Big Sky Conference

Griz hit stride, rip Portland State in final spring game


MISSOULA, Montana — The Griz scored 107 points and rolled up 1,039 yards of total offense over the last two weeks, showing glimpses of the explosive potential of an offense looking for a new starter under center.

The University of Montana football team allowed just 22 first downs, 2.6 yards per rush, 471 total yards and largely smothered its two spring opponents with an aggressive, rotation and blitz-heavy defense with new-found depth that showed glimpses of the Griz returning to dominance on the defensive side of the ball, a trademark of Montana’s for so long.

UM had a variety of impact plays on special teams, whether it was Malik Flowers’ long return on the first kickoff in 485 days that set up Montana’s first touchdown of the spring against Central Washington or his blocked punt in the first half of UM’s second spring game against Portland State on Saturday.

Gabe Sulser showed full health for the first time since 2018, emerging as UM’s new punt returner after the graduation of all-time great Jerry Louie-McGee. The Billings Senior product also solidified himself as a real threat as a wide receiver, leading the Griz in catches (8) and yards (145) in two games while catching a touchdown in each win.

Nick Ostmo and Xavier Harris, a sophomore and a freshman, respectively, proved they can spearhead Montana’s reemerging rushing attack in the absence of Marcus Knight, a junior preseason All-American who was lost for the foreseeable future because of a serious knee injury.

And the Griz played with an effort and exuberance reminiscent of Bobby Hauck’s first tenure at Montana, a seven-season stretch that saw the Grizzlies win 80 of the 97 games Hauck coached, seven consecutive Big Sky Conference championships and three bids to FCS national title games.

“Their front seven will carry that team a long way,” Portland State head coach Bruce Barnum said following his team’s 48-7 loss at the hands of the reemerging Grizzlies on Saturday afternoon in Missoula. “I have been in this conference for many moons. And that defense, the Griz are back. I don’t care what you say.

“I think we are pretty good in some spots. But that football team? That’s the Griz of old.”

Despite praise from a man who was the 2015 National Coach of the Year in his first year as Portland State’ s head coach, the Griz still have many strides yet to be made.

Over the last two weeks, Montana had a hard time capitalizing on most of its big special teams plays, leaving multiple scoring opportunities on the board.

The battle to serve as UM’s starting placekicker remains wide open after a missed 25-yard field goal and a pair of missed extra points from Ole Miss transfer Jack Cooper — miscues certainly irked Hauck, a coach who is is widely regarded as one of the best special teams coaches in all of college football.

Montana wide receiver Gabe Sulser (7) runs after the catch to a 46-yard touchdown/by Brooks Nuanez

The red-zone offense left something to be desired each of the last two Saturdays despite Montana’s gaudy point totals. The Griz turned the ball over on downs twice and also had a red-zone turnover, each miscue coming after special teams plays that should’ve been a scoring spark.

Many left Washington-Grizzly Stadium following UM’s 41-point win over Portland State wondering if Cam Humphrey getting knocked out midway through the third quarter opened up the door further for a serious quarterback battle entering the fall of 2021.

And the fact that the Grizzlies were at the same time dominant while still leaving room for improvement might be the biggest point of optimism for the Griz entering yet another stretch of what will seem like the never-ending off-season leading up UM’s season opener at Washington on September 4 to open the 2021 fall season.

“We are really pleased with our effort today and how this win went,” Montana fourth-year head coach Bobby Hauck said following his 98th win at his alma mater. “We had two goals this spring. The first one was to win, certainly. And the second one was to send a message that we have a good football team here in Missoula and University of Montana. And I think that message has been sent.

“I like our team. I’m fired up for the next couple months getting ready for the fall. And I can’t wait for September.”

Montana finished first two games in 485 days with a pair of wins. But it was not without casualties. Knight tore his ACL before the first game against CWU, a 59-3 victory. During Saturday’s action against Portland State, Humphrey was visibly knocked unconscious on a hit midway through the third quarter before needing serious help to walk off the field. He did not return, giving way to redshirt freshman Kris Brown, who only threw four passes over the last 27 minutes of the game.

Montana offensive lineman Colton Keintz (76) and AJ Forbes (57) reach block vs. Portland State/by Brooks Nuanez

On the first play of the fourth quarter, sophomore center A.J. Forbes appeared to suffer a serious left knee injury, also needing the help of two trainers to be carried off the field.

