MISSOULA — A home victory is never something to bemoan. Yet following Montana’s season-opening win over Valparaiso, Shann Schillinger left Washington-Grizzly Stadium with a disgruntled feeling.
“Week 1, left the stadium not pleased by the way we did some things,” Montana’s second-year safeties coach said before Wednesday afternoon’s practice. “But it was one of those things that I knew was easy to fix.”
Misalignments before the snap have been a key culprit to Montana’s inconsistencies defensively since the beginning of last season. The Griz defense has looked fearsome at times under second-year defensive coordinator Jason Semore’s direction, putting massive amounts of pressure on opposing offenses. But Montana has also shown massive vulnerabilities to give up huge chunks of yardage in the passing game.
After an off-season where the defensive staff dedicated themselves adjusting Semore’s high-pressure scheme, the narrative entering Montana’s game against Valpo centered upon not allowing explosive gains. Yet the visiting Crusaders completed three passes of more than 33 yards, two of which went for more than 51, in the first half alone. Montana clung to a 17-13 lead deep into the third quarter before an offensive explosion pushed the game out of reach in the 45-23 victory. But a 66-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter again elicited frustration even if the game was already in hand for the hosts.
Following the game, Montana head coach Bob Stitt said the Griz were getting beat despite running Cover 3 coverage. He blamed a lack of communication and first-game nerves on the misalignments and blown coverage by his secondary. Semore, Schillinger and UM’s staff went to work trying to remedy the ills before Montana’s game at No. 7 Washington last week.
Although Montana gave up 63 points in 65 plays in Seattle, the Griz did not have a busted coverage or a pre-snap misalignment, Semore said. Upon reviewing the film, Montana’s defensive coordinator said all 65 plays were assignment-sound in the secondary, something UM can use to build upon.
“Our guys played great in the secondary in Seattle from a communication standpoint,” Semore said before Wednesday’s practice. “It helped playing Valpo because they are a similar shifting, a lot of personnel groupings like Washington. It was frustrating we did that against Valpo because it’s not like the first time we saw any of that stuff. But for the guys to be locked in mentally, especially on that stage where there is a lot of distractions, it was very encouraging. Now we just have to be consistent.”
The Huskies marched up and down the field basically at will, scoring seven of their 11 possessions. But Montana did not get burned over the top, a reversal of a trend that caused the Griz to lose four of its final five games last season during the most alarming meltdown of UM’s modern era.
The return of senior safety Justin Strong helped after Strong missed the first game of the season after having hand surgery following fall camp. Markell Sanders, a junior slated to start but who struggled early against Valparaiso before the coaching staff elected to give redshirt freshman Lewis Cowans the bulk of the cornerback reps, looked to be back into game shape in Seattle. Sanders missed a good deal of time in fall camp with an injury.
The improvement in communication contributed to Montana’s success as much as the bolstering of the secondary with returning talent. Schillinger agreed with Semore: now it’s a matter of honing consistency, starting with Saturday’s non-conference finale against Savannah State in Missoula.
“It was weird getting beat 63-7 but leaving the stadium, I felt pleased,” Schillinger said. “We got lined up. They are a team that challenges you a lot with shifts and motions. I felt like we adjusted well to it and we didn’t allow any balls over our heads. Ultimately, we improved from Week 1 to Week 2 in that aspect.”
Schillinger, a two-time All-Big Sky Conference selection for Montana the last two years of the last decade and sixth round NFL Draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2010, played on some of the best defenses Montana has employed in recent memory. Those units took pride in fundamentals and execution, two tenets that influence simple details like pre-snap alignments.
Montana’s defensive struggles have been primarily linked to being out of position, both before and after the snap, Schillinger said. It’s been a point of emphasis for UM’s secondary since the losing streak to end 2016.
“Getting lined up is THE most important thing and we talk about it every single day,” Schillinger said. “There’s a few things that take zero ability and that’s communicating the call, getting aligned properly and having your eyes in the right spot. Week 1, we did not do that in the secondary. Week 2, we were much better. But it has to be an every day, every play thing.”
Josh Sandry, UM’s stud sophomore safety who plays next to Strong, continues his early-season hot streak in his first year as a full-time starter. The Bigfork product snared an interception against Valparaiso, the first of his career. Against Washington, Sanders tipped a Jake Browning throw on a slant pattern, Sandry nabbed the ball and raced into the end-zone for UM’s lone score at Husky Stadium.
“When Markell tipped the ball, I saw it go up in the air and I was like, ‘here we go, here we go,’” Sandry said. “I caught it and ran to the house. It was a pretty cool experience for sure.
“But really, I expect to make plays like that all the time.”
Sandry started a few games early on for the Griz with senior Yamen Sanders on the shelf with an ankle injury last season. Montana’s defense arguably performed at a higher level with Sandry on the field despite Sanders’ NFL physique. Sandry’s performance during the off-season— he had three interceptions in the spring game alone and his athleticism was on full display during most of fall camp — has turned heads. Now he’s translating that potential into production.
“That interception against Washington a big deal, something he will remember forever,” Schillinger said. “He went in there and made a play. Josh has been a kid since I’ve been here that has never backed down from anyone. He always comes out and works hard, stays humble at what he does. He’s a guy we are going to have to have a few more of those from him.”
The Griz will shoot for their second victory of the season at home against the visiting Tigers, a program that has mustered just 20 victories since transitioning to Division I in 2000. The real next test will come next week in Missoula against reigning Big Sky champion Eastern Washington, the program that has supplanted Montana as the power of the Big Sky this decade. Sandry, for one, thinks the secondary will continue to build on the tenants Schillinger, Semore and cornerbacks coach J.B. Hall harp on every day.
“I think people thought there were some question marks after the first game,” Sandry said. “We had something to prove and I think we did just that against one of the best teams in the country. Now we just need to keep it up.”
Photos by Jason Bacaj and Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.