MISSOULA, Montana — For the first time in his career, Rob Phenicie will stand on the sideline at Washington-Grizzly Stadium as an opposing head coach.
Much has changed since Phenicie served as the offensive coordinator at Montana a decade ago. The Grizzlies have had four head coaches since then, including Bobby Hauck, back for his second tenure at his alma mater.
After reaching the FCS national championship game for the second straight season in 2009, Hauck took the head coaching job at UNLV. Phenicie joined him in Las Vegas as the offensive coordinator.
Since then, the Grizzlies have evolved, trying to run Robin Pflugrad’s spread option in 2010 and 2011 before transition back to a more pro-style offense under Mick Delaney from 2012 through 2014. In 2015, Bob Stitt installed his four-wide spread offense.
The Griz have missed the playoffs more times (5) than they have made it this decade, a fall that is astounding considering Montana made the playoffs 17 straight times between 1993 and 2009. Montana’s regression to the pack has been spurred on by a multitude of factors, from coaching changes to scandal to NCAA violations and probation.
Upon Stitt’s non-renewal following the 2017 season, Montana returned to its roots. Hauck strategically positioned himself to return home and accomplished the goal. But last season, the same nightmares played out for the Griz, this time in even more startling fashion.
Montana lost three straight games for the first time ever under Hauck. The Griz lost three straight games at home for the first time since the opening of Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 1986. When the ball popped out on the goal line and Montana State recovered with eight seconds left to seal a 29-25 win, the Griz seemed at rock bottom.
Entering Saturday’s matchup between Phenicie’s Idaho State Bengals and Hauck’s Griz, the aura surrounding the homecoming hosts is distinctly different. And Montana looks eerily similar to Phenicie.
“Well shoot, they are playing with a ton of confidence and they are playing Grizzly football,” Phenicie said when asked his observations of the No. 8 team in the FCS. “They are playing the way Grizzly football is played.
“They are playing very physical on defense and they are playing fast on offense, making plays. They have three great receivers. They have a really good running back and the quarterback controls the whole thing. Defense physical, fast and sound. They get to the ball. Bobby has the energy going right now and we know coming into a homecoming game where it’s going to be arguably the biggest crowd of the year, it’s going to be an exciting game.”
Last week, Montana sent shockwaves through the FCS by ripping No. 4 UC Davis 45-20 at Aggie Stadium. The Griz looked explosive on offense and ferocious on defense, punching the defending Big Sky Conference champions in the mouth and never letting up, avenging a 49-21 loss in Missoula in which the Aggies scored 46 unanswered points.
UM jumped 10 spots in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll to No. 8, the first time Montana has broken into the Top 10 since 2016. The Griz have every reason to be riding high entering Saturday’s homecoming game against ISU. But Hauck has not allowed any inflation of the Grizzlies’ collective egos as the calendar turns to October.
“That’s the art of putting together a good season is learning how to win games and big games and then come back and do it again the next week,” Hauck said. “I think you have to enjoy it and embrace the good time around the victory and then get ready to put it in the rearview mirror at the start of the week. I think our guys have done that.”
The adjustment in mindset — from the renewed collective toughness of the Griz to the team-first, no-star system Hauck prioritizes — is apparent when watching and listening to individual Griz speak, perform or practice.
“Confidence is always a good thing to have but I would say that we don’t even think into that much,” UM senior center Cy Sirmon said. “It’s more like how confident are you in your job? As an individual, I think that’s what this team does great.
“We put things into segments, day to day, job to job. It’s never, ‘What does the nation think of us?’ Or ‘What does the town think of us?’ It’s, ‘Did I take a good set?’ Did I do my job? Did I do well in the gym today. Did I take it step by step and see the picture unfold? Because that’s what happens when you take care of your job.”
Among the primary collective jobs for the Griz defense on Saturday will center upon slowing down Idaho State’s explosive offensive skill players. On 134 career catches, Mitch Gueller is averaging 19.6 yards per catch for his career. Mikey Dean, a 5-foot-6, 151-pound dynamo who is among the fastest players in the league, has scored 26 touchdowns in his career.
“They are both great players and we have our hands full with them,” UM sophomore safety Robby Hauck said. “No. 2 (Gueller) does a nice job of going up and getting the ball and No. 20 (Dean), he wants to beat you with his speed, which he can do. We have our hands full. I’m excited for the matchups and it will be fun to compete.”
ISU senior running back Ty Flanagan has rushed for 1,900 yards and 19 touchdowns over the last three seasons despite splitting carries with now graduated James Madison. The one-cut power back runs behind an offensive line that returns four starters from a year ago. The inside zone and gap scheme run concepts are the catalyst for the run-pass option concepts in offensive coordinator Mike Ferriter’s diverse attack.
“You have to stop the run first no matter who you are playing,” Bobby Hauck said. “It doesn’t really matter. If anybody runs the ball, then you have a problem. They do run a lot of zone but they have gap plays too. They have plenty of offense to get to. We need to tackle their backs, get off blocks, all the good things defenses do.”
Much of that responsibility will fall upon Montana’s three starting safeties – Hauck, senior Josh Sandry and junior Gavin Robertson.
“We just keep our normal keys but we probably have to be a little patient with the RPO,” Robby Hauck said. “They’ve got a very good, skilled group, the receivers and running backs and it’s a big challenge for us.”
It’s homecoming weekend in Missoula, it’s a sort of homecoming for Phenicie and it’s a homecoming for Ferriter as well. The former Griz assistant played at UM from 2004 until 2008, becoming the 11th player in program history to surpass 2,000 yards and serving as a captain his senior year on a team that advanced to the FCS national title game. Ferriter spent three seasons at Montana on Stitt’s staff before joining Phenicie in Pocatello before last season.
“I’m a big fan of Mike,” Hauck said. “We recruited him when nobody else did and we coached him for five years and then gave him his first coaching job. Love seeing our former players having success and Mike is doing a real nice job for Rob down at Idaho State.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.