Editor’s note: Ryan Tootell is the program director for ESPN 102.9 FM in Missoula and a contributing columnist to Skyline Sports.
It’s the halfway point of the college football regular season. Where are we at with Montana and Montana State? A mid-term assessment is in order.
“They are who we thought they were!” – Denny Green
Coming into the third season under head coach Jeff Choate, the impression was that the defensive personnel now reflected what the head coach had been working toward. Thus far many of the hopes of what a Bobcat defense envisioned by Choate and directed by defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak could be has come to fruition. The Bobcats boast a powerful defensive front anchored by senior lineman Tyrone Fa’anono, thumper Brayden Konkol in the second level and a collection of athleticism on the back end.
And oh yeah, Bryce Sterk.
The 6’5” 250 pound junior transfer never really fit at the University of Washington and perhaps lost a bit of confidence, contributing to stretches of tentative play. Then at some point this off season he saw himself in the mirror with his shirt off. Now at Montana State, Sterk is wrecking every blocker, backfield and quarterback that gets in his way. He leads the Big Sky Conference in sacks (5) and tackles for loss (8.5). Bryce Sterk is a menace.
While the ‘Cats rank only 7th in Big Sky scoring defense and total defense, they have played two of the top five teams in the nation, each boasting two of the most prolific offenses in the Football Championship Subdivision. And while the 45-14 loss at No. 3 South Dakota State was a blowout in every facet, the Eastern Washington game last Saturday was not. In fact the Cats’ defense held Eastern to 10 points below their season average entering the game. And, let’s not forget the season opener in which MSU held one of the best quarterback-running back combinations anywhere in Western Illinois seniors Sean McGuire and Steve McShane to just 23 points in what is still a season shifting win.
The loss to the Jackrabbits notwithstanding, the Bobcat defense is a very good one with the potential of being outstanding. The task of meeting that potential falls to Choate and Gregorak. Bets are the duo will be able to do just that.
On offense, a hand injury to Troy Andersen coming out of the opener and good showing by Tucker Rovig against Wagner in Game 3 threw an already uncertain quarterback situation into complete chaos entering Big Sky Conference play.
But Choate seems adamant that, despite the opportunity to use Andersen to great effect nearly anywhere on the field, he wants his best player under center even if that’s not the position he’s actually best at. It’s hard to blame him for the decision. After two years with the hugely athletic Chris Murray under center, Choate was no longer willing to trade out electric, game changing football brilliance, for dumb, game changing sophomoric mistakes.
In the off-season Rovig was given every opportunity to win the starting job. He didn’t. So now Choate has put his best player – and more importantly the player he has the most faith in – in the most important position, hoping that his unrivaled instincts and limitless football acumen will overcome significant deficiencies of actually playing quarterback at the Division I level.
The quarterback experiment continues entering October. Unfortunately for MSU, it is still an experiment. There is no question that Montana State would be better if they had a proficient quarterback not named Andersen. A different quarterback would then free up the true sophomore to be a true game changer. In my mind, he’s best used as a 15 rush per game tailback AND a 35-plays-per-game linebacker. A true two-way player. A true game wrecker. But for a coach who’s watched his quarterback lose games in critical moments, the production of Rovig against a far outclassed Wagner team isn’t enough to repair months of failed expectations.
Finally, when it comes to assessing MSU, their schedule to this point has to be taken into consideration. It has been one of extremes. The Bobcats opened with the most ‘like’ opponent they’ve seen in Western Illinois, which also became their best win of the season. From that point they were undone by the 3rd-ranked team in the nation then dominated a far inferior Northeast Conference team. And now two games into the Big Sky slate, the ‘Cats have played the two teams widely expected to be the best (EWU) and worst (Portland State) in the conference with results that reflect that. As far as the rest of the season is concerned, here are my predictions.
Montana State remaining 2018 schedule
October 13 — vs Idaho – W
October 20 — at Weber State – L
October 27 — at Idaho State – ? (A true coin flip game in Pocatello)
November 3 — vs Cal Poly – W
November 10 — vs Northern Colorado – W
November 17 at Montana – not yet, my friends.
“They are who we thought they were” — Proficient, at times outstanding, on defense. Uneven at quarterback and in process on offense. A record 3-2 on the season. 1-1 in the Big Sky. They have improved under Choate. Year 3 is the new regime’s best group. But the improvement is happening in steps not leaps. Troy Andersen is a transcendent Big Sky talent being used in his worst capacity to support his teams biggest need. Until a true quarterback suits up in blue and gold, this team will still be middling. The Cats aren’t better than we thought. They aren’t worse either. They are who we thought they were, staring 6-4 in the face heading to Missoula.
