Bobby Hauck will make his return to the Big Sky Conference Saturday as Montana hosts Sacramento State at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
It’s the Big Sky opener for both teams. Anticipation swirls for a Griz team trying to snap an unprecedented two-year postseason drought against a Hornets squad that won seven games last year and just missed the first FCS playoff berth in school history.
“I think conference games are bigger, no matter who you play in the non-conference schedule,” Hauck said. “Our goal is to win every game, but I think conference games are big, because we’re playing for something in terms of a championship.”
Hauck dominated the conference in his previous stint at Montana, winning seven consecutive Big Sky titles from 2003 to 2009. This year, the Grizzlies are 2-1 heading into conference, with good wins over Northern Iowa and Drake tempered by a blown lead and a loss to Western Illinois last week.
“We were hoping to be 3-0 coming out of that one,” Hauck said. “It was a tough trip. We probably played well enough to win it, and didn’t quite get it done. We’ll get back and correct this week and do our thing.”
The Western Illinois game was also Montana’s first time away from Washington-Grizzly this season. They’ll return to take on a Sac State team that also went 2-1 in a three-game non-conference schedule. The Hornets, after finishing 7-4 and narrowly missing the playoffs last year, routed St. Francis (IL) to start the year, 55-7. The Hornets then lost to Hauck’s former employer San Diego State, 28-14, and came back to beat fellow Big Sky team Northern Colorado in a non-conference matchup, 28-25.
“There’s a lot of rough edges, there’s so many things that we need to improve on, but I was very proud of the way the guys hung in there,” Sac State head coach Jody Sears said. “They stayed committed to one another and kept playing and kept digging for four quarters to finally pull that game out last week. That’s exactly what’s going to have to happen this week, that same mentality, that same grind, that same consistency of execution.”
On the field, the Hornets will be a tough matchup for the Griz. Their strengths match up well with Montana’s weaknesses. That starts on defense, where Sacramento State led the conference in sacks last year. Senior George Obinna, who had 8.5 sacks in earning first-team All-Big Sky honors at defensive, and junior Dariyn Choates, who had five as a defensive tackle, both returned for the Hornets but have been slowed by injury early this season. In their place, sophomore Elijah Chambers has racked up 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss already.
Those three could torment a Montana offensive line that’s surrendered five sacks through three games. That doesn’t sound like many, but quarterback Dalton Sneed has been constantly on the run, using his quickness to escape from pressure on a number of other plays.
He’ll have to do the same this week to move the ball for Montana.
“I think that the offensive line is just consecutively getting better,” Sneed said. “They’re getting better each week. Cy Sirmon got his first start at guard last week and hasn’t played offensive line, and he did a terrific job. So, we’re only going to get better up front. They have a great D-line, we’ll have our hands full with them, so we’ll see how it goes.”
The offense might be important for Montana, because the Sac State offense is the best the Griz have faced thus far. Hauck recruited senior Hornets quarterback Kevin Thomson to UNLV a few years ago. At Monday’s press conference, he noted that Thomson will be the fourth consecutive fifth-year senior quarterback the Griz have faced to start the season.
Thomson will likely be the best of the bunch. A dual-threat, he keys Sac State’s read-heavy run-pass option offense, and is very capable of hurting the Grizzlies with his legs Saturday.
“I don’t think (Thomson) gets credit for being as good a thrower as he is, because he is a good athlete,” Hauck said. “He likes to run it, he sees the read zone stuff. He doesn’t make too many mistakes on the read stuff. It’s fun to see a guy you know and watch him on film … and see how he’s evolved as a player. I’m proud of him for becoming the player he is.”
Sac State’s offensive coordinator is Paul Wulff, the Big Sky Coach of the year in 2001, 2004 and 2005 as the head coach at Eastern Washington. Sears was the defensive coordinator on that staff.
Thomson also has downfield weapons in senior receivers Andre Lindsey and Jaelin Ratliff. The speedsters don’t catch many passes — both Jerry Louie-McGee (20) and Sammy Akem (18) have more catches by themselves this year than Lindsey and Ratliff do combined (16) — but the ones they do catch are killers. Both receivers are averaging over 20 yards a catch this year. They finished 1-2 in the FCS in yards per catch last season.
For a Montana secondary that gave up two long touchdown catches to start the game last week, that could be a concern.
On the Montana side, last year’s leading rusher senior Jeremy Calhoun is once again eligible after serving a three-game suspension, but wasn’t listed on the two-deep depth chart this week. Redshirt freshman Adam Eastwood and senior Alijah Lee were once again the two running backs listed.
The other news is that starting tight end Colin Bingham appears to be out after he, as well, was absent from the two-deep. Bingham took a hit early in last week’s game and didn’t return. Redshirt freshman Bryson Deming will get his first start in Bingham’s place, with fellow redshirt freshman Matt Rensvold as the backup.
Montana navigated its challenging non-conference as well as could be expected under a new coaching staff. Now the battle for the Big Sky begins on Saturday against a Sac State team that Hauck and his troops are not underestimating.
“They are well coached, they are physically mature so they hold up physically and their scheme is great,” Hauck said. “They are solid in everything they do – offense, defense and special teams. And then they have good athletes. They are a complete team.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.