Game Preview

FIRST LOOK: Griz return to playoffs with first-ever matchup against SE Louisiana

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MISSOULA, Montana — When Bobby Hauck turns on the Southeastern Louisiana film, he sees a team that resembles Big Sky Conference co-champion Sacramento State spliced in with a collection of former high-level FBS players who have meshed nicely with the Lions’ roster.

When Frank Scelfo turns on Montana’s film, Hauck’s team does not resemble any his SLU team has played so far this season.

On Saturday, Hauck and the sixth-seeded Grizzlies take on No. 24 Southeastern Louisiana in Missoula in the second round of the FCS Playoffs. The matchup is the first ever between the two schools.

SLU is 8-4 this season after going 6-3 in the Southland Conference to earn an at-large bid. The Lions are a fast, athletic team with talented skill players and an array of top-level athletes, something to be expected for a team with 20 transfer players, including 12 that started their careers in the FBS. The roster features players formerly of LSU, Arkansas, Alabama, Wisconsin, Fresno State, Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky.

“Probably Sac State would be the closest in terms of style and personnel,” Hauck said on Monday as he prepares for his 19th playoff game as the head coach at his alma mater. “They are good up front and they are really skilled. Sac would be the best comparison. Maybe it’s the green unis.”

The Griz lost 49-22 at Sac State earlier this season. The Hornets are the No. 4 seed in the playoff bracket. Sac hosts Austin Peay on Saturday evening.

Montana is 9-3 this season but coming off a surprising and brutal 48-14 loss to rival Montana State in Bozeman two weeks ago. Despite losing to the Bobcats by the widest margin of victory in more than 50 years, the Griz still earned a first-round bye for the first time since 2013 and are in the postseason for the first time since 2015.

Montana running back Marcus Knight (21) vs Montana State in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

“We just went back to work,” Hauck said when asked about rebounding from UM’s fourth straight rivalry game loss. “When or lose, that’s what you do: you get ready. With our health being as bad as it was and is, the ability to not play on Saturday was great for us. It would’ve been hard to limp out there last Saturday.”

The Grizzlies’ explosive run-pass option-based offense has taken a hit in recent weeks with the ankle injury to senior quarterback Dalton Sneed and a foot injury to junior wide receiver Sammy Akem that has the All-Big Sky pass catcher doubtful for the third straight game.

But a defense that has routed opponents when it gets rolling led by Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Dante Olson and an offensive attack that still features smooth running back Marcus Knight, flossy wide receiver Samori Toure and elusive senior Jerry Louie-McGee still has the visiting Lions on high alert.

“They don’t really remind me of anyone,” Scelfo, SLU’s second-year head coach, said on Tuesday. “Schematically, there is some RPO teams we played, some odd-man front guys we played. But Montana is very talented.”

Scelfo said that Sneed reminds him of Central Arkansas sophomore quarterback Breylin Smith, a second-team All-Southland selection who threw for 3,506 yards and 31 touchdowns. Scelfo said his team has seen “like talent” to players like Toure and Louie-McGee.

Houston Baptist sophomore middle linebacker Brennan Young rolled up 124 tackles. Scelfo compared him to Olson, although that might be selling the 6-foot-3, 245-pound for the Griz tackling machine short.

Montana safeties Robby Hauck (17) and Gavin Robertson (2) celebrating in 2019/by Brooks Nuanez

“We find guys at McNeese and Nicholls State and we teach our guys that way,” Scelfo said.

Saturday marks the first time Montana and SLU have played. But Hauck has experience against Southland Conference teams in his career. The Griz beat Sam Houston State 38-14 in Hauck’s third game as UM’s head coach in 2003. In 2004, the Griz returned the home-and-home, losing 41-29 to SHSU in Huntsville, Texas. Montana got revenge, beating the Bearkats 34-13 during their march to the national championship game. Montana also ousted Norwestern State earlier on that postseason with a 56-7 win in the first round in Missoula.

Hauck’s Grizzlies beat McNeese State 31-6 in the 2006 playoffs. Montana beat Texas State 31-13 in the first round of the 2008 playoffs. And the Griz rolled Stephen F. Austin 51-0 in the second round of the 2009 playoffs.

Hauck said SLU’s wide-open offense reminds him of those Southland teams of the past, although “everybody is running all this RPO stuff now.”

