Fall Camp

Montana enters 2021 season with one question on its mind

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One question – and one question only – has dominated the dialogue about Montana football since the 2019 season came to an end.

Are the Griz back?

That 2019 campaign certainly didn’t provide an answer, especially not with a historic 48-14 loss to Montana State in the regular-season finale — the Grizzlies’ biggest margin of defeat in the Brawl of the Wild since 1975 — and a 17-10 loss to Weber State three weeks later in the FCS quarterfinals, reversing Montana’s dominant win over the Wildcats from mid-November.

Neither did two exhibition games in the spring of 2021, when the Griz rolled over — lambasted, obliterated, annihilated, use whatever synonym you want — Division II Central Washington and a Portland State team that was so shorthanded, PSU head coach Bruce Barnum was about five minutes away from pulling fans out of the stands to play special teams.

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Make no mistake: The momentum has been building. UM won 10 games in 2019, its highest win total since 2013. The Griz defeated three Top 15 opponents, including ripping Weber, the eventual Big Sky Conference co-champion, 35-16 the second-to-last week of the regular season. And since the last time Montana took the field on that rainy evening in Ogden, Utah in December of 2019, Hauck and his staff have fortified the ranks with the addition of a parade of transfers with FBS credentials.

Is Montana back? The question will only be answered – can only be answered – by the 2021 fall season, when Montana will take the field with something on the line for the first time in nearly two years. And the bar the Grizzlies hope to reach — Hauck went 80-17 in his first seven-year tenure, claiming the Big Sky title every year and advancing to the FCS national title game three times — is impossibly high for most other college football programs.

A Big Sky Kickoff that provided plenty of good vibes for the Griz — a No. 2 spot in both the coaches and media polls, five players voted preseason all-conference — also brought head coach Bobby Hauck offered an interesting insight on the question.

“I think the one thing that’s most exciting is that we have a complete team,” Hauck said. “It’s the most complete team we have this time around. We had a really great performance this spring. You know, we’ll see how it goes, but I like us. I think we’ll be a really hard team to beat.”

If you’ve followed the Griz in recent years, you know how important the first half of that statement is.

In his second go-round at Montana, Hauck inherited a lopsided roster from Bob Stitt, who struggled to develop linemen – on both sides of the ball – while at the same time recruiting so many receivers that the team damn near ran out of numbers for all of them.

The resulting weak spots, particularly on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary, were crippling in 2018, Hauck’s first season back after a nearly decade-long hiatus with stops as the head coach at UNLV and the special teams coordinator at San Diego State. The Griz finished 6-5 and were in the bottom five in the conference in both rushing offense and sacks allowed while also struggling mightily to take care of the football or convert short-yardage situations, two incredible strengths during Hauck’s first run between 2003 and 2009, a stretch that saw Montana win 47 of its 53 Big Sky Conference contests.

Weber State senior defensive end Adam Rodriguez celebrates one of his four sacks against Montana in a 17-10 WSU playoff victory in 2019/ by Robert Casey

Weber State senior Adam Rodriguez celebrates one of his four sacks in WSU’s 17-10 victory in the quarterfinals of the 2019 FCS playoffs against Montana/ by Robert Casey

The 2019 season brought a similar story; despite a 10-4 record, they were bottom five in both categories once again, including last in the league in sacks allowed with 38 in 14 games. Weber State rolled up six sacks, including four by Adam Rodriguez, and ousted Montana from the playoffs for the first time despite notching just eight first downs and scoring just one offensive touchdown.

“It takes time to develop offensive linemen, you know, we don’t get guys to come out of high school ready to play,” Hauck said. “That animal does not exist in our world. So we have to bring guys in that we develop. And it takes time, it takes two to three and sometimes four years with these guys.”

Hauck has not shied away from talking about the gaps on the roster since his return. He adamantly and consistently talked about the youth and inexperience of his offensive front, his lack of depth at linebacker and his thin secondary forced to employ a pair of former wide receivers (Justin Calhoun, Darien Nash) as his starting cornerbacks. That Hauck is now talking about how complete his team is was the most promising data point, if you’re a Griz fan, from a Big Sky Kickoff that seemed to validate his opinion.

Montana All-Big Sky senior linebacker Jace Lewis makes a tackle during UM’s spring game against Portland State in April of 2021/ by Brooks Nuanez

Montana linebacker Jace Lewis (34) tackles a Portland State ball carrier in the backfield/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana’s five players selected to the preseason all-conference team was second behind defending conference champion Weber State. The Griz had one player each at wide receiver (Sammy Akem), linebacker (Jace Lewis), safety (Robby Hauck), long snapper (Matthew O’Donoghue) and yes, that pesky offensive line (left tackle Conlan Beaver).

That’s one point in Montana’s favor. Hauck saying that he has a complete team for the first time since he took over the program for the second time? That’s an even bigger one.

“We’ve got a lot of poise in our locker room, and we’re relaxed about the situation,” senior right tackle Dylan Cook said, “but we’re kind of chomping at the bit to get at it and ready to go. We know our potential.”

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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