MISSOULA, Montana — Bobby Hauck did not mince words when asked what would constitute success in his team’s upcoming football game at Oregon, the No. 15 team in the country.
“Winning,” Montana’s head football coach said sternly with no further extrapolation during his weekly press conference on Monday.
The Ducks destroyed Nevada last week, forcing four turnovers and throwing seven touchdowns in a 77-6 victory. Heisman hopeful Justin Herbert threw for 310 yards and five touchdowns. Tyler Shough completed 8-of-9 passes for 92 yards and two scores. And the Ducks rushed for 221 yards on an afternoon that saw them average 8.4 yards per play.
Meanwhile, Montana ripped off 45 unanswered points in the second half to run away from North Alabama in a 61-17 victory, UM’s 16th straight win in a home opener. The Grizzlies are 2-0 following a season-opening 31-17 win at South Dakota to begin the year. But the toughest task of Montana’s non-conference schedule will come in Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon on Saturday night.
“They always have talented guys at a lot of different positions,” Hauck said. “We are familiar with a lot of their players.
“We are going to need a great effort.”
Oregon has one of the most experienced and physically imposing offensive lines in the country. Herbert could be the No. 1 pick in next spring’s NFL Draft. The Duck defense is littered with premier athletes, including NFL prospect linebacker Troy Dye and defensive tackle Jordan Scott.
And Oregon seems to play with a newfound edge under second-year head coach Mario Cristobal, formerly the offensive line coach at Miami and Alabama before landing in Eugene.
The Griz are in the middle of a resurrection in Hauck’s second season of his second stint. He led the Griz to an 80-17 mark between 2003 and 2009, including appearances in the 2004, 2008 and 2009 national title games.
The Griz are 63-35 since, making the playoffs four times in the last nine seasons. Hauck went 47-6 against the Big Sky Conference, claiming at least a share of the league title in all seven seasons. The Griz are 45-27 in league play this decade and have not officially won a conference title since Hauck’s final season of his first go-round.
The Griz played at Oregon in 2005, falling 47-14 and losing a few key players during the game. During his first tenure at Montana, Hauck went 1-2 in FBS games, beating Idaho 41-28 in 2003, losing at Oregon in 2005 and losing at Iowa 41-7 the following season.
Because the Griz draw so well, the financial necessity of playing an FBS team is not as necessary as many of its peers, although the $625,000 Montana nets on Saturday will be among the biggest payouts collected by an FCS team this fall. Montana has played three FBS teams this decade: UM lost 42-16 at Tennessee in 2011 in Robin Pflugrad’s second and final season at the helm; the Griz fell 17-12 at Wyoming in Mick Delaney’s final season in 2014; and Montana was on the wrong side of a 63-7 shellacking at No. 7 Washington in 2017.
Montana’s next FBS game following Saturday is at Washington for the opener of the 2021 season. That is the only other solidified FBS matchup for the Grizzlies.
“Scheduling is hard, especially with how our league is,” Hauck said. “With our league having so many members, there aren’t any FCS teams in the Western U.S. that aren’t in our league for the most part. Scheduling in our league is difficult. You have to make it work somehow to get regional games and not have to travel to the East Coast to play games.”
As far as the Griz players are concerned, the opportunity to play a team that has finished in the Top 10 of the FBS in nine of the last 20 seasons is one they are welcoming.
“I’m very excited for this week and I think the whole team is,” UM junior wide receiver Samori Toure said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to play one of the best schools in the nation. We are all ready to go and show what we have.
“I guess you could say there’s a little extra something there because I’m from there and I was in their back yard and they overlooked me,” the Portland native continued. “I guess there’s a little something extra there but really, I’m looking forward to go out there and competing with my teammates.”
Location: Eugene, Oregon
Founded: 1876. The public flagship research university sits on a 295-acre campus along the Willamette River. The university had a medical school from 1887 until 1974, when the Portland campus merged with Willamette University’s medical school, eventually becoming the independent Oregon Health & Science University. Oregon still offers highly regarded in law, architecture, business, education and journalism.
