages of a 14-2 National Championship campaign Bobby Hauck's final season in 2008.

The Wildcats won four of five road games last season.

Joe Glenn's South Dakota team is headed Missoula way next Saturday but don't expect to see a look-by from this Montana team as lower division teams have given the Grizzlies plenty of close calls in past seasons.

There were five true freshmen on the road with an expanded travel roster at Wyoming and if thing proceed according to Hoyle some of the group may well see time Saturday. Forty-five of the 69 who made the trip to Laramie saw the field. 

The Weekend That Was

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Like I have said for many a year, the National Champion remains the No. 1 until proven otherwise by defeat as I continued to voted North Dakota State to the pinnacle.

Yet while others voters saw it differently anointed Eastern Washington University to the top after the first-week victory over Sam Houston State, voters realized the error of their ways after the Bison broke Montana's shared mark for consecutive victories at 25 by thrashing Iowa State for their fifth straight victory over an FBS opponent.

But it was by no means unanimous as NDSU outdistanced the Eagles by 30 first-place nods and 26 votes.

The 20-point win at Ames sent a strong message that while the Bison lost a dozen starters and 12-year head coach Craig Bohl, they remain an entity to respect.

The Griz will find that out early when they travel to Fargo Sept 20 after home games against Central Washington and South Dakota.

Bethune-Cookman registered an FBS victory with a two-pointer over FIU moving to No. 18 in the weekly list comprised this week by 156 voters including 18 with Big Sky Conference affiliation.

Both Montana State and Northern Arizona fell two spots after losses, the Cats to No. 20 and the Jacks to 25.

Bison defensive end Kyle Emanuel claimed Sports Network Defensive Player of the Week honors with nine tackles, four for loss, as part of a defense that held the Cyclones to just 102 rushing yards.

The return trip from Wyoming wasn't without a short delay but even after two weather stoppages and a bit of a hold on the tarmac in Laramie the Grizzlies still were back on the ground via charter in Missoula slightly prior to 10 p.m.

The opener was quite a defensive struggle with combined offensive states (554 yards) about equaling what one has come to expect from one league team in a Big Sky Conference matchup.

Jordan Johnson's 185 passing yards propelled him by Drew Miller and into eighth in all-time passing in just 27 starts while Travon Van, who lined up both as a back and receiver, hauled in a career-high nine receptions.

Ellis Henderson, who status for the game was doubtful, made the most of his field appearances, with at least three of his five receptions converting important third-down opportunities.

Buchanan candidate Zack Wagenmann was radio's Player of the Game and his two sacks moved the Missoula senior into a tie with Trey Young (22) for seventh all-time and further in reach of the late Tim Bush's leading mark (30).

Griz games start at eight different times this year with Saturday's home opener vs. Central Washington scheduled for kickoff at 3:30 p.m.

A look back at the Griz vs Wyoming game

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One had to expect the unexpected approaching Montana's opener Saturday at Wyoming.

But I certainly was not prepared for not only the extra time that it took to determine the outcome because of a pair of weather stoppages that left few in the stands and seemed to ping pong momentum and emotion back and forth like the volley of a tennis ball.

And when the team charter sat idling on the tarmac at the Laramie airport after the game, well you know it was just one of those games.

The Grizzlies just couldn't survive a pair of Wyoming rushes scored in the third quarter after lightning near War Memorial Stadium about doubled the halftime intermission.

Montana sported a three-point halftime advantage after wide receiver Ryan Burke took a pitch from Jordie Johnson and connected in the far end zone with Missoula Loyola's Josh Janssen 26 yards out in the opening third of the second quarter.

Late placekicking insertion Harrison Greenberg hit the upright on the PAT attempt to leave the halftime score at 6-3.

But the Cowboys benefitted from strong blocking at the point of attack and some missed tackles to put up a pair of TDs in the penultimate quarter to take an 11-point lead and while the Grizzlies made it interesting with a scoring toss from Johnson to Eugene Oregon Shelton High counterpart Mike Ralston on a tackle eligible set near the halftime way mark of the fourth quarter the two-point attempt was unsuccessful and Wyoming claimed the five-point decision.