Opponent aside, the playoffs are back in Missoula for the first time in four years. Hauck will participate in his first FCS playoff game since a 23-21 loss to Villanova in the 2009 national championship game.

“It’s surely exciting to have playoff football back in Missoula,” Hauck said. “I think our fans need to rise up this weekend and playoff football is always fun. We need a great Saturday in the stadium.”

QUICK HITS

Location: Hammond, Louisiana

Nickname: Lions

Founded: In 1925 by Linus A. Sims as Hammond Junior College. In 1928, the school starting going by Southeastern Louisiana College and by 1970, the school received university status. 

Enrollment: The university has 14,308 students, including 14,298 undergraduates and an endowment of $35 million.

Stadium: Strawberry Stadium is a 7,408-seat football stadium originally constructed in 1937 and renovated four times since, including most recently in 2018. The stadium also hosts St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic High School football, previously hosted Hammond High School football, and has been the site of numerous play-off games involving other schools from Tangipahoa Parish.

SELA averaged 7,002 in five home games during the regular season and drew 4,173 for a first-round playoff game against Villanova last week.

The Coach

Frank Scelfo, second season at Southeastern Louisiana

Scelfo is a football lifer who’s family has been heavily involved in the game, particularly in the Southeast, for decades.

Scelfo played baseball at Louisiana-Monroe from 1977 until 1981. In 1982, he became the head coach at Prairie View Academy in Bastrop, Louisiana. He coached high school football from 1982 until 1995, his final gigs coming in Texas, including at Houston-area powerhouse North Shore High.

In 1996, he became the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator at Tulane in New Orleans under his younger brother, Chris Scelfo. Chris was the head coach at Tulane from 1998 until 2006. From 1999 until 2006, Greg coached quarterbacks and served as the Green Wave’s offensive coordinator. During that time, Scelfo mentored future NFL quarterbacks like Shaun King, Patrick Ramsey, J.P. Losman and Lester Ricard.

From 2007 until 2009, Frank Scelfo coached on Derek Dooley’s staff at Louisiana Tech before Dooley took the head job at Tennessee. During his two-year stint coaching quarterbacks at Arizona in 2010 and 2011, Scelfo coached future Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles and NFL journeyman Tom Savage.

During his time as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ quarterbacks coach from 2013 until 2015, Scelfo coached Blake Bortles.

Chris Scelfo coached tight ends for the Atlanta Falcons from 2008 until 2014 and is currently slated to coach for the DC Defenders of the XFL beginning in 2020.

“Coach Scelfo has a long history with just about everything,” Hauck said. “That’s a football family down there.”

Frank Scelfo earned Southland Conference Coach of the Year honors after leading the Lions to their third FCS playoff berth in school history.

“I think Coach Scelfo and his staff do a really nice job of coaching their team,” Hauck said. “They seem to be a team that plans to attack what you do well and take advantage of you rather than being a ‘we do what we do’ type outfit, which I think you have to know what you are doing to be able to do it that way. That seems to be their system.”

THE OFFENSE — Players to Watch

Chason Virgil, quarterback, 6-1, 200, senior — Virgil, a native of Mesquite, Texas, started 14 games during two seasons at Fresno State, throwing for 2,843 yards and 19 touchdowns. In 2016, he became the third freshman in program history to throw for more than 2,000 yards in a single season.

After the hiring of Jeff Tedford, Virgil wanted a fresh start. He landed at SLU. Last season, he started all 11 games, leading the Southland with 3,034 yards. He threw 17 touchdowns and 13 picks.

This season, Virgil has been even better. He’s thrown for 3,335 yards and 21 touchdowns on the way to third-team All-Southland honors. He threw for more than 300 yards in six straight games and eight overall. Last week, Virgil threw for a career-high 474 yards and three touchdowns in SLU’s 45-44 win over No. 8 Villanova.  

“We are familiar with Virgil because he was at Fresno State and a bunch of us were coaching in the Mountain West, so we know him up close and personal,” Hauck said. “He does a nice job. Obviously, that game last week, he was on the money. He runs it pretty well but he’s a good thrower. He’s a veteran player. He knows what the heck he’s doing.

“He’s better now than he was at Fresno so he’s certainly got some coaching and whoever is doing it has done a nice job.”

