Analysis

Grizzlies emerge from tumultuous season on brink of playoff berth

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Bob Stitt maintains that his Montana Grizzlies have responded when their backs are against the wall all season. Because of a few key injuries, it seems Montana has been in that position for almost the entire duration of Stitt’s first season at the helm.

As the No. 17 Grizzlies enter Saturday’s showdown with Montana State, they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even after a 1-2 start, wins with three quarterbacks at the helm and losses to a few teams that aren’t used to beating Montana, the Griz can punch a playoff ticket with a victory over the rival Bobcats in Bozeman on Saturday. A rivalry win would be Montana’s seventh victory this season.

Montana defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak/by Brooks Nuanez

It’s been an up and down of a season as I’ve ever been a part of and to still be in the hunt has been really cool because there’s been times this year where we absolutely should’ve not been in the hunt,” Montana defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak, an assistant at Montana since 2003, said on Monday. “We have a lot riding on this game. It’s not just another game. It’s the best rivalry in the country. It’s Montana State.”

Montana carries the momentum of a wild win in Pocatello as well as a decimation of the three-time reigning Big Sky champions into Stitt’s first rivalry game. Two weeks ago, Idaho State lined up for a game-winning field goal in overtime but the snap went awry. Montana recovered and senior Eric Johnson raced the length of the field for a game-winning touchdown in the 33-27 UM win. Last week, Montana forced seven turnovers and notched six sacks in a 57-16 win over Eastern Washington.

“We talked about it a few weeks ago that we needed to make a run down the stretch and all the things that we went through, the highs and the lows — we got the rug pulled out from under us multiple times and we knew that was going to make us stronger and we would be able to deal with anything thrown at us,” Stitt said. “We’ve been able to do that. Take that as a positive and move into these games and find a way, any way to win the ball game. That’s all we are worried about. We are not looking for style points. Any way we can win this ball game, we are going to find it.”

In the off-season, Mick Delaney stepped down as the head coach at Montana after three seasons and two playoff appearances. A national search commenced. Names like Beau Baldwin, Brent Pease, and Bobby Hauck rose to the top. Baldwin is the head coach at Eastern Washington, a team that has handled Montana over the last seasons, ending UM’s 2014 campaign in the second round of the FCS playoffs. Pease played quarterback at Montana and has risen through the coaching ranks, currently serving as the wide receivers coach at Washington. Hauck led Montana to seven straight Big Sky titles and an 80-17 record that included appearances in three FCS national title games in 2004, 2008 and 2009 before leaving to become the head coach at UNLV.

UM head coach Bob Stitt/by Brooks Nuanez

UM head coach Bob Stitt/by Brooks Nuanez

Stitt came out of the woodwork to become the 36th coach in program history. The longtime small-school coach spent the last 15 years building Colorado School of Mines from a stringent engineering school with no football tradition to a high-caliber academic institution with a contending football team in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

Throughout Stitt’s first months at the job, all eyes were on the implementation of an offense that came surrounded by mystique and folklore. Stitt received praise from a collection of top-level coaches like West Virginia Dana Holgerson, Washington State head coach Mike Leach, Hal Mumme, the inventor of the Air Raid offense made popular by Texas Tech.

“He’s a great innovator,” Mumme told Mark Schlabach for this (See Here) ESPN.com story printed on August 29. “We copied a couple things he did. He’s a brilliant guy. They’d never won any games at Colorado School of Mines before his arrival. I’ve always admired coaches who could do more with less. He’s definitely in that category.”

Many wondered how Stitt’s up-tempo offense would translate to Division I. Specifically; all eyes were on the battle at quarterback to succeed three-time All-Big Sky selection Jordan Johnson. Stitt seemed to have options with Idaho junior transfer Chad Chalich, sophomore Makena Simis, Hawaii redshirt freshman transfer Eric Prater and true freshman Willy Pflug all competing with junior Brady Gustafson. The 6-foot-7 Gustafson, a Billings West product, established himself as the front-runner during spring drills and never relinquished the reigns.

