First Look

FIRST LOOK: Athletic North Alabama come to Missoula for Griz home opener

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MISSOULA, Montana — The Montana Grizzlies have opened their season at home far more often than not since the opening of Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula in 1986.

Saturday, the Griz went into the DakotaDome and snapped one of the longest home opener winning streaks in the FCS in a rare season-opening road game. Behind 430 yards passing from senior quarterback Dalton Sneed, Montana posted 31-17 win that was more convincing than the final two-touchdown margin.

“We are excited to have won the opener and that’s all you can do is win any week you are in and be 1-0 that week, which we were last week,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said a few days after notching his 87 career victory at UM. “Happy to go on the road and beat a really good football team at their place.

“It’s not lost on us that the 16 previous home openers were won by the home team there. Obviously, it’s a tough place to open the season and I’m proud of our guys for going and getting that win.”

Montana opens its home slate for 2019 under the Wash-Griz lights on Saturday night against upstart North Alabama.

Montana linebacker Dante Olson (33) in 2017/by Brooks Nuanez

“We have to get back to work this week and improve,” Hauck said. “We have a whole bunch of things, a laundry list of things we need to fix that we didn’t do well enough. It’s a big week for us in terms of improvement and trying to correct all the different things we need to correct.”

“After watching the tape, there’s a ton of corrections, a ton of things that need to be improved before we take on a good team this weekend,” Olson said.

North Alabama held Western Illinois’ offense in check on the way to a 26-17 win Florence, Alabama. Quarterback Christian Lopez threw for 290 yards and 75-yard a touchdown to Cortez Hall. Terence Humphrey rushed for 102 yards on 12 carries, including 65-yard touchdown.

“Generally speaking, they just beat a team that beat us a year ago,” said Hauck, whose team lost 31-27 at WIU last season. “We caught (North Alabama) on tape against Southern Utah last year. That was our only real look at them where it would be subconsciously getting watched. It’s not lost on us that we have to play a team that just beat Western Illinois that got us last year.”

UNA dominated the Division II level between 1972 and 2017, advancing to the D-II National Playoffs 21 times and winning 35 out of 53 playoff games. North Alabama holds the distinction of the only Division II team to claim three straight national titles (1993-95). In 2016, the Lions won their fourth straight Gulf Coast League title, a conference record and the team’s 17th conference title overall.

Montana head coach Bobby Hauck/by Brooks Nuanez

Now UNA competes in the Big South after playing last season as an FCS independent. The Lions went 7-3 in 2018, with a season-opening 34-30 win over Southern Utah. The schedule also included a 30-7 loss to North Dakota State.

Hauck said North Alabama looks like a Division I team even if Saturday will mark only the Lions’ 12th Division I game.

“They are big and fast,” Hauck said. “That’s what they are. I thought Western Illinois a year ago was a big, physical team and they got shoved around a little bit last week by these guys.”

QUICK HITS

Location: Florence, Alabama

Nickname: Lions.

Founded: 1830. The state’s oldest public university occupies a 130-acre campus in the residential section of Florence, a town part of a four-city area that also includes Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Muscle Shoals that compose a combined population of 140,000 people. UNA was Alabama’s first state-supported teacher college. In 1873, the school became one of the first co-ed schools in the country.

Enrollment: 7,650 with an endowment of $36.6 million.

Stadium: Braly Municipal Stadium holds 14,215 and hosted the Division II national championship game from 1986 until 2013, each game broadcast live on ESPN. UNA played in front of an average of 6,754 in five home games last season.

The Coach: Chris Willis, third year at North Alabama. The former college baseball player got his first full-time job at on Mark Hudspeth’s staff coaching tight ends in 2002. He coached running backs in 2003 and defensive backs between 2004 and 2011, earning retention when Terry Bowden took over for Hudspeth in 2009. Bobby Wallace took the UNA job in 2012, promoting Willis to defensive coordinator in 2016. Willis is 13-8 so far at North Alabama.

