Big Sky Conference

Griz Notebook – Eags, Montana flip in polls; Harris carries UM run game

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Eastern Washington’s win over Montana in Cheney on Saturday shook up the national polls.

The Grizzlies were No. 4 and EWU was No. 6 in the STATS FCS poll heading into Saturday’s game. That flipped Monday morning as the undefeated Eagles moved up to No. 4 and the Grizzlies landed at No. 6 after their first loss.

For a while before kickoff in Cheney, it looked like the winner could potentially ascend into the top two.

In the afternoon games, No. 1 Sam Houston State trailed rival Stephen F. Austin 20-6 heading into the fourth quarter before pulling out a 21-20 win.

No. 3 James Madison trailed New Hampshire 21-17 heading to the fourth before pulling out a 23-21 win.

And No. 5 North Dakota State trailed rival North Dakota 7-6 at halftime before pulling out a 16-10 win in a game in which the Bison threw for 57 yards.

If those teams had lost, No. 2 South Dakota State, which smoked Dixie State 55-7, presumably would have ascended to No. 1, with the Montana-EWU winner after the Jackrabbits in second.

Instead, Eastern Washington moved up one spot to No. 4, indicating how voters weighed the Eagles’ impressive win against SHSU, JMU and NDSU’s struggles.

Montana dropped behind Eastern Washington but ahead of undefeated UC Davis, which came in at No. 7. The interesting question was if the Griz would fall behind Montana State, which came in at No. 10 in this week’s poll after easily handling Northern Colorado to move to 4-1, including 4-0 against FCS teams.

FIELD-GOAL FOLLY

Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best had plenty of players to praise in the post-game press conference. He made sure to reserve some for kicker Jackson Cleaver, who came into the game having attempted only one field goal for the Eagles, a 28-yarder in the spring against Northern Arizona.

“I do know one of the biggest stars in the game was a backup kicker who wears No. 60, he’s left-footed, Jackson Cleaver,” Best said of his kicker, who was named the Big Sky Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday morning. “Hit multiple extra points, two field goals, one to put it to a six-point win.”

Aaron Best

Replacing starting kicker Seth Harrison, Cleaver didn’t miss a kick Saturday, making two extra points and two field goals. As Best pointed out, his last kick, a 30-yard field goal that made it 34-28 with a minute, 21 seconds to play, was crucial, forcing Montana to get a touchdown on its last, doomed drive.

On the other side, Montana’s only field-goal attempt, a 48-yard try by Kevin Macias in the third quarter, was blocked by Eastern’s Caleb Davis. It could have given Montana a 24-10 lead after Marcus Welnel’s interception of Eric Barriere. Instead, EWU went on to outscore the Grizzlies 24 to 7 the rest of the way.

“That was a head coaching mistake,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said about the blocked field goal. “I didn’t get the play call communicated to everybody. We didn’t have everybody run the same play, so that’s my fault.”

Macias transferred to Montana from Arizona State late in fall camp. The redshirt senior is 15 of 15 on extra points and 3 of 6 on field goals. All three of his makes are from 26 yards or closer, while both of his misses before Saturday came from 50 yards.

LAST MAN STANDING

Montana lost All-American running back Marcus Knight to injury in the spring. Nick Ostmo went down in fall camp. That meant the running back room was already thin, and when Akron transfer Isiah Childs didn’t play Saturday, it meant the Grizzlies’ only option was freshman Xavier Harris.

Montana running back Xavier Harris/ by Jason Bacaj

Harris himself was coming back from an injury suffered in the season opener against Washington. The Griz coaches kept him on a pitch count last week against Cal Poly and wanted to do the same thing against Eastern Washington — but with no other option, Harris carried the ball 18 times for a career-high 124 yards and a touchdown.

The lightning-fast back, listed at 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds, was a 3-star recruit coming out of Oxnard, California. He had 70 yards against both Washington and Cal Poly before his big game on Saturday.

He’s averaging 6.29 yards per carry so far, 19th in the country and just behind Montana State’s all-conference star Isaiah Ifanse.

WORKING HARD

The amount of plays Montana’s defense faced last week against Cal Poly was a minor note, given that the Grizzlies won 39-7 despite running just 67 plays to the Mustangs’ 91 — and that the Griz returned an interception, a kickoff and a blocked punt for a touchdown.

Against Eastern Washington, the discrepancy was much more troubling. The Eagles ran 87 plays to Montana’s 69. Part of that is because the Grizzlies again returned a kickoff for a touchdown, essentially giving EWU an extra possession.

But another part of it is that Montana’s offense had trouble staying on the field. The Grizzlies had just one drive of double-digit plays, a 13-play, 77-yard march in the first half, and no other drives longer than eight plays. Eastern Washington had three drives of 10 plays or longer, plus another of nine.

Montana’s Alex Gubner (99) and Jace Lewis gang tackle against Eastern Washington / by Jason Bacaj

A full seven of Montana’s 14 possessions consisted of three plays or fewer.

And as the Eagles ran more and more plays, they started to adjust to Montana’s constant blitzes.

In the first half, Montana sacked Barriere four times, mitigating the impact of the Eagles’ big plays and holding them to 10 points.

In the second half, EWU started to pick up the exotic blitzes coming out of Montana’s 3-3-5 base defense, which rely heavily on creating chaos and confusion to get to the quarterback.

Barriere was sacked just once after halftime.

Montana’s defense also started to get tired. On one fourth-quarter touchdown drive, EWU ran for 45 yards on four consecutive plays, just two yards fewer than the 47 rushing yards the Griz gave up on 37 attempts against Cal Poly the week before.

The opposition has run more plays than Montana in three of the Grizzlies’ four games this year. Altogether, the Griz are facing a deficit of 41 plays in four games.

NOTES

Montana’s redshirt freshman defensive end Jacob McGourin, who graduated from Cheney High School, had a sack in his hometown, bringing down Barriere in the fourth quarter. … Eastern Washington’s Dennis Merritt ran for 103 yards on 23 carries, the first 100-yard rushing game given up by the Griz defense since the 2019 Brawl of the Wild, when Montana State’s Ifanse (171) and Logan Jones (121) both surpassed the mark….Griz senior wide receiver Samuel Akem caught his 25th career touchdown, moving him past Joe Douglass and into a tie for fifth in school history. Marc Mariani has the school record with 29 TD catches.

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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