But there was plenty to hang their hat on especially with Montana putting itself in a position to win in the final stanza and allowing less than 300 yards to an FBS opponent.

The game marked the inaugural appearance for at least 10 players and the Grizzlies claimed the turnover column with a fumble recovery and a Jeremiah Kose pick that turned back a Wyoming red zone opportunity after the block of a Steven Shaw punt.

Montana knew they had to effectively rush the ball against the Cowboys but with a completely novice offensive line they only were able to gain about two yards a carry on 19 attempts.

I am sure not into moral victories but there is plenty good to be said about how Montana performed.

Griz "O" vs Pokes "D"

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In the season opener Saturday Wyoming looks to bridle a Grizzly offense that averaged slightly north of a half dozen touchdowns a game last season.

And the way an untested Montana offensive line handles the trenches will be a determining factor as the Grizzlies look to defeat the Cowboys for the first time in 13 meetings.

We're on the road to Cheyenne for tonight's stay then on to Laramie Saturday for the kickoff of 2014 Grizzly football.

What a career challenge this will be for the three sophomore offensive linemen, center Ben Weyer and tackles Jackson Thiebes and Devon Dietrich.

At an average weight of 275 with the Hines twins, Jordan and Logan, tipping the scale at 285 and 290 respectively, this may be the lightest O line to start a Griz game in many a season.

But don't think they won't be poised for the challenge of an imposing Wyoming front-seven that promises to be plenty quick and effective off the football.

The group is headed by Eddie Yarbrough, a team co-captain, first team all Mountain West as a sophomore, and on the Lombardi Watch List honoring the top down lineman.

He topped the league's tackle list for defensive linemen (7.4p/g) and wreaked havoc with 13 tackles, two for loss, in last year's season opener against then No. 18 Nebraska.

On the other side Sonny Puletasi, who doubles as an outside linebacker in the 3-man front, is on the Butkus pre-season Watch List, while Jordan Stanton was third in the nation in tackles last season (11.2 p/g) in earning honorable mention all-league status.

Another key on a defensive unit that returns nine starters is senior outside backer Devyn Harris who gained an extra sixth season, as did defensive tackle Pat Mertens, after losing a season to injury even after burning a redshirt season.

The Grizzlies have to be able to run the ball effectively and the Cowboy defense has been porous at times in allowing some 220 yards an outing on the ground and 482 yards overall in compiling a 5-7 mark.

But their losses were at Nebraska, Utah State, Boise State, San Jose State and Texas State, besides home defeats at the hands of No.16 Fresno State and Colorado State saw the Cowboys out manned particularly after the intermission.

Wyoming won four of six at War Memorial Stadium last season and have claimed nine straight home openers.

Maybe through rose-colored glasses but I'll take the good guys. 

A Look at the 'Pokes Offense

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Well the first radio show is in the books and our first player guest Buck Buchanan candidate Zack Wagenmann  did an amazing job just as all the athletes do, the itinerary has the Grizzlies jetting their way to Cheyenne Friday and the 2014 University of Montana gridiron season is not just approaching, it's here.

Time for just a glimpse, a taste if you will, of what you can expect Saturday afternoon.

Being the optimistic guy I am, especially about all things Griz, except for the scholarship level I don't have a huge disparity between the Cowboys and Montana.

Of course Wyoming is an FBS school playing in their home opener which they seldom lose - they have won 10 of their last 11 - and Montana I'm sure is considered the underdog but this isn't Tennessee, Iowa, Oregon or Kansas State, past Griz FBS opponents.

Since 2001, Wyoming has hosted 11 FCS opponents, prevailing over all but Cal Poly in 2012 but the matchups at War Memorial Stadium have been anything but walkovers.

Although they dominated Northern Colorado last season (35-7) and Texas State (45-10) the previous year, the five previous games were settled by a total of 21 points.

In two games against Weber State, Wyoming prevailed by a TD and a field goal.