Enrollment: 22,760, including 19,122 undergraduates and an endowment of $912.5 million.
Stadium: Autzen Stadium, constructed in 1967 before an expansion and renovation in 2002 that gave the venue its current capacity of 54,000. In seven home games last season, Oregon averaged 53,016 fans per game.
“I think we have a pretty focused group so I don’t have much in terms of advice when it comes to focus,” Hauck said. “I would be pretty startled if focus was an issue for our guys. But you do have to have a noise plan when you go on the road to places where it’s loud. And Oregon is a loud place. We will have to deal with the communication issues the best we can.”
The Coach: Mario Cristobal, second full season at Oregon. The former All-Big East offensive tackle won national titles at Miami in 1989 and 1991. After a brief pro football career, Cristobal returned to his alma mater as a graduate assistant on Butch Davis’ staff from 1998 until 2000. The Hurricanes won the national title in 2001.
Cristobal’s first full-time job came coaching tight ends, then offensive line at Rutgers between 2001 and 2003. He coached tight ends at Miami in 2004 and 2005, then coached the ‘Canes’ offensive line in 2006. Cristobal earned his first head coaching job at Florida International in 2007, posting a 27-47 mark with two bowl appearances in six seasons.
Between 2013 and 2016, Cristobal coached offensive line on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. The Crimson Tide advanced to the College Football Playoff three years in a row, claiming the national title in 2014 and 2016.
“Coach has been around a long time and he’s coached a lot of ball a lot of places,” Hauck said. “The way they are playing up front on offense I think is the direct reflection of him. I think this is the best front I’ve seen out of an Oregon group and that starts with the head coach.
Cristobal joined Willie Taggart’s staff at Oregon as the offensive line coach and associate head coach in 2017. By December of that year, Taggart left for the head job at Florida State and Cristobal coached the Ducks in the Las Vegas Bowl. Last season, Oregon went 9-4, including a 7-6 win over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl.
THE OFFENSE – Players to watch
Justin Herbert, quarterback, 6-6, 237, senior — Herbert broke in the starting lineup as a true freshman in 2016, passing Dakota Prukop, a former graduate transfer from Montana State, on the depth chart. He threw for 1,936 yards , 19 touchdowns and four interceptions that rookie season, affirming his stock as a rising NFL prospect.
“They also have a quarterback who many people thought would’ve been the top player picked in the NFL Draft had he chosen to enter and didn’t,” Hauck said. “They are a handful.”
Herbert threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns last season. He also rushed for 166 yards and two scores. In his career, he has completed 63 percent of his passes for 7,622 yards, 69 touchdowns and 17 picks.
“Other than he’s big, fast, strong-armed and smart?” Hauck questioned when he was asked about Herbert’s strengths. “There’s a reason Justin is as highly regarded as he is. He’s a great player. A to Z, he doesn’t do too much wrong. He’s not only talented. He understands what they are trying to do on offense. He also understands what defenses are trying to do. He’s a talented, veteran player.”
Herbert, who’s father Mark ran track at Montana in the 1980s, threw for 242 yards and a touchdown in Oregon’s 27-21 loss to Auburn at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Offensive line — All-American senior right tackle Calvin Throckmorton (6-foot-5, 309 pounds) is working on a streak of 38 straight starts and is considered one of the top NFL offensive line prospects in the country. Senior left guard Shane Lemieux (6-4, 316) is a returning All-American with 40 straight starts and counting. Center Jake Hanson (6-5, 295) is a returning All-Pac 12 player who also harbors NFL aspirations.
Sophomore left tackle Penei Sewell, a 6-foot-6, 325-pound behemoth who was ranked as the No. 1 player in the state of Utah as a prep senior, was a Freshman All-American last season. Senior right guard Dallas Warmack (6-2, 310) joined the Ducks as a graduate transfer in 2017, redshirted, then started all 13 games last fall.
