Game Day

Bravado of Griz defense is palpable entering home opener

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The last time TraJon Cotton and Omar Hicks Onu were in Husky Stadium, in 2018 as defensive backs at Oregon State, Washington scored 42 points.

Last week at Husky Stadium, Hicks Onu and Cotton were part of a Montana defense that gave up just seven points in one of the biggest FCS over FBS upsets of all time.

And Cotton wasn’t one bit surprised.

“Montana, we just got a whole different mindset. So I just knew that we were going to go in there and do what we do,” Cotton said. “I mean, we don’t believe the hype here. You know what I mean? We just went into the game, knowing they bleed the same blood we bleed, so they’re beatable. … And we knew we could match up well with them.”

Part of that is the defensible hubris that infects college kids after they’ve just shocked the world. There was certainly no shortage of that at Montana practices this week.

“Oh, I don’t even know,” Hicks Onu said when asked to pinpoint the moment Montana’s defense took control, “’cause, to be honest, the whole game was dominant other than the first drive.”

That reads as cocky. To anyone who watched the game, though, it’s just the stone-cold truth.

Washington scored a touchdown nine plays into the game, going up 7-0 before Montana even touched the ball. From there, though, the Grizzlies’ suffocating defense started taking away elements of Washington’s offense, one by one, like office lights winking out in a tall skyscraper as people leave for the day.

The first thing to go was the Huskies’ running game. Washington ran for 35 yards on six carries on that opening drive, including an 8-yard gain by Richard Newton on third-and-3 from the 9-yard line that set up a 1-yard touchdown plunge by quarterback Dylan Morris.

That was more than half of UW’s 65 total rushing yards in the game.

Montana nose tackle Alex Gubner/ by Brooks Nuanez

Montana’s defensive line, anchored in the middle by defensive tackles Alex Gubner and Eli Alford, started to push the Huskies’ O-line back, which was both stunning against a unit with four former all-Pac-12 players and also made it easier for Montana’s linebackers to get into the backfield.

Junior inside linebacker Marcus Welnel, a Helena Capital product, had 12 tackles and a sack. Junior outside linebacker Patrick O’Connell, a Kalispell Glacier product, had nine tackles and three for loss, including two sacks. Senior captain Jace Lewis, a Towsend product, had six tackles, two for loss.

“I told them, the moment we got off the field, they balled out,” Hicks Onu said about the linebackers. “And I watched it on film the following day, on Sunday. Pat, Marcus, Jace, Mike (Matthews), all the linebackers were flying around like crazy bloodhounds.”

Griz senior defensive back Omar Hicks Onu tackles a Central Washington player during a game in April of 2021/ by Jason Bacaj

Even with the run game short-circuited, Morris was able to keep the Huskies moving through the air for a little while longer.

The highly-touted redshirt freshman drove Washington 50 yards on the Huskies’ second possession before failing on a 4th-and-13 try in Montana territory, and finished the first half 17 of 23 passing for 139 yards.

With the run game missing, though, Washington was completely one-dimensional. Morris could only bail out the Huskies for so long, and the Montana secondary took advantage.

Morris was 6 of 11 for 43 yards and an interception in the third quarter, and 4 of 12 with another pick in the fourth.

No run, no pass — by the end of the game, Washington had no offense at all.

“It got real easy,” Cotton said. “Our defensive front seven is just amazing. They played a hell of a game, the ‘backers and also the D-line. It makes the job as a DB pretty, pretty easy knowing you have a great front like that.”

Hicks Onu flipped a receiver on a big hit to force a punt in the second quarter. Cotton had a pass breakup on fourth down to end the Huskies’ second-to-last drive late in the game and high-stepped off the field, one of the enduring images captured by photographers on the sideline.

“Our coaches had been saying it all week, they (Washington) are gonna have the ‘oh, snap’ moment,” Hicks Onu said. “The first drive, they went down and scored pretty fast and pretty easily. We just had to lock in and make sure we read our keys correctly. So then the next drive, the same thing didn’t happen. And then I think in the second half, you know, in the beginning of the third quarter, they had that ‘oh, snap’ moment.”

It’s tough to put Montana’s defensive performance against the Huskies into perspective. Seven points allowed, against a top-25 FBS team that averaged 32 points per game in 2019, their last full season? It’s like hearing that a golden retriever suddenly suited up at middle linebacker, or that Missoula housing prices went down, or that Leo DiCaprio was dating someone younger than 30.

But Hicks Onu and Cotton are two of the most experienced players on the Griz roster. This wasn’t their first time playing against 5-star recruits or pro prospects or in front of 60,000-plus people.

So when they give their read on the historic performance of Montana’s defense, it’s probably best to listen.

“I mean, think about it, right? So we play Central Washington and beat them, whatever to three. Play Portland State, whatever to seven. Beat these guys 13-7,” Hicks Onu said. “They’ve only scored 17 points on us in three games. So I mean, as far as being a great defense goes, as long as we stay locked in and we keep doing our thing and stay motivated, stay competitive and keep our head straight, we can be as great as we want to be.”

Montana hosts Western Illinois at 6 p.m. on Saturday night at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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