You can expect new head coach Craig Bohl's inaugural team, especially given some of the coaching staff that accompanied him from North Dakota State, to display the same kind of philosophy that was successful in winning an amazing three consecutive FCS championships.

While their offensive line has a single senior and starts two underclassmen, they average just a pound south of 300 and have accompanying stature.

And if you watched NDSU's dominance of Furman in the trenches in the chipper last year, well these guys look like cookie cutters of that group.

The Cowboys will lead on the ground with fullback Drew Van Maanen paving the way for junior running back Shawn Wick who posted a quartet of 100-yard games last year while rushing for 979 yards.

Redshirt senior Colby Kirkegaard starts just his second career game at quarterback and will have senior receivers in Jalen Claiborne and Dominic Rufran, who is on the Fred Biletnikoff watch list as one of the nation's most threatening receivers.

But there's a reason eight of the top 12 players listed in their press info are on defense.

Check out that side of the ball in Friday's edition.

#GRIZvWYO

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Montana's matchup with FBS Wyoming on Saturday is one of the Big Sky's 17 such challenges this season and each of the league's teams has such a game on their schedule.

The Grizzlies are just a couple of days from jumping aboard a charter jet for the 800-mile trip to altitude and a Saturday afternoon meeting with the University of Wyoming.

On just two of 16 meetings last season did a league team pick up a victory over an FBS with Eastern Washington's surprise in Corvallis and Southern Utah beating South Alabama.

One could easily argue, I opine, that such regional teams as Wyoming, Idaho, Utah State and Washington State should be meeting Big Sky Conference teams but many leagues don't allow it. Of course wins over FCS teams don't count toward bowl eligibility and we all know that is the buzzword of the day because of the chance for increased revenue and job security.

Cowboy head coach Craig Bohl is a defensive guy and in winning 43 of North Dakota State's last 45 games including three FCS titles, that stalwart has served him well.

And in returning nine defensive starters and two specialists, the cupboard isn't exactly bare in Laramie.

But while six of the nine top sack masters return to the Mountain West Conference school, let's just say that side of the ball wasn't exactly productive last season.

Opposing teams completed 69 percent of their pass attempts, one of the worst pass defense stats in the country.

Fans are excited though about the Cowboys and the game promises to be a near sellout with no doubt a share on Griz nation making the trip not just from the Treasure State but also Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.

One thing that is certain for the Griz is the rushing attack with fullback Jamal Wilson leading the way for seniors Jordan Canada and Travon Van, who also will line up as a dangerous receiver.

There is more than a realistic chance that junior receiver Ellis Henderson won't be a go and that puts the onus on Jamal Jones as the go-to with other receivers, except tight end Mitch Saylor,   with no game experience.

I also would not be surprised to see redshirt freshman Mike Ralston in a twin tight end, fullback look.

Tomorrow we will be looking at a Griz defense that is more than capable of dominating any opponent on the schedule.

A Look at the Big Sky

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Well I always say after a team wins the championship they deserve the No. 1 accolade until it is proven otherwise with a loss but I'm here to tell you Eastern Washington sent a strong message in its opening domination of Sam Houston State to make sure poll voters cast a glance their way when regular season voting begins in a week.

Just a reminder tonight (Tuesday) is the inaugural broadcast of the Mick Delaney Show from the new location at Brooks and Browns in the Holiday inn in downtown Missoula.

It's a lively new format that includes a player segment and of course an opportunity for youngsters - or adults for that matter - to get a picture and an autograph in addition to hearing everything Griz football. The one-hour long affair   gets going at 6 p.m.

And now back to those pesky Eagles, the overwhelming selection to claim another Big Sky Conference crown.

After an intermission tie at 21, Eastern Washington dominated the Sam Houston Bearkats and even tacked on a last minute counter to register a 56-31 victory over their nemesis that had prevailed in three previous meetings.

But of course the Huntsville, Tx. team has had its way with the Big Sky Conference, winning seven straight, six of which came in the playoffs.

Quarterback Vernon Adams exceeded the Century passing mark for the 13th time while tossing a quartet of TDs.