Together, the unit makes up one of the most talented, intimidating and experienced offensive lines in the country.
“A lot of us on our staff have coached against Oregon many, many times including me and the one thing that stands out to me about this Oregon team is how good their offensive line is,” Hauck said. “I saw a statistic somewhere, and I’m not sure if it’s accurate or not, but these guys have the most experienced offensive line that has taken the field in college football in the last 15 years in terms of number of starts.
“I’ve seen a lot of Oregon teams over the years and to me, this is the best offensive line I’ve seen in an Oregon uniform.”
C.J. Verdell, running back, 5-9, 210, sophomore — Verdell was the main benefactor to operating behind that powerful offensive line last season. The Ducks ranked fourth in the Pac 12 in rushing yards per game, averaging 179.4 yards per contest and 4.4 yards per carry. Oregon scored a conference-high rushing touchdowns.
Verdell was one of seven Pac 12 players to rush for more than 1,000 yards last season. As a freshman, he finished with 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 5.0 yards per carry along the way. Verdell rushed for more than 100 yards against Portland State, Stanford, Cal, Washington and Oregon State.
Verdell finished with an Oregon freshmen record 187 yards and five total touchdowns against OSU. The former 4-star recruit was the only player in the FBS to rush for more than 1,000 yards and accumulate more than 300 yards receiving.
This season, he has rushed 14 times for 76 yards and one touchdown against Auburn. He finished with 11 carries for 60 yards and a touchdown against Nevada.
THE DEFENSE – Players to watch
Troy Dye, inside linebacker, 6-4, 226, senior — The towering, athletic inside linebacker is the only player in the FBS who has led his team in tackles each of the last three seasons. He entered his senior year with 313 tackles, 121 away from becoming the all-time leader in UO history.
“The Dye kid will probably be the all-time leading tackler by the time the season is over with,” Hauck said. “He is quite a player.”
The Norco, California product has started 35 straight games and counting. He rolled up 91 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and an interception as a true freshman in 2016. He followed that with 107 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and a pick in his sophomore seasons. Last season, Dye piled up 115 tackles, eight tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception.
Jevon Holland, safety, 6-1, 196, sophomore — Rated as the No.2 athlete in the entire state of California and the No. 9 safety in the country coming out of Bishop O’Dowd High, Holland put that talent to full use as a true freshman.
Holland ranked second in the Pac 12 and 10th in the nation with five interceptions last season. He was second among FBS freshmen in picks. The total was the most by a Duck since 2014 and the most by a UO freshman since Jairus Byrd in 2006.
He also finished with 44 tackles, 22 solo tackles and six passes defended. He has eight tackles and a tackle for loss this season. He returned a punt 81 yards against Auburn to set up a score.
Jordon Scott, defensive tackle, 6-1, 322, junior — The 2017 Freshman All-American earned All-Pac 12 honors as a sophomore after finishing last season as one of the top 10 defensive linemen in terms of game grade provided by Pro Football Focus.
He followed up a freshman season that saw him notch 34 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks by totaling 29 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He is currently projected as one of the top 100 NFL prospects in college football.
Thomas Graham, Jr., cornerback, 5-11, 197, junior — Graham finished second in the Pac 12 and third nationally with 18 pass breakups. He notched six of those against Arizona State alone.
Graham also had three interceptions, including a pick he returned for a touchdown against Oregon State. He enters his junior season with 124 total tackles, including 5.5 for loss. He has seven career interceptions, including one against Auburn.
Hauck said Montana is well-aware of Oregon’s talent on defense even if Herbert and the Ducks’ defense grab most of the headlines.
“They have great speed off the edge. They have guys who can cover. They have done a nice job recruiting. They have a lot of team speed on defense which makes up for mistakes when they make them,” Hauck said. “Certainly, they’ve played really well to date. The Auburn film is pretty eye opening. They got after them. They have good ability on defense.”