Cole Kelley, quarterback, 6-7, 260, junior — The former 4-star recruit and Arkansas transfer has bee a change of pace quarterback who can operate as a Wildcat-style QB while still hurting defenses with his arm.

He has rushed for 273 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He has also completed 66-of-90 passes (73.3 percent) for 785 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Kelley, who played in 18 games and started six during his two seasons with the Razorbacks, has combined with Virgil to throw for 4,140 yards (345 per game) and 31 touchdowns this season.

“The big kid, the Arkansas transfer, they use him a little bit more to run it,” Hauck said. “He’s a big guy. He’s tall but he’s big. He has been a little bit more of a runner. He has 10 (rushing) touchdowns on the season, leads them in touchdowns and he played in the first half last week, didn’t play in the second half.

“He’s a guy who they like to put the ball in his hands in short-yardage situations and down in the goal-line area.”

During his time in Fayetteville, Kelley threw for 1,483 yards and 13 touchdowns while adding five rushing touchdowns. He threw three touchdowns in a 38-37 comeback win over Ole Miss and he scored the game-winning touchdown in a 39-38 win over Coastal Carolina.

Coming out of Teurlings Catholic High School in Lafayette, Kelley was ranked as the No. 2 quarterback in the state of Louisiana. He threw for 6,183 yards and 55 touchdowns his final two prep seasons.

Devonte Williams, running back/punt returner, 5-10, 180, senior— One person close to the Montana football program described Williams as a player who would be one of the most explosive players in the Big Sky Conference. The diverse, multi-skilled running back and returner’s show that big-play ability.

The former Indiana transfer — he ranks sixth in Hoosier history with 1,511 kickoff return yards and as a Big Ten All-Freshman selection after leading the conference in return yards his rookie year — was a first-team All-Southland punt returner last season. As a junior, he averaged 14.2 yards per punt return while gaining 44w yards from scrimmage and scoring four total touchdowns.

This season, he earned third-team All-Southland honors after piling up 1,109 yards from scrimmage and scoring 11 total touchdowns. He has rushed for 565 yards and eight scores while catching 58 passes for 544 yards and three scores. He is one of five Lions with at least 48 catches this season.

Despite returning just nine punts this season, he also earned third-team all-conference honors as a returner. He took a punt 61 yards to the house for a touchdown.

THE DEFENSE — Players to Watch

Alex Ramos, linebacker, 6-2, 230, junior — Last season, the active and aggressive linebacker earned Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year at Hartnell College by rolling up 84 tackles and 13 sacks. The All-California junior college talent also had 85 tackles and six sacks as a freshman.

This season, he is leading SLU with 74 tackles, including 39 solo stops. He has 10 tackles for loss and six sacks along with a forced fumble.

The Lions are giving up 25.7 points per game and 398.8 yards of total offense per outing.

“They are multiple on defense and I think they scheme to beat you,” Hauck said when asked about SLU’s offense. “Some weeks, the are an odd front, some weeks they are even, sometimes they lean to zone, sometimes, they lean to more man. They scout you, choose how to play with you and they go with it.”

Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund, defensive line, 6-2, 250, senior — The native ofDartmouth, Nova Scotia is as far away from home as any player on the Lions’ roster. And the Canadian is making the most of his experience.

The honor roll student and Southland All-Academic first-team selection switched from linebacker to the defensive line before last season and has thrived ever since.

Adeyemi-Berglund earned honorable mention all-league honors last season after racking up 63 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and six sacks last season. This season, he was a second-team All-Southland selection after piling up 16 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks among his 59 total tackles.

“I didn’t realize that number of tackles for loss,” Hauck said. “That’s a big number. Any time defensively, you can get people behind schedule, it’s a benefit to your defense. If you win on first down, get losses, you get to third and long, you are better.”

Xavier Lewis, STAR, 6-0, 200, senior — Lewis has been a strong tackler who has made plays in opposing backfields and plays on the ball.

This season, the second-team All-Southland selection has 59 tackles, 37 solo tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. He has forced two fumbles and snared three interceptions from his Star position, a hybrid defensive back outside linebacker spot that puts him in a position to make plays.

The former four-star recruit was ranked as the No. 13 cornerback in the nation coming out of East St. John High in LaPlace, Louisiana. He earned honorable mention all-league honors as a junior last season.

Photos courtesy of Southeast Louisiana Athletics 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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