In addition to a 302-yard passing afternoon, he also rushed for 61 yards pushing him over the Century mark in that career category as well.

Just for the record, Adams has thrown for 65 scores (Dave Dickenson is the record holder at 98) in the last 17 games dating back to last season and in running 100 plays tying the school record, the Eagles rang up 624 yards and won their 11th straight home game before a sellout crowd including more than a few interested Montanans

A quick look at the Grizzly two-deep in advance of Saturday's opener at Wyoming especially on the offense features some names Griz Nation fans are not accustomed to hearing.

Sophomores Jackson Thiebes, Ben Weyer and Devon Dietrich join the senior Hines twins while behind Mitch Saylor at tight end are a trio of redshirt freshman.

Maybe as concerning is backups in the trenches where a pair of other sophomores - Clint LaRowe and Todd McCauley are listed.

That is not only as young but also as shallow I can remember a Griz offensive line matching up and how well the newbie young men perform will be a key to Montana's success.

Kickoff 2014

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Along the lines that it seems like just yesterday, here we go. That's right it's game week for Montana football, with the inaugural blog, daily program, coach's show and road trip.

Hi everybody Mick Holien here as the Grizzlies start the countdown for the nearly 800-mile trip to Laramie where they meet the Cowboys for the first time since 1997.

I'm kicking off year 30 of University of Montana play-by-play and can you already tell, I'm excited.

But make no mistake, venturing to War Memorial Stadium, the nation's highest elevated Division 1 facility, promises to be quite an early season barometer of a Grizzly team looking to build on a double-digit win season and their return to the post season after just a one year hiatus.

Wyoming returns 17 starters, nine of them on defense, but sees three-time FCS titlist coach Craig Bohl taking the helm after his amazing run at North Dakota State University.

It promises to be a sellout at Jonah Field where the Cowboys averaged a tad less than 25,000 last season.

The two schools were perennial foes from 1951-1963, with the majority of the matchups contested in Billings. The Cowboys have never lost to Montana in 13 previous meetings.

A member of the Mountain West Conference, Wyoming finished 5-7 last year with one of the victories coming over Northern Colorado (15-7).

But the Cowboys won just 16 league games in Dave Christianson's five-year tenure, bringing about the rift that saw Bohl make the move from the dynasty he headed at NDSU.

Knowing it was a start from scratch, season Bohl has told his 24 seniors they are prime to get this program on track, and will receive rings after the program registers its inaugural league title.

He has brought his pro-style offense so successful in the Dakotas but returns a just a single starter on the offensive line where tackle Jake Jones leads the way with 24 starts.

The remainder of prospective starters in the offensive trenches have just 23 starts among them.

Bookended by the Snowy Range to the west and the Laramie Range to the east, War Memorial Stadium, which features a Field Turf surface, rests at 7,220 feet yet Money Magazine tabbed Laramie as one of the top retirement locations in the country.

In the midst of an 8-4 season in 1997 Montana lost to Wyoming 28-13.

And away we go

 

Let the tourney begin

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There is nothing left for the Montana Grizzlies to do but win because the alternative of course is the completion of the 2013-14 campaign.

It is indeed conference tournament time and in leagues around the country teams are vying to win and move to the next round with the allure of an NCAA berth hanging in the balance.

 

And the Grizzlies know more than their share about tournament action especially in the last two years as they waltzed to the Big Dance.

 

But it is quite a different scenario this season here in Ogden as Montana fell from vying to repeat by claiming a share of the league title won by Weber State all the way to the No 4 seed where Thursday they face No. five seed Portland State.

 

But vital parts of this group have NCAA experience and know the taste of Selection Sunday just three days away and the thrill and excitement of competing on the national stage.

 

But it will be anything but an easy proposition against the Vikings who jumped up and bit league titlist Weber State in the next to last game to enhance their tournament chances to face the Grizzlies for the first time in the tournament.

 

The Viks have won five of their last six games as have the Grizzlies but Portland State is in the midist of a three-game winning streak and riding high.

 

Ironically both teams have claimed a tournament title here at Dee Event Center with Montana claiming the 2010 championship and Portland State winning in 2009.

