Montana ventures into the second era under Bobby Hauck with a collection of unknowns looming. Can Hauck recapture the success that helped him coach the Griz to seven straight Big Sky Conference championships between 2003 and 2009? Can the Grizzlies reattain the national reputation of one of college football’s most storied programs?
With UM’s season opener fast approaching on Saturday night, unknowns about this Griz team remain as well. How will Montana perform in their debut under Hauck some seven years and eight months since he last coached a game at his alma mater? Will the Griz be able to go toe-to-toe with the No. 13 team in the nation, the Panthers of Northern Iowa?
It also remains to be seen what Montana has in its arsenal. Dalton Sneed seemed to capture the starting quarterback job out of fall camp but uncertainty at the spot remains after the departure of Freshman All-American Gresch Jensen in the off-season. The offensive line has a collection of issues both because of the graduation of four seniors and because of a rash of injuries during fall camp. The secondary is in a similarly thin situation, as is the secondary, at least when it comes to proven depth.
But the Grizzlies also have the element of surprise on their side with UNI coming to town. It remains a mystery to almost everyone the offensive and defensive schemes UM will employ, what the health status of star linebacker Josh Buss might be and a collection of other unknowns.
Montana and Northern Iowa kick off at 7 p.m. under the Washington-Grizzly Stadium lights on Saturday. Here’s a quick look at Northern Iowa.
Location: Cedar Falls, Iowa
Founded: 1876. The former State College of Iowa offers more than 90 majors. Per U.S. News and World Report, UNI is one of the top public regional universities in the Midwest.
Enrollment: In 2017, the university had an enrollment of 11,907.
Notable alumni: Chuck Grassley, U.S. senator; Kurt Warner, retired quarterback; Phyllis Somerville, actress
Stadium: The UNI-Dome opened in 1976 and holds 16,324. Playing in a dome helps negate the impact of cold winter temperatures in Cedar Falls, where the average high temperature in December is just 30 degrees. The Panthers have an all-time record at the stadium of 208-55-1.
THE TEAM (8-5d overall, 6-2 MVC in 2017)
The Coach: Mark Farley is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the FCS, and will be entering his 18th season coaching the Panthers in the fall of 2018. All that time has come with a number of successes. In Farley’s time at the helm, UNI has gone 134-67, won or shared seven Missouri Valley conference titles, and advanced to the FCS quarterfinals four times and the title game once. The Panthers lost that game, 21-16 to Appalachian State in 2005. Farley also holds the record for most all-time conference wins in the MVC, with a record of 82-38.
Farley, from Waukon, Iowa, played at UNI from 1983 to 1986. “The Walk-on from Waukon” started the last three of those years at inside linebacker, leading the team in tackles each year. From 1984-1986, he was named first-team all-conference every year, and was the Gateway Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 1985. He started his coaching career as a grad assistant at UNI immediately after his playing career ended, and since then has spent every year on the staff at his alma mater, except for a four-year stint coaching the linebackers at the University of Kansas. He came back to Northern Iowa as the head coach in 2001 and has been there ever since.
THE OFFENSE – Players to watch
Eli Dunne, QB, 6’5”, 238, senior — Despite growing up in the basketball hotbed of Grinnell, Iowa (where he holds the high school’s career rebounding record), Dunne went the football route for college, and Northern Iowa fans are happy that he did. Dunne backed up Aaron Bailey in 2015 and split time with him in 2016 before breaking out in 2017. He played in 12 games, completing 62.5 percent of his passes for 2,704 yards and 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
That completion percentage was the best at Northern Iowa since 2007, and the 26 touchdowns were fourth in school history. His best game was probably against Monmouth in the FCS playoffs, when he finished 18-of-26 for 260 yards and four touchdowns — just in the first half. Dunne doesn’t pose much of a threat at all with his legs, but expect him to make all the throws accurately and on time.
Briley Moore, TE, 6’3”, 242, junior — With receiver Daurice Fountain gone to the NFL, Moore should be the top receiving threat for the Panthers this year. The tight end was named to the Missouri Valley Conference pre-season first team this year after catching 38 passes for 494 yards last year. That included a 99-yard day against a Big Sky Conference foe in Cal Poly, and his reception total was the most by a UNI tight end in at least a decade.
With two more years of eligibility left, Moore has the opportunity to establish himself as one of the best tight ends in Northern Iowa history.
THE DEFENSE – Players to watch
Rickey Neal Jr., OLB, 6’1”, 241, senior — A young, inexperienced Montana offensive line will not get an easy start to the season with Neal coming to town on Saturday. He was the best pass rusher in the MVC last year as a defensive end, racking up a league-leading 9.5 sacks. He was moved to outside linebacker in the offseason, but Neal will still be a terror on the pass rush. In fact, it could make him much harder to double-team, which is probably Montana’s best chance at containing him Saturday. He was named first-team preseason All-MVC, and was on STATS’ third team preseason All-America.
Both Keenan Curran and coach Bobby Hauck pointed out in Montana’s press conference Monday that Neal is the kind of player who pops on tape, and if they can’t keep him out of the backfield, Saturday could be miserable for the Grizzlies.
Xavior Williams, CB, 5’11”, 175, sophomore — UNI’s other representative on the MVC preseason all-conference team was sophomore defensive back Williams, who got a spot on the second team. As a redshirt freshman last year, he played in all 13 games for the Panthers, starting the last eight at corner. Williams is a ballhawk who recorded four interceptions and eight pass breakups last year, both second on the team behind the now-graduated Elijah Campbell.
Regardless of whether Dalton Sneed or Cam Humphrey starts at quarterback for Montana, they’ll have to watch out for Williams.
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