Game Recap

Griz roll Central Washington

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MISSOULA, Montana — On the first defensive snap of this unusual spring football season, Marcus Welnel screamed into the backfield, flattening Central Washington running back Tyler Flanagan, a freshman taking starter snaps because All-American Michael Roots abruptly left CWU earlier this week.

The play was the first of a string made by a voracious group of Grizzlies playing their first football game in 485 days.

From a group of aggressive, Montana-made linebackers to the reemergence of one of the Treasure State’s favorite playmakers to the debut of a talented gunslinger who prepped on the Bobcat side of the Continental Divide, a Montana football team harboring lofty expectations next fall showed just why in a spring Saturday matinee against the visiting Division II Wildcats.

Led by a suddenly fearsome linebacker core, a dominant special teams effort, a display of newfound depth on both sides of the ball and a collective hard edge amongst the roster that continues to sharpen, the Griz walloped the Wildcats, rolling to a 59-3 win at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

“It was great to be out there and have a good opponent like them,” UM third-year head coach Bobby Hauck, who won for the 97th time during his two tenures with the Griz. “That team was fundamentally sound and they do a bunch of good things.

“It was awesome to line up with your brothers and your teammates and go to battle with someone other than each other and ourselves. I enjoyed watching our guys go. Fun to be out there, fun to win and football is a great game. I’m glad we played it.”

The Griz defense, led by Braxton Hill, Patrick O’Connell (58) and Robby Hauck (17) make a play in the Central Washington backfield/ by Blake Hempstead

Welnel along with his fellow in-state comrade linebackers Jace Lewis, Braxton Hill and Patrick O’Connell all made plays in the Central backfield early on as the new-look Grizzlies answered many questions that have lingered since a senior class headlined by Buck Buchanan Award winner Dante Olson and future CFL quarterback Dalton Sneed.

Cam Humphrey, the fifth-year senior tasked with taking over for Sneed under center, shook off some early rust to throw three touchdowns before giving way to Kris Brown. The talented 6-foot-4, 215-pound redshirt freshman looked exceptional on his touchdown drives, one ending in a 17-yard touchdown run and the other ending in a 17-yard touchdown strike to Keelan White, the first of the Canadian wide receiver’s career.

Malik Flowers, an All-American returner the last two seasons, set up Montana’s first touchdown with a 51-yard return to open the game. Gabe Sulser, a former multi-sport state champion from Billings, rolled up all 162 of his all-purpose yards in the first half, to help UM own the kicking game.

And the Griz flew around from start to finish, out-gaining CWU 529-178 yards, earning 28 first downs to Central’s 10 and converting 10-of-17 third downs to CWU’s 2-of-15 rate.

“Our return game was good, and the special teams were dominant,” Hauck said. “When you don’t have a guy who’s kicked, kicked off, punted, or punt returned going into a game, it’s a little unsettling. But our guys did a really nice job.

“We got a chance to play a lot of younger guys in not only the kicking and punting game in the third and fourth quarter, but on offense and defense. My initial impression was it was pretty good.”

Montana senior quarterback Cam Humphrey/ by Jason Bacaj

Humphrey took some time to settle in and mostly struggled when the Griz got into the red-zone. But his back-shoulder throw to Sulser for a 13-yard touchdown helped him find a rhythm on the way to throwing three scores. That first strike also put UM up 17-3.

With 30 seconds left in the first half, Humphrey hit Sulser twice, one for 33 yards and the other for 14 yards before capping the 75-yard drive with a five-yard touchdown run to give UM a 24-3 lead at the break.

“We really controlled the game and the field position in the first half and we weren’t up by as much as maybe as we could’ve been,” Hauck said. “That’s how it goes sometime. We have to do a better job of finishing in the end-zone.”

Humphrey hit talented senior wide receiver Samuel Akem for a 23-yard touchdown out of the halftime locker room. And less than five minutes later, Humphrey checked down to Nick Ostmo for his third touchdown to push the lead to 38-3.

After the final touchdown drive under Humphrey’s direction, Hauck inserted Brown. He proceeded to lead consecutive touchdown drives, giving the Griz an insurmountable 52-3 lead.

“I just want to see them execute,” Hauck said on evaluating the QB play. “Whatever the play-call is, execute the best they can. Get us in the right checks in the run game and when it’s their turn in the run game, gain us some yards and throw the ball where it should be thrown based on coverage. It was solid.”

The quarterbacks took center stage, but the reemergence of Sulser, an electric playmaker out of Billings Senior who was one of the bigger in-state recruits landed by the Griz over the last decade, is a source of great optimism within the program and around the Treasure State.

Gabe Sulser caught a 13-yard touchdown to put Montana up 17-3 in the second quarter/ by Jason Bacaj

Sulser’s 46-yard punt return near the end of the first quarter should’ve set up a touchdown if not for an errant fourth down throw by Humphrey targeting Mitch Roberts. His touchdown catch with 6:16 in the second quarter pushed UM’s lead to two score.

“Honestly, I think all of us, it’s been so since we played a game and we were all chomping at the bit,” Sulser said. “We were ready to go and excited to play.

Even after the Griz started rolling in the second and third strings, Montana continued to pour it on. After the first touchdown pass of Brown’s career that was also the first touchdown catch of White’s career, the Griz forced another punt (returned by All-Big Sky safety Robby Hauck).

Flowers almost scored the fifth touchdown of his career on his second career offensive touch, taking an end around for what was initially called a touchdown. After officials ruled Flowers down at the one-yard line. Xavier Harris, a talented true freshman from Oxnard, California, capped his college debut by capping the scoring with his first career touchdown plunge.

“It was so great just going out there and playing,” O’Connell said. “That’s why we are here. It felt great to get after it. I do like spring games at the end of spring ball. That’s the reason we are here: to play games.”

Montana had a missed field goal. The Griz had to overcome the loss of All-American running back Marcus Knight stifled UM’s run game. The red-zone offense for the first two and a half quarters left something to be desired.

Montana redshirt freshman quarterback Kris Brown/ by Jason Bacaj

Yet the feeling coming out of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, pounding of a Division II opponent on an atypical date aside, could be considered expectant.

“It was a helluva good time out there today,” Hauck said. “I enjoyed every minute of it.”

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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