 

In fact Portland State and Montana have teamed to win five of the last six tournaments.

 

Kareem Jamar is the two-time defending tournament MVP while the Vikings are led in scoring by DaShaun Wiggins, the league's top reserve, who started only 6 games but led PSU in scoring at close to 13 an outing.

 

The Viks won in Portland by a trey in triple OT in a game Montana felt they let get away in regulation while Montana prevailed in single OT by a half dozen

 

PSU head coach Tyler Geving was an assistant when they last won the crown while Wayne tinkle is 9-4 in the tourney with three titles.

 

It promises to be a thriller.

No telling with these two teams playing

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If history is any indication, Thursday night's Big Sky Tournament first-day finale should be a doozy.

 

We are just a day away from the three-day run to determine who will represent the Big Sky Conference in the "Dance."

What is that they say?

You are the champion until someone proves otherwise and while Weber State claimed the regular season crown it is the Grizzlies who are the two-time defending league tournament champions.

And don't think for a minute they are about to surrender the title easily.

But in the opener against Portland State, well since it took four extra five-minute sessions in two overtimes for the two teams to split a pair of games, it promises to be a knuckle buster.

It was a three overtime affair in the Rose City and most recently, on Feb 8, an additional five minute period brought the Grizzlies to a six-point verdict.

So in this win and move-on scenario, look for back-and-forth action with an unpredictable outcome.

Weber State will play the lowest remaining seed which if North Dakota and Northern Arizona hold court would be Montana, if that is, the Griz can dispose of the Vikings.

The last time out, overtime was dominated by Keron DeShields, who scored all but two of Montana's 13 extra-session points and matched Kareem Jamar with 19.

But forward Kyle Richardson got loose for 25 on 10-of-15 from the field and registered a double-double with a dozen, or just about one-third, of the Viking rebounds.

Much like Montana, Portland State plays small-ball with no big force in the low post and while they dominated the Griz on the offensive board last time, for the season rebounding has been a liability.

But while they come off the bench with the big presence of 6 foot 10 Brandon Cataldo, their reserves have been deficient, although backup guard DaShaun Wiggins netted 11 last time around.

The Vikings tend to give up a lot of points and surrender a high shooting percentage both inside and outside the arc making it incumbent for the Grizzlies to take some advantage of second-side opportunities.

Mike Weisner had 16 on six of seven and three for three from trey-land last time and his emergence was key in Montana's five-game winning streak which ended Saturday in Flagstaff.

Let's see if we can get that slipper to fit.

Mick's take on the all-conference team

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There is little doubt that when you win the league you are going to get added recognition from the league's coaches.

Big Sky regular season champ Weber State claimed three of the six league individual awards in voting released Monday.

Swing-guard Davion Berry became the eighth Wildcat player and the first since Damien Lillard to claim the circuit's Most Valuable Player honors.

And while there certainly is an argument for Montana's Kareem Jamar to three-repeat, the senior still reigns as a two-time tournament MVP and that's all still on the table.

And Jamar is just the 22nd player in league history to be accorded first-team honors three times.

Berry scored .4 points more per game than "Ream" but Kareem out-rebounded the senior by more than a carom a game and equaled him with four assists an outing.

But you know it's long been known "to the victor goes the spoils."

The difference is Berry's Wildcats claimed two more victories, the league title and No 1 seed and host spot into the post-season affair.

Jeremy Senglin is the freshman of the year after hitting 40 percent from three and averaging 11.3 points a game and Weber sophomore Joel Bolomboy, who led Weber State to the best defensive stats in the league, was the conference's best defender.

Bolomboy is fifth in the nation in rebounding at just short of 11.

Eastern Washington's Tyler Harvey, North Dakota's Troy Huff, Northern Arizona's Quinton Upshur, the league's newcomer, and Mikh McKinney of Sacramento State rounded out the first team.

Jamar, Huff, Berry and McKinney were unanimous first-squad selections.

But in my opinion the starkest oversight, and no doubt because of the fourth-seed, was the relegation of Jordan Gregory to honorable mention status.

