MISSOULA — The numbers thus far in Big Sky Conference play for the Montana defense have been eye-popping. Unlike a season ago, that production, or lack there of, has not placed UM atop the Big Sky’s statistical leaderboards.
The prolific totals by opposing offenses and lack of in-game adjustments are points of concern as the Griz hit I-15 to Pocatello for a second straight road game at Idaho State. Montana gave up 42 second-half points and 617 yards of total offense all told in a 48-41 home loss to Eastern Washington to open Big Sky play. Last week, Montana pulled out a 45-33 road win at Portland State but still gave up 544 yards of offense, including 295 on the ground.
Days after the EWU loss, Montana head coach Bob Stitt demanded more from his defense, particularly when it comes to game planning and coaching.
“I don’t think we did make enough adjustments,” Stitt said of the second-half collapse that saw Gage Gubrud throw for 331 yards after halftime as Montana gave up 35 points in the final 16 minutes of the game. “When somebody is hurting you with something, you have to take it away.
“The next time we get in those situations, we have to be able to do that. There’s ways of taking those things away and making them put it in the running back’s hands instead of the quarterback’s hands. We have to be better at that and that starts with me. I have to help with that aspect of it, talk to our defense and talk to them from an offensive point of view. When I look out there and see this, this is what I’m going to do. We have to stop that.”
The Griz snapped a four-game conference road losing streak with a 45-33 win over Portland State last week. But PSU put up 90 more yards of total offense than Montana in the process. The Vikings averaged 6.4 yards per rush Montana’s defense consistently found itself out of position.
“They had a couple of big plays on us in the run game because we were undisciplined with our gap responsibilities,” Stitt said. “We got out of our gaps, peaked the wrong way thinking the play was going the other way and the ball carrier got out the backside for a big one. Had we done that, the game is different, it’s in hand.”
Portland State operated out of a spread, often times using an empty backfield aside from senior quarterback Josh Kraght. The Vikings are known for their array of pre-snap motions and deception, which PSU used effectively last weekend as Kraght rushed for 132 yards. His 47-yard touchdown in the second quarter cut the UM lead to 20-14.
“(Kraght) gives them the ability to spread it out and hurt you with his arm,” Stitt said. “He can run and extend the play. It’s a tough day when you have a quarterback who can run, they go empty, they start bringing fly motion and running quarterback power, all the different formations, unbalanced all the different things they do, that’s a tough day on a defense and I was proud of how they handled the thing.
On the surface, Montana’s meltdown in the EWU loss looked elementary. Gubrud and the Eagles’ offense simply picked up the tempo and took advantage of UM’s soft coverage on the outside. Gubrud threw screen after screen to his wide receivers, forcing Montana’s defense to run sideline to sideline.
Upon diving in further, the exploitation really was that simple. And Montana simply got gassed.
“It was one thing: the screens,” UM senior cornerback McKinley said. “I have great respect for their receivers, their program but do I feel like they are the best receivers we are going to see all year? No. We know what we can do. It’s about getting that fixed. In the words of Aaron Rodgers last season, we will be fine.”
Eastern Washington ran 96 plays, including 50 after halftime. Gubrud ended up with 549 passing yards, the most in EWU’s rich passing history. Nic Sblendorio caught 18 passes while Nsimba Webster added 13 receptions.
“When people run tempo that fast, you can’t get calls in the game,” UM second-year defensive coordinator Jason Semore said last week. “In the first half, I was able to help them by calling Cover 2 and stuff like that to make it a hard perimeter. They figured out what our tempo defense was and got us caught in it in the second half.
“I have to do a better job of changing what our tempo check is. Even when we didn’t have the right call, we tackled it for a five-yard gain in the first half because we weren’t dead. It was a combination of guys being gassed and them having a good scheme of getting me into checks instead of getting to call the defense.”
Those lack of adjustments and checks could be seen by Stitt, who almost exclusively runs Montana’s offense, leaving the defensive game planning and game calling up to Semore.
“You let your guys coach and you go with the game plan,” Stitt said. “It’s something you let your guys coach. We can’t give up 42 points in the second half. That’s the bottom line. I’ve never been a part of anything like that. You obviously have to get better. You have to make some adjustments to make them do some other things. It’s on me and we have to do better and we have to help our kids be successful.”
The EWU tempo had a striking effect on Montana. On Sam McPherson’s 50-yard catch and run to tie the game at 27 late in the third quarter, Montana linebackers Connor Strahm and Josh Buss could essentially only muster a job.
“It’s not an excuse because that’s part of the game, but fatigue was a factor,” UM safeties coach Shann Schillinger said. “Late in the third quarter and in the fourth quarter, our guys got tired. Credit to them for getting us in that situation. At that point in time, you can see the fundamentals lack. We couldn’t get off blocks as good, we couldn’t tackle as good. Those are things that happen when you are tired. We can’t let fatigue get to us again. We have to fight through it. That’s part of the game. It’s not an excuse, it’s a reality.”
Although Montana gave up a gaudy yardage total against Portland State as well, the Griz made enough plays to snap the road losing streak that dated back to September of last season. The Griz appeared more equipped to endure the 88 plays PSU ran even if the Vikings averaged 6.4 yards per rush against a unit that ranked as the second-best rush defense in the Big Sky last season.
Unlike against EWU, when Montana needed a defensive play, senior safety Justin Strong had the answer. The former Oregon State transfer notched three interceptions and likely would’ve had a fourth if not playing with a club protecting the cast on his surgically repaired left hand.
UM freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen threw his second interception of the third quarter to PSU senior Chris Seisay to give the Viks the ball down 34-21. Strong answered right back, intercepting Kraght and returning the pick 28 yards, eventually setting up a Brandon Purdy field goal. Khalil Dawson housed the ensuing Griz kickoff from 87 yards out to cut the lead to 37-27 early in the fourth quarter.
The advantage stayed at 10 before Strong notched his hat trick. He picked off Kraght and took the ball 64 yards for a score to seal UM’s fifth road win in three seasons under Stitt.
“Really, the (defensive) adjustment was nothing physical, it was all mental,” Strong said. “Like coach said, once you reach a physical breaking point, you have to use your mental toughness to take you over that point. Last week, we ran more than 90 snaps so you get to a point where you are fatigued but you have to look at your teammates, look at your brothers because they need you.”
Montana endures a second straight road test at Idaho State. The Griz will face a productive Idaho State offense that is averaging 554 yards and 40 points per game in league play thus far. Despite last week’s progress, Strong knows the Griz defense has not arrived.
“It’s still a process in work,” Strong said. “Last year, we went to UNI and then we lost a lot of road games. This year, we have to scratch last week and put our focus toward this week and what we have to do this week. It will be a long bus ride back either way so it will feel good to come back with a win.”
Photos by Jason Bacaj and Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.