Harris, a lightning quick slasher from Oxnard, California, had one of the great performances by a Griz true freshman tailback, rushing for 109 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 carries. But he too had to get helped off the field after a red-zone carry ended with a violent strike by a pair of PSU defenders early in the fourth quarter. Harris left the game with 12:30 left and did not return.

Still, taking the field again after such a long break was beneficial for the Grizzlies, Hauck said.

“I think that team (Central Washington) we played last week was well coached, well drilled, sound and we got after them,” Hauck said. “I feel the same way about Portland State. It was a good performance by our team. And it was a good performance by our defense.

Saturday, Harris got Montana’s scoring barrage started with a 28-yard touchdown rip in which he showed tremendous vision, cut back to the wide side of the field and beat all the Portland State defenders to the pylon.

That began what could only be considered as one of Montana’s best days running the ball since Hauck returned to lead his alma mater before the 2018 season. Behind  a reshuffled offensive line that featured converted right tackle Colton Keintz playing both guard spots, Skyler Martin starting at left guard before taking over at center when Forbes went down and Moses Mallory rotating in at both guard spots, the Griz piled up 248 yards on 45 carries, averaging 5.5 per rush.

“It all started with the offensive line,” Ostmo, a Portland native who finished with 82 yards on 16 carries, said in his UM press conference debut. “We emphasized running all week and the O-line just got a lot of push, got off the ball fast just like we wanted them to. That made it really easy for us to run the ball.”

Montana running back Nick Ostmo (26) breaks toward the endzone vs. Portland State/by Brook Nuanez

The rushing yard total is the third-highest since Hauck returned to Montana and the sixth 200-yard effort since the beginning of 2018.

“I told my team, ‘They are going to punch you in the throat.’ I said, ‘You are going to go into Missoula and this isn’t the XFL where they throw the ball and everyone is pretty and there are lights and fireworks.’ I said, ‘You are going into a bar fight, a saloon, these guys are going to whip your ass.’ So you better respond. We had a hard time.”

Humphrey had a more steady first half than against Central Washington thanks in part to throwing a laser to a streaking Sulser that the former Montana Gatorade Player of the Year from Billings took 54 yards for his second receiving touchdown of the spring. That score came less than five minutes after Harris’ second touchdown of the game and his third score of the spring, giving Montana a 20-0 lead (Jack Cooper missed the PAT after the Sulser score) with 5:12 left in the first half.

Montana had a chance to slam the door shut shortly after. The Griz forced a PSU 3-and-out, bringing on the Viking punt team. Flowers, who’s taken three kickoffs to the house during his first two years at Montana, showed his evolution as a player, coming off the edge to block the PSU punt and give the hosts possession on the Portland State 15-yard line.

But on the very next play, Humphrey failed to recognize PSU’s Cover 2 pass coverage, throwing directly into a guarded receiver. David Joseph picked off the pass, helping PSU stop the bleeding for a moment.

“You want to capitalize but the big thing is the field position game, flipping the field position and making the other team have long fields, allowing your team to have a short field,” Hauck said.

Portland State’s fourth down try near midfield was turned away when Joe Babros and Marcus Welnel stuffed PSU quarterback Davis Alexander, giving the Griz one more first-half possession with 52 seconds left.

Portland State quarterback Davis Alexander (6) throws vs. Montana/by Brooks Nuanez

Humphrey, who went 18-of-25 for 229 yards in the first half, fired to Mitch Roberts on the sideline for a first down, then threw another strikes, this one resulting a 15-yard touchdown for Griz senior wide receiver Samuel Akem, his second of the spring and 22nd of his career.

Montana took a 27-0 lead into halftime and it might’ve felt more lopsided than that for the visitors after the Vikings only gained five first-half first downs.

After halftime, Sulser ripped off a 56-yard punt return (his second return of at least 50 yards this spring) to put Montana in position at the PSU 32-yard line. But that drive also stalled out as Brown’s quarterback keeper on fourth down was stuffed for no gain.

For the first time all day, Portland State showed a sign of life following the stop. Alexander, a four-year starter and one of the toughest quarterbacks in the Big Sky Conference, found tight end Mataio Talalemotu up the Griz sideline for a 73-yard touchdown to put PSU on the board with 11:55 left in the third quarter.

