MISSOULA — As Dalton Sneed’s strike zipped into Keenan Curran’s hands for the first touchdown of Montana’s spring football game, the Grizzlies’ new quarterback soaked in the atmosphere.
A tumultuous career that has seen the fourth-year junior rise to the starting quarterback at UNLV as a freshman only to lose his spot, transfer to Fort Scott Community College and end up with the coach that initially recruited him to Las Vegas in Hauck. The long, winding road meant playing in front of ambivalent fan bases for most of his career.
On an afternoon filled with sunshine and temperatures that crept toward 60 degrees, Sneed basked in the adoration of the 6,128 in attendance. His 16-yard laser into a tight window to the sure-handed Curran capped an 11-play, 65-yard drive to open the action.
The first of six touchdowns the Griz offense would score set the table for Sneed’s efficient day. It also affirmed to Sneed he made the right choice transferring to Montana to play for first-year head coach Bobby Hauck despite the presence of incumbent sophomore Gresch Jensen.
“Today was awesome, electric,” Sneed said. “Coming from past schools I’ve been at, there’s no fan base and Montana really has that. We have the whole city of Missoula behind us. Fans from far and wide come to watch us play and see what we’ve been working on. It was really awesome today.
“I’m just grateful for the chance to compete.”
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound dual-threat completed 13 of his 16 passing attempts for 136 yards and the touchdown to Curran. Montana ran 75 plays for 439 yards, including 362 yards through the air. UM ran the ball 40 times for 77 yards, averaging 1.9 yards per carry. Sneed rushed four times for six yards, a deceiving number because the officials blew the play dead any time a Griz defender got close to the junior signal caller.
“We had good work,” Hauck said. “It was a great opportunity for our guys to get out here and play in front of some people. We have a really young football team. We have seven seniors. The more our guys get to play at live college speed, the better we are going to be.
“You always push against the health of your team with that so it was good to get another set of plays in without anything major going in injury-wise. The other thing I thought was good was our veteran players took charge, this morning went through it and took charge, which is a good sign.”
Sneed’s longest completion, a short throw that resulted in a 34-yard gain by ultra speedy junior Jerry Louie-McGee, set up Rey Green’s three-yard touchdown burst to give the No. 1 offense two scores in the first eight minutes of action. The first of two Green touchdowns also capped an eight-play, 90-yard drive. Sneed’s 14-yard completion to senior Caleb Hill, a converted quarterback playing tight end, brought the first quarter to an end and set up Cody McCombs’ two-yard touchdown run.
“The offense is just going to get better and better,” Sneed said. “From Day 1, we have been trying to get better and better and that really showed for us as an offense today.
“We made tremendous progress from the beginning of spring. We got better each practice. We did really well today. Go back and watch the film and we will have some things to work on.”
Jensen, a 6-foot-1, 215-pounder from Auburn, Washington who threw for 2,531 yards and 20 touchdowns in eight games as UM’s starting quarterback last season, struggled initially behind an offensive line featuring reserves. Jensen went 3-and-out his first two possessions, taking touch sacks from sophomore Randy Rodriguez and redshirt freshman Braydon Deming to end his second turn and set up the second of five booming punts from senior Eric Williams.
During his third turn, Jensen appeared to not see redshirt freshman safety Michael McGinnis underneath as he threw into a window. McGinnis snared the first of three interceptions on the day.
“Turnovers are a relevant thing on both sides of the ball when it comes to winning and losing so the offense needs to take care of it and the defense needs to come up with it once in awhile to help the cause,” Hauck said. “We are improving on protecting it. Defensively, we have to continue to get them.”
Behind the first-team offensive line, Jensen looked like the strong-armed player that earned FCS Freshman All-American honors last fall. He whistled a perfectly thrown pass for a 50-yard touchdown to sophomore Samori Toure for the fourth touchdown of the first half.