The Montana Grizzlies are 4-1, better than what just about anyone expected. Great effort, sound tackling, offensive execution, overcoming deficiencies, limited mistakes. Five games in, the Griz are the archetype for what having the right head coach can do for a program. Turns out, Montana’s struggles the last two seasons weren’t about talent.
Dante Olsen’s first half is nearly unprecedented. The junior linebacker has 79 total tackles – 31 more than the next closest defensive player in the conference. His 24 tackles against Cal Poly were the 4th-most in a single game in the history the Big Sky. If the season ended today, Olson would be the unanimous Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and very likely the Buck Buchanan award winner. A nice linebacker pairing to go with Big Sky Preseason Defensive MVP Josh Buss, a senior who has improved steadily coming out of off-season surgery and a subsequent pectoral tear.
Did I mention Olson has 31 more tackles than the player with the second most in the Conference? Any guess who number 2 is? A kid by the name of Hauck. You don’t expect freshmen to play, much less lead. But if you’re a coach’s son and an NFL veteran’s nephew, perhaps expectations shouldn’t be placed on you. Robby Hauck is lighting up defenders like he’s been in the secondary for years and at 3’6” and 74 pounds he’s punching way above his weight class. He plays, to be frank, like he’s Bobby’s son.
Then there’s the offense. Nearly limitless depth at wide receiver and barren at offensive line. Both those have played out as expected through the first half. Two things, though have made all the difference for the Griz offense.
1. Dalton Sneed — All you need to know about Dalton Sneed’s play is that he replaced a freshman All-American from a year ago, and Griz fans don’t even talk about the alternative universe in which Gresch Jensen is still Montana’s quarterback. They don’t need to. Sneed’s numbers are not eye popping, but his play is. Sneed is the definition of a playmaker whose ability to scramble, and flat out run, has proven both fun to watch and hugely critical to team success. With boys on the offensive line playing (and losing) against men on the other side, Sneed’s instincts and decision making have been on exquisite display. They have made an offense that could easily be inept into the second-highest scoring offense in the Big Sky.
2. Timm Rosenbach — The creativity that has gone into the offensive game plan to accentuate the strengths and mask the weakness of Montana’s offense has been one of the most impressive things about the 2018 Grizzlies. And while the entire coaching staff deserves a ton of credit, it is worth singling out Coach Rosy for the offensive preparation and game plan. Beyond the fake pitch quarterback keeper that afforded Sneed the greatest rushing day by a quarterback in Griz history, the ability to generate 38 points per game using great balance with all the receivers and runners (especially Sneed) to keep defenses completely unbalance is a skill that only experience provides.
In a grossly unbalanced Big Sky schedule, the last six games of the season are well worth looking at…and predicting:
Montana remaining 2018 schedule
October 6 — vs Portland State – W
October 13 — at North Dakota – ?
October 20 — vs UC Davis – ?
November 3 — at Southern Utah – W
November 10 — at Idaho – W
November 17 — at Montana State – still not yet, my friends.
The question marks by UND and UCD are the only two potentially loseable games before Montana State for the Griz, games which they will be favored to win. (You might argue that Idaho is loseable on the road for the Griz. You’d be wrong. The implosion is on in Moscow.) I think at worst Montana splits with the Aggies and Fighting Hawks and will go into Cat-Griz at 8-2.
One final note on the last game of the season: It is not at all out of the realm that Montana State is 6-4 and Montana 9-1 heading into the Brawl (they could both be 7-3 too, by the way). We know the records never matter in Cat-Griz, but that is especially true this season. By the time we get to the final regular season game, MSU will have played 3 of the top 6 teams in the NATION. Montana’s highest ranked opponent will have been No. 13 Northern Iowa (who is now No. 22) and UC Davis who is currently No. 16.
Further, as of now, the only mutual opponent that both teams have played is Western Illinois, a team the Bobcats beat (at home) and to whom the Griz lost (on the road). The point is this: Montana State has a much tougher strength of schedule than does Montana. As such, it’s simply foolish to imagine the records will be in any way indicative of the Cat-Griz outcome. Montana and Montana State are very different football teams, but come November 17th they will be equals. I for one, can’t wait.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.