Basically the first squad was made up entirely of guards in a league that certainly was guard laden as Weber's Kyle Tresnak was the only true center honored and he was second team.

But Gregory's contribution certainly deserved more accord than honorable mention which he shared with Keron DeShields.

He stood 10th in scoring, just short of 14 per-game, was second from the free-throw line at 87 percent, shot 44 percent overall and 38 percent from three, was eighth in minutes played and had a 53-38 assist-turnover ratio.

Must deal with the draw

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Inconsistencies that have plagued the Grizzlies often this season proved to be their undoing in the season finale and the resulting defeat to Northern Arizona not only cost them two pairing positions but also put them quite possibly on the champion Weber State side of the tournament bracket.

Here it is on the eve of a bus trip to Ogden, Utah, for the seven-team Big Sky Conference Tournament where Montana will try to three-peat.

But in quite a different scenario this season as Montana enters the tournament on a foreign court and dropping to the number-four seed after seeing a five game winning streak come stumbling to an end in Flagstaff.

The result leaves the Grizzlies to face five-seed Portland State in the first round nightcap and unless there is an upset in one of the first two games if they win would be destined to face the Wildcats in the semi-final round Friday night.

And while the Vikings and Grizzlies have split games they have played an extra 20 minutes against each other since both games were decided in overtime sessions.

While both teams came out slow Saturday afternoon, the Grizzlies trailed by but five points even after connecting on just five field goals.

And in a game Montana never led they scratched and clawed to a tie at 30 with about 16 to play.

But the Lumberjacks went on a 14-3 run and while the Grizzlies cut the lead to one at the halfway mark, they could never get over the hump in losing by 20 and only scoring 47 points.

They suffered their worst shooting game of the season (28.9 percent) and were completely dominated on both boards (40-21) as the Jacks won for the fourth consecutive game.

The Griz bench was outscored 32-9 with no reserve scoring more than three while Kareem Jamar led Montana scoring with 15, the only Montana player in double figures.

NAU snatched 15 offensive rebounds with put-backs and second opportunities contributing to their 50 percent shooting from the field (27-54).

 Guard Quinton Upshur paced three Lumberjacks in double figures as they match Montana's 12-8 league mark but along with North Dakota both have the tie breaker over Montana to claim the two and three seed.

The second time battling Sacramento State

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Last time around the Grizzlies survived a hot shooting Sacramento State team with a torrid offensive performance of their own in recording a 12-point victory.

Montana completes the regular season with road contests at Sacramento and Flagstaff.

Even though they were outboarded and made but five treys, the Grizzlies missed but eight shots in the second stanza in scoring 45 points and claiming an 82-70 victory.

Even though the Hornets shot 54 percent they scored but 27 first-half points and trailed by 10 at the intermission.

The first time around was a game of guard scoring for Montana as Kareem Jamar, Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields combined for 51 points. or 60 percent of the offense  with "Ream" leading the way with 20.

Chris Kemp began his late-season surge with a then-career high 10 to go along with seven rebounds and the Griz as usual took excellent care of the orb with just nine turnovers.

But the Hornets buzz at home, winning 10 of 11 overall and seven of eight conference outings in the always-active Nest.

They shoot 44.5 percent and average almost 70 while giving up the same amount.

Sac State takes good care of the basketball and fill it up from three averaging more than six a game, but they allow opponents more than seven.

They are ball hawkers grabbing almost seven steals an outing.

One forte may be rebounding, not exactly a Griz strength yet ever improving.

The Hornets have been outrebounded in just one a game, while Montana is minus five in that regard.

Picked in the pre-season to finish seventh and eighth by the coaches and media, Sac State has lost two straight to fall into a four-way tie with a 9-9 mark and still battling to get in the tournament so there is a lot on the line this week for the Hornets.

Portland State, Montana State and Eastern Washington are tied with the Hornets for that sixth spot with ISU a game away.

The Bengals certainly could enhance their chances by picking up a W at Eastern especially with league champ Weber State traveling to Portland.