Three plays later, Sneed committed his first and only mistake of the day, under-throwing a deep ball and allowing sophomore cornerback Gavin Crow to make a leaping pick. It was the first possession with Sneed at QB that did not end with a touchdown.
Jensen then turned the tables and became the quarterback who capitalized on the turnover. Jensen roped a throw to Toure on a hitch route for a short gain that Toure used a sweet move to turn into a 25-yard gain. On the next play, Jensen under-threw redshirt sophomore Sammy Akem but the 6-foot-4 jumping jack leaped and used his long arms to rip the ball from Kobey Eaton, a converted wide receiver himself.
“I had drawn two penalties but they weren’t catches so I wanted to make a play, get us down the field and get us in scoring position,” Akem said.
The 36-yard gain set up Green’s two-yard touchdown run, capped a seven-play, 83-yard drive and gave the offensive 35 points with three minutes to go in the second 10-minute quarter. Jensen finished 6-of-10 for 103 yards and the long bomb to Toure, who led all receivers with four catches for 94 yards. Akem finished with three catches for 51 yards.
“Gresch, Dalton are both really smart guys,” Akem said. “They both know how to throw the ball. They are leaders. I like them both.”
In the second half, redshirt freshman Tanner Wilson took every snap at quarterback as Montana used a running clock. Hardly any Grizzlies’ expected to be a consistent contributor saw any action.
Wilson, a 6-foot-2 Polson product, struggled in his first significant reps in front of a crowd as a Griz. He had a miscommunication with Toure, who ran a deep rout, instead throwing a hitch that Eaton stepped in front of, intercepted and raced for a 15-yard touchdown.
“It doesn’t matter who you are playing against or with, frankly, it’s about going out and playing,” Hauck said. “Live college football reps are hard to come by so every one of them is valuable.”
Wilson’s first completion was a dump off to Terron Moses, who turned it into a 20-yard gain to close the third quarter. His third completion came when Wilson hit classmate Malik Flowers for a 49-yard gain to the defense’s 24-yard line. Five plays later, including a sack and a separate tackle for loss by Deming, Wilson hit Curran for his second score of the day, this one on a post corner route that resulted in a 17-yard touchdown, the second of the day for the senior.
“I think today was a step in the right direction,” Curran said. “Our quarterback-receiver connection was good, running backs were running the ball hard, hitting the holes and o-line was doing their jobs and I got to show love to the tight ends, too,” Curran said. “Not satisfied at all but step in the right direction.”
Deming, a redshirt freshman from Billings West, had four tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss. Senior Shayne Cochran and redshirt freshman Marcus Welnel had seven tackles each to lead the defensive from their inside linebacker spots. Rodriguez, sophomore Andrew Harris, and senior David Shaw each had sacks while redshirt freshmen ends Cole Rosling and Devin Maua had talkces for loss.
Montana’s attention now turns to the off-season. Hauck has talked all spring about the major holes on his roster. The Griz have a few open scholarships entering the summer that could be used for transfers on the offensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
“We have a long way to go, have some liabilities,” said Hauck, who won 80 games and seven Big Sky titles in seven seasons at Montana between 2003 and 2009. “I think we are a couple of years away from being a complete football team like we have in the past. But I like our football team because they are completive and tough and they want it.
“The coaches have spring recruiting and I have some touring and reacquainting with some of my old friends around the state to do. I’m really looking forward to it.”
The players will dive into a strength and speed training program leading up to finals week before beginning the summer session complete with player-run practices beginning May 29.
“It falls on the quarterback a lot,” Sneed said. “Gresch and I will get the team together. And all the seniors, we have Keenan in the wide receiver group, you haven’t seen (running back) Jeremy (Calhoun) a lot since he’s injured but he’s another senior. We will get everybody who is going to be our leaders and get the players going. Once you get the players involved and the players run the practices through the leaders, there’s no better team than can run itself.”
Photos by Lacey Young, for Skyline Sports. All Rights Reserved.