MISSOULA, Montana — A year ago at this time, Montana offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach was manufacturing brand new plays in an effort to somehow spark a Griz run game operating behind a makeshift offensive line.
Using a fake pitch quarterback counter play that Rosenbach designed earlier in the week, Montana rushed for 351 yards in a 41-34 win over Sacramento State. In UM’s previous three games, the Griz rushed for 332 yards combined, struggling to convert short-yardage situations or run between the tackles really at all.
In that Sac State win, UM quarterback Dalton Sneed went off, rushing for 206 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yard scoring jaunt. That rushing total was the third-highest in a single game by a quarterback in Big Sky Conference history.
But during a three-game losing streak that consumed October, the Griz averaged just 127 rushing yards per game. The Griz rushed for 266 yards in a 57-14 win over hapless Southern Utah and totaled 191 yards on the ground in a 46-27 thrashing of rival Idaho in Moscow.
The Griz only managed 100 yards on 39 carries (2.6 yards per carry) in a 29-25 loss to Montana State that kept the Griz out of the playoffs for the third straight season.
The inability to run the ball and the challenge of protecting Sneed in the pocket fell largely on an offensive line featuring four first-time starters and eventually saw nine different players start in a variety of different combinations.
Redshirt freshman Colton Keintz, a former walk-on who only started one varsity season at Missoula Big Sky, started 11 games at right tackle. Cody Meyer, a former walk-on who started the first part of the season, suffered what amounted to a career-ending shoulder injury.
After that injury, the Griz tried redshirt Skyler Martin, sophomore Dylan Eickmeyer and true freshman Cole Sain at various interior offensive line positions. By the second month of the season, Montana’s coaches moved Cy Sirmon from the defensive line to start at right guard. Meanwhile, junior Angel Villanueva lost his starting job at left guard and the line never quite found solidification.
This season, Conlan Beaver is back at left tackle for his second straight season anchoring that side of the line. Keintz now has competition with junior Dylan Cook, a former walk-on who made his first career start two weeks ago in UM’s 47-27 win over Monmouth.
Villanueva lost almost 40 pounds in the off-season and has solidified UM’s starting left guard position. The still 301-pounder is lining up between Beaver and Sirmon, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound fifth-year senior who switched to center in the off-season.
Junior college transfer Moses Mallory has taken over the right guard spot. The 6-foot-3, 350-pound mauler has added an element of physicality the Griz offensive line has been missing.
“Aside from the physical growth, we’ve grown in will power,” Sirmon said in an interview on October 2. “We were a ragtag group last year, a bunch of misfits just kind of mashed together trying to figure something out. All of those misfits came back with a passion. We all got bigger. We got some help with Big Mo coming in bringing size and intensity. That’s the biggest thing – we make sure we bring intensity with everything we do.”
Last season, Hauck consistently talked about his teams deficiencies along the offensive front, mostly pointing to the inexperience, lack of mass and youth that defined the unit. Now the starting lineup includes two seniors in Villanueva and Sirmon along with three more juniors.
“I think we are getting better,” Hauck said. “I think we have improved throughout the off-season and…I wouldn’t say each week because we didn’t play very well at Oregon. But we’ve improved through the season so far. Through the first half of the season, it’s been better.”
“I think they are playing with more confidence because they have a better understanding of the offense,” Hauck said. “We are going to keep playing a lot of bodies in that group. Everybody gives us a little bit something different, which helps.”
Sirmon’s switch to center has steadied the entire unit. The smart, savvy senior came to Montana as a linebacker out of Wenatchee, Washington. He switched to defensive end in 2017 and to offensive line in 2018. Now he’s found his perfect fit in the middle of the Griz offense.
“I like how cerebral it is,” said Sirmon, who last played center his freshman year of high school. “I like thinking football Xs & Os and getting to meet with coaches a little extra, thinking about what we are going to do to game plan guys. I like the responsibility of it and I like snapping the ball.”
Villanueva battled with his physical conditioning and with an ailing back last season after starting for most of his freshman and sophomore seasons. In the off-season, he cut the weight and regained his athleticism. The 6-foot-5, 301-pounder is thriving in his final season.
“I think he’s ahead of where he was a year ago certainly and he’s worked awfully hard,” Hauck said. “I am glad to see some of that coming to fruition for him.”
“If I had to do a ‘30 for 30’ on any one on the team, I would choose Angel Villanueva,” Sirmon said. “He’s a fighter and he has battled through so many injuries and he has lost so much weight. He was benched. He started as a freshman and was benched his junior year because of things he was battling through and then never losing sight of the final goal, coming back and playing this year, he’s invaluable.
“I trust him with my life and I know when I make calls, he’s got him. I feel very comfortable in the middle with those guys.”
Sirmon hosted Mallory on his official visit to Montana in the off-season. The former Eastern Arizona standout earned a 3-star recruiting rating and acknowledgement as the No. 8 junior college guard in the nation. He held offers from West Virginia, Jacksonville State, North Alabama, Weber State, Tennessee State, Stephen F Austin, and Morehead State before choosing Montana.
“I was his host and when he came here, I knew he meant business,” Sirmon said. “He’s a competitive guy. I love having him on my right side. He brings a lot of muscle to the table when you have to get those crucial short-yardage blocks. I love playing with Mo.”
Mallory has a penchant for pancaking opposing defensive linemen. He also has a sly way of taking his time getting off the pile, making sure to only use his hands and arms when absolutely necessary. The stout, powerful guard has added new pop with his ability to get off the ball.
“He’s learned the offense first of all,” Hauck said. “You have to know where you are going before you can play well. Any time you are new, it’s hard to assimilate immediately into it and know what direction you are supposed to go on every call. The more he gets comfortable with the offense, the more he’s going to play.”
The improvements have been apparent. The Griz are averaging 46 points per game in four wins over FCS opponents. Montana enters Saturday’s matchup against Idaho State rushing for 161.2 yards per game but that number jumps to 199.2 yards per outing if you take away the impact rushing for just eight yards against Oregon.
Sneed, who rushed for a team-high 675 yards last season, no longer has to carry the brunt of the rushing load. Marcus Knight is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and 79 yards per game. He rushed for 89 yards and three touchdowns in a 61-17 win over North Alabama, 148 yards and a score against Monmouth and 91 yards and a touchdown in last week’s 45-20 win at No. 4 UC Davis.
The Griz rushed for 260 yards against Davis, a season-high. Over the last three games against FCS opponents, the Griz are averaging 238.3 yards per game on the ground.
“It’s nice to see the hard work manifest himself in some way,” Sirmon said. “Rushing is important and we want to be as good as we can. If we run the ball, we can do a lot of things. We still have a lot to work on. Every game, we cut stuff up and we think, ‘if only we got that block, we could hit it.’ Rushing comes down to intensity and wanting to get that push. We always want to get better but it’s been a big improvement over last year.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Right Reserved.