But it may all come down to Saturday when six teams, including Montana, finish up in the afternoon.

One final week to decide this

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Well we're right down to it and even with North Dakota's victory over Northern Colorado Tuesday, there's a whole lot to be determined in this Big Sky Conference race in the last week preceding the seven-team post-season tournament.

The two hottest teams in the circuit, that's right Montana and North Dakota, claimed victories already this week but while UND clinched a tournament spot and either a two or three seed, with 11 wins the Grizzlies are just knocking on the door and not yet assured seeding or even a tournament berth.

With a pair of road games if the Grizzlies were to fall twice and complete the regular season 11-9 a myriad of tie breaking possibilities would exist especially given that Sacramento, Thursday's opponent, has nine wins, and Northern Arizona, the finale is now 10 and 8.

North Dakota and Montana both have four-game winning streaks while Northern Colorado fell for the fourth straight time.

Even Idaho State, with just eight league wins, has an outside chance to get in and unseat teams above them in the standings with closing wins over both Eastern Washington and Portland State, both teams with 9 and 9 marks.

Already with the host spot secure, Weber State also finishes up on the road at Portland State and Eastern, while North Dakota could match the Wildcats with wins as they finish at Southern Utah.

But Weber owns the tie breaker and thus the host position and No. 1 seed.

After being swept by Montana, the Bobcats are fighting for their proverbial life with road games at Northern Arizona and Sacramento and with a 9 and 9 mark looks to at least have to split to have a chance to get in.

Getting to the 20-win pinnacle looks possible for Weber and NAU, now with 16 and with a good road showing Montana can climb the hill with a good tournament performance but it's bleak for anyone else leading one to believe that the tournament champion, as I've written here before, could be facing one of the two so called play-in games.

And that's sure not favorable for the conference and would be a first.

But it is what occurs when the middle of the league is comprised of teams who beat up on each other.

Southern Utah looking to be the spoiler

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The Thunderbirds are still winless and headed to Missoula for a Saturday contest but it wasn't for a lack of trying.

Southern Utah missed a shot at a streak-breaking victory in regulation in Bozeman but fell in overtime to the Bobcats.

And thus speaks the Big Sky Conference this season as a team with the nation's longest losing streak at 25 games takes the Cats to a five-pointer in overtime.

And with the victory Montana State, Montana's final home game of the season Monday night, evened their season mark and moved to 9-8 in league, a half game back of the Grizzlies.

And since Eastern Washington dropped Northern Colorado, Weber State not only broke the home win consecutive game record of Montana but also clinched no worse than a tie for the league title.

The Bears fall for the first time this season at home after 14 straight victories.

With a victory over Southern Utah Montana could inch closer to the second spot while the Wildcats can clinch the tournament host spot Saturday with a victory over Northern Arizona.

Southern Utah's Achilles has been lack of scoring. They average but a league-worst 59.4 an outing, the result of being the worst shooting team (.431) in the circuit.

But Montana won by just eight Jan. 30 in Cedar City and if Thursday night is any indication second-year coach Nick Robinson still has the Birds playing hard.

And talk about incentive - they can still figure into this league race since after Montana they host North Dakota and Northern Colorado.

It would be easy for this Griz team to look past SUU with the Bobcat game right on the horizon and Tinks said on the radio Tuesday night it is something the coaching staff talks about with their group, not something that goes unsaid.

The Thunderbirds start a single senior, Jaren Jeffrey in the post, along with a quartet of underclassman.

Sophomore forward A.J. Hess leads the T-Birds in scoring at 9.1 with no player in double figures.

Casey OIiverson leads from the field at 55 percent and has seen starting time at both the four and the five.

In Cedar City, the Griz trailed by three at the half but missed just seven of 20 attempts after intermission but didn't secure the margin until about three minutes remaining.

It's senior night and the final home game for league MVP Kareem Jamar and fifth year senior Eric Hutchison.

And it's Fan Appreciation Night as well from 4:30-6:30 in the East Auxiliary Gym. Now really who doesn't enjoy a $1 hotdog?