THE OFFENSE – Players to watch

Christian Lopez, quarterback, 5-11, 197, senior — Bobby Hauck has “known Lopez since he was much younger,” Hauck said during his press conference Monday. The athletic dual-threat quarterback was a standout at Green Valley High in Henderson, Nevada while Hauck was the head coach at Nevada-Las Vegas. At Green Valley, Lopez posted a 35-8 record as the quarterback set school records with 7,200 passing yards and 90 passing touchdowns.

Lopez’s college career began at Mesa (Arizona) Community College. He threw for 2,858 yards as a sophomore in 2017, the latter the second-highest junior college total in the nation.

Last season, he started 10 games and served as a captain in UNA’s first Division I season. He threw for 2,184 yards and 14 touchdowns against just two interceptions. He completed 59.7 percent of his passes, a rare improvement from his junior college statistics. He also rushed 97 times for 220 yards and five more scores.

He led game-winning drives in the fourth quarter against Southern Utah, Alabama A&M, Azusa Pacific and North Greenville. He threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 105 yards on 15 carries in the come-from-behind 34-30 win at SUU to open the season.

“Knowing who he is and something about him, he’s a competitive guy,” Hauck said. “He loves to play and that’s how he ended up all the way out in Alabama even being a West Coast guy. He’s a smart player. He does things right. He will keep plays alive. He moves around the pocket really well.

“He’s not afraid to send it down field and he has the ability to throw it down the field as well as finding the check down. He’s pretty patient in the pocket. He’s a guy who is really comfortable in their offense it appears to me. And he will be hard to deal with.”

Terence Humphrey, running back, 6-0, 229, senior — Last season, Humphrey rushed for a season high of 69 yards. The surpassed that by a wide margin thanks to a 62-yard touchdown run during a 102-yard day in UNA’s opener. That long jaunt pushed North Alabama’s 19-17 lead to nine points with 2:30 left in the third quarter, the final score of the game.

Last season, Humphrey carried the ball 67 times for 290 yards and two touchdowns. He entered his senior year with 103 carries for 467 yards (4.5  yards per carry) and six touchdowns.

Humphrey will share carries with Ron Thompson and Ja’Won Howell but has established himself as the No. 1 running back.

“They have three running backs they will use,” Hauck said. “Dante and I were just talking about they are all good players.”

Cortez Hall, wide receiver, 6-1, 214, sophomore — The big, fast and strong wide out had a breakout freshman season, snaring 39 catches for 591 yards and four touchdowns.

He’s off to an explosive start again this season. He caught at least two passes in all 10 UNA games last season. He caught just two passes last week against WIU but one went for a 75-yard touchdown. The other netted 38 yards. He and Dexter Boykin, a 6-foot-3, 188-pound sophomore who caught six passes for 83 yards, give the Lions a physically imposing 1-2 punch.

THE DEFENSE – Players to watch

Wallace Cowins, Jr., defensive end, 6-4, 240, junior — The transfer from Coastal Carolina did not play much last season. But he was a force in his debut for the Lions.

Last season, Cowins appeared in 10 games, notching eight tackles and half a tackle for loss. That was after playing his freshman season at the Georgia Military Academy. The former Georgia 6A first-team all-state linebacker led the statein tackles with 178, including 105 solos stops, 24 tackles for loss and eight sacks during his senior year at Heritage High.

D’Andre Hart, safety, 6-1, 206, senior — The former Lindsey Wilson College player notched 26 tackles and forced a fumble last season. In UNA’s season-opener, he flew around, notching 11 tackles against WIU.

Hart originally landed at North Alabama after earning a roster spot during a tryout camp that earned him an invite to spring drills. He earned a scholarship by last fall, playing in nine games and starting one. He forced his fumble in UNA’s 30-7 loss to eventual national champion North Dakota State.

K.J. Smith, defensive back, 5-11, 187, senior — The former University of Georgia transfer (he was on UGA’s scout team in 2016) played in 10 games and started eight last season, notching three interceptions and three tackles for loss to go along with five pass breakups. He finished with 49 tackles, including 30 solo stops and three tackles for loss.

Against Western Illinois, Smith had seven tackles and a quarterback hit defensively. He also returned a kick 24 yards for a touchdown.

Photos by University of North Alabama Communications or Brooks Nuanez. 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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