UM quarterback Brady Gustafson vs. NDSU/by Brooks Nuanez

UM quarterback Brady Gustafson vs. NDSU/by Brooks Nuanez

Gustafson put forth one of the most impressive debuts by a quarterback in Griz history as Montana shocked the FCS world in Stitt’s first game. In a contest televised on ESPN to open the college football season a week early, Stitt’s offense was on full display against the four-time defending national champions from North Dakota State. The Grizzlies ran 92 plays, piled up 544 yards of total offense and scored its go-ahead points on a Joey Counts touchdown run with two seconds to play to cap a 16-play, 80-yard drive and secure a 38-35 victory over the top-ranked Bison.

Gustafson threw for 434 yards and three touchdowns, including a 38-yard scoring toss to senior Ben Roberts and a 62-yard catch and run by junior Ellis Henderson.

The following week, the Grizzlies fell back to earth. Gustafson threw three interceptions and Cal Poly’s triple option offense bludgeoned the middle of Montana’s defensive line as the Mustangs pulled a 20-19 upset in Missoula. After a bye, Montana took a cross-country to Lynchburg, Virginia to play a nationally ranked Liberty squad.

Behind a shaky offensive line, Gustafson’s lack of mobility proved to be a disadvantage as the Flames put relentless pressure, eventually notching seven sacks. Liberty jumped out to 14-0 lead before a first-quarter hit to Gustafson’s lower led knocked him out of the game. Chalich came off the bench to throw a touchdown before halftime but Montana’s hole was too deep as the Griz fell 31-21 to fall to 1-2. Gustafson would not play for UM’s first six Big Sky Conference games.

Just a month into Stitt’s first season and Montana already had its backs against the wall. Stitt and the offensive staff adjusted the offense to feature more short and screen passes. Chalish threw 47 times per game but for just 5.4 yards per completion as Montana used a fierce pass rush and dominant defense to secure a 23-14 win over Northern Arizona and a 27-13 win at UC Davis.

UM running back Treshawn Favors carries the ball with his back against a horde of EWU defenders/by Evan Frost

UM running back Treshawn Favors carries the ball with his back against a hoard of EWU defenders/by Evan Frost

In the second quarter against Weber State, Chalich threw an interception that Cordero Dixon returned 30 yards for a touchdown before he took a blow to his lower leg (foot) that essentially ended his season. Simis took over with his team trailing 21-14 at halftime.

Simis’ 44-yard touchdown pass to Roberts with less than five minutes to play helped sent the game into overtime. But a fumble by the third-string quarterback on the first possession of the extra period led to a game-winning field goal by Weber’s Josh Kealamakia as the Wildcats won in Missoula for the first time since 1987.

With a second bye to prepare, Simis entered a matchup with North Dakota with a better grasp and Stitt installed a tailored game plan. Simis tied a program record with six touchdown passes against a battered UND defense in a 42-16 Montana win.

The following week in Portland, Simis threw three first-quarter interceptions in a 35-16 loss to Portland State, the Vikings’ first over Montana since 2004. Simis again looked vulnerable in the overtime win at ISU.

Gustafson returned to practice a few weeks back but his return to full strength was slower than expected. What the coaching staff hoped would be six weeks turned into eight weeks.

UM wide receiver Keenan Curran gives for extra yardage vs. EWU/by Evan Frost

UM wide receiver Keenan Curran gives for extra yardage vs. EWU/by Evan Frost

Montana faced a must-win in Missoula against No. 10 Eastern Washington last weekend. Gustafson returned and Montana regained the form of its debut against NDSU. The Griz defense forced seven turnovers and notched six sacks as Montana avalanched the Eagles, 57-16.

Now Montana once again faces a game with crucial implications, a situation UM has become used to in Stitt’s first season.

“Our backs were against the wall again and there’s been a few times we had to win a game,” Stitt said. “By the way we did win the Eastern Washington game, we are in pretty good shape. We are right back to if we take care of business this week, we may be able to move forward for another week. It’s survival mode. We want to extend this thing.”

Photo attribution noted. All Rights Reserved.

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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