Analysis

Aggressive, swarming Griz defense on impressive five-game streak

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MISSOULA, Montana — When Bobby Hauck first made the statement, the dozen or so press members in attendance at the Sky Club in the Adams Center each had to do some quick mental math.

Sure enough, Hauck was not exaggerating. Unlike so many of his head coaching colleagues, Hauck never exaggerates.

“Our defense hasn’t given up a point in 115 minutes,” Montana’s head coach said following his 100th career victory.

Even if it took few minutes to count the digits up, Hauck is almost exactly spot on. Montana gave up a touchdown to Washington’s offense on its first possession of the 2021 season opener for both teams with 10 minutes, nine seconds left in the first quarter. The Griz defense played lights out the rest of the way in Montana’s 13-7 victory over the No. 20 Huskies in Seattle on September 4.

The Griz defense gave up no points and just 151 yards, rolling up six sacks and 11 tackles for loss in the process in a 42-7 win over Western Illinois. The only WIU touchdown came on a pick-six.

“They are absolutely the real deal,” Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott said.

“I was really impressed; they have great players, they run a great scheme. They didn’t do anything different. They just do it really well. There’s no question that’s one of the better defensive units in the country.”

Before the win at Washington, Hauck talked about “closing the gap” against a Husky team that drilled UM 63-7 in 2018. A similar thought preceded Saturday’s home opener because Hauck’s 2018 Griz lost at Western Illinois 31-27 in Hauck’s first season back at his alma mater after an eight-year hiatus to the Mountain West.

“I think the personnel is better than when we played them in 2018,” Elliott said. “And they definitely have added some wrinkles. They create some unusual box looks for you and with where they put their buck, they make you communicate at a very high level.

“They do some really good things scheme wise and their kids play very fast, very hard and they are confident in what they are doing.”

Hauck, who has been the figure head for more than a few Griz football teams with memorable defensive reputations, has been more forthcoming with praise than usual in recent weeks. And that’s because of the nearly flawless performance so far of the defensive unit.

“The defense was terrific,” Hauck said following moving to 100-26 in 10 total seasons at Montana. “We’re going on 115+ minutes without being scored upon. I think that’s pretty spectacular, in this day and age of college football, that doesn’t happen very much.

“We thought that Western Illinois (a team that threw for 365 yards and scores 21 points in a 10-point week 1 loss to Ball State) had a really dynamic offense, and that was not the way it played out tonight in our stadium.”

The stellar start to the 2021 season is actually an extension of a dominant streak for the Griz defense, aside from a rivalry pounding. Montana’s defense was startingly physical in UM’s 35-16 win over Weber State, knocking out WSU All-American running back Josh Davis and two other starting skill players for the Wildcats before the decimation was complete in UM’s final home game in November of 2019.

Montana defensive end Joe Babros (56) pressures Western Illinois quarterback Connor Sampson (8)/by Blake Hempstead

The following week, Montana State rushed for 382 yards on 62 bruising carries and rolled to a 48-14 win over Montana, MSU’s fourth straight in the rivalry.

But the Griz defense quickly got back on track, culminating in allowing 113 yards of total offense and eight first downs to Weber State in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. But the Griz turned the ball over five times in a 17-10 loss to the Wildcats.

And now, Montana has allowed seven total points and 220 yards per contest in its first two outings of this fall. And that’s on the heels of allowing three points, 178 yards and 10 first downs in a 59-3 win over Central Washington along with giving up 13 first downs and 293 yards in a 48-7 win over Portland State.

“I think that just comes with preparation and practicing, setting a standard,” Montana junior linebacker Patrick O’Connell, this week’s Big Sky Player of the Week, said following the Western Illinois win. “Guys don’t want to disappoint their coaches, their teammates, their whole program, so if you set that standard, everyone looks to compete and play and bring the effort to that standard. That’s just something that’s pretty special about our defense and our whole team, honestly.

Montana’s diverse and variable defensive fronts, aggressive blitzing pressure and astounding depth have been particularly affective against rushing attacks the two games of this season and its last five games overall. The Grizzlies have allowed a total of 305 rushing yards to the tune of 2.04 yards per carry and 61 yards per game over the last five games.  

Western Illinois tried to press the edge of the Grizzly defense, an apt strategy considering the number of defensive fronts and the numerous pressures the Griz incorporate. But the difference Saturday and for the two game this season is the fact that the Griz have literally dozens of players in its defensive rotation that are excellent open-field tacklers who can either press or set the edge….or both.

That helped WIU average less than two yards per carry. It’s the formula Hauck envisioned when he returned to Montana before the 2018 season.

“It’s my belief that we’ve got good if not great speed on defense,” Hauck said. “It’s shown up the first two weeks. They’re hard to run around. You have to body them up. We were doing a lot of different things on who’s going to be the edge of the defense, so that’s hard to figure out, to a degree, and they (WIU) did not crack the code on that certainly. When we start looking at it, when you get to where a 3-yard run is a big gain, we feel comfortable about where we are on defense.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez, Blake Hempstead, attributed. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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