Following Humphrey getting knocked out of the game, the Griz went to the ground game almost exclusively. UM ran the ball 12 consecutive times on a 73-yard drive capped by Ostmo’s first of three touchdowns on the day from 11 yards out to put UM up 34-7.

Montana got another possession quickly as UM senior linebacker Jace Lewis, the preseason Big Sky Defensive MVP before the 2020 season was called off, intercepted Alexander and returned the pick to the PSU 10. Two plays later, Ostmo, a 225-pound Portland native, plunged in from six yards out and the Griz rout was on.

“Last week, we knocked the rust off early and coming into this game, I think everyone was pretty fired up to get going,” Lewis said. “Coach always gets us going. We were excited to go into this game. There were some mistakes we made that we still need to clean up a little bit. But it’s a good direction going into the summer going into the fall.”

The Grizzlies ended the third quarter with another fourth down stop of Alexander and the Viking offense. With Brown at the controls under center, Montana again marched down the field. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder from Bozeman completed all three of his pass attempts on a nine-play, 54-yard drive capped by Ostmo’s eight-yard touchdown.

Montana linebacker Jace Lewis (34) tackles a Portland State ball carrier in the backfield/by Brooks Nuanez

But that final Griz touchdown drive also included Forbes and Harris both getting carried off the field.

“A guy could sprain his ankle at any time so the next guy has to be ready to go,” Hauck said. “I think that attitude on our team is prevalent. The idea is that if you are in the game, we expect you to make plays. I think our guys did a good job of that. And they usually do.”

The final eight minutes of action included not much of it as many of the 4,569 in attendance started trickling out of the stadium. The final tale of the tape had Montana out-gaining Portland State 511-293 including earning 28 first downs to PSU’s 12.

Alexander finished 15-of-25 for 192 yards and a touchdown but was under constant duress, including taking a big hit from Lewis midway through the fourth quarter on what ended up being his last drive of the game.

The Vikings managed just 100 rushing yards on 35 attempts as the Griz held Barnum’s usually stout run game to 2.9 per carry. UM gave up 2.6 per carry during the spring.

“They are good,” Barnum said. “I’ve seen good and bad. I’m four times your age or at least three times your age and I’ve been in the game. And I’ve seen some really good teams and some really bad teams. That’s a good football team. Their offense, they have weapons. We couldn’t stop them.

“We were trying man, zone. I went to our defensive coordinator and told him to sneak 12 (players) out there, it’s a spring game (laughs). They are strong. Quote me: I called up Washington a few years ago and told them they are going to be in the college football playoff team. The Griz will be a playoff team next year in our conference.”

Montana running back Nick Ostmo (26) celebrates a touchdown with Griz offensive players/by Brooks Nuanez

The Grizzlies showed great progress in many areas, a good sign for a team that won 10 games and advanced to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs in Hauck’s second season back in 2019. Yet Montana still has plenty of work to do before taking the field again.

“We have a lot to improve on. We haven’t played the perfect game yet but we are going to keep trying,” Hauck said. “We wanted to win both games, one at a time. And then we wanted to send a message that we have a good football team. And I think we did that. We will get back to work and get ready for the fall. That’s the one constant: you always work to get better.

“It will go fast. It always does. The way I view it, we are on the clock. We have to get ready.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

Portland State wide receiver Mataio Talalemotu (81) catches a pass down the sideline vs. Montana/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana running back Nick Ostmo (26) looks to create in the second level vs. Portland State/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana defensive tackle Alex Gubner (99) rushes Portland State quarterback Davis Alexander (6)/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana wide receiver Ryan Simpson (4) breaks into the open field after a catch vs. Portland State/by Brooks Nuanez
Portland State running back Malik Walker (27) gets wrapped up by Montana defenders/by Brooks Nuanez
Portland State defensive back David Joseph (33) intercepts Montana quarterback Cam Humphrey’s pass in the endzone/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana tight end Bryson Deming (87) in the open field after a catch vs. Portland State/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana quarterback Cam Humphrey (2) celebrates with running back Xavier Harris (13)/by Blake Hempstead
Portland State wide receiver Mataio Talalemotu (81) breaks free for a 76-yard touchdown/by Blake Hempstead
Montana defensive end Jacob McGourin (92) tackles Portland State running back Bishop Mitchell ( 22)/by Blake Hempstead

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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