The battle in the trenches is always going to be a crucial part of November football in Montana and a critical element in the annual showdown between the Bobcats and the Grizzlies.
For nearly two decades, Montana had an advantage against Montana State on the offensive and defensive fronts, a key factor in UM’s 16-game rivalry winning streak between 1985 and 2002 and a run of five wins in seven years between 2003 and 2009.
The Griz frequently ranked at or near the top of the league in sacks while producing an elite number of NFL prospect offensive linemen for an FCS school. Montana State had a slew of standout players to be sure — offensive linemen like Brent Swaggert, Jeff Bolton and Jeff Hansen along with defensive linemen John Montoya, Adam Cordeiro, John Taylor and Dane Fletcher come to mind — but the Griz seemed to always hold the physical edge up front.
In 2010, an MSU offensive front anchored by Mike Person (a Glendive native still in the NFL) and a defensive line featuring All-American Dan Ogden helped the Bobcats win in Missoula for the first time since 2002. In 2012, eventual Buck Buchanan Award winning defensive end Caleb Schreibeis sparked MSU’s second straight win in Missoula.
In 2014, a Griz defensive line charged by Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year Zack Wagenmann and electrified by explosive defensive tackle Tonga Takai hit Jake Bleskin early and often, forcing the MSU quarterback to throw five interceptions as Montana routed the playoff-bound Bobcats.
Montana’s rivalry game wins in 2011, 2013 and 2015 had as much to do with elite skill position players as it did line domination. But over the last three years, Montana State’s ability to bully Montana at the point of attack has been the No. 1 factor in MSU entering the 119th edition of the rivalry war on a three-game winning streak.
“There’s no question it’s been a critical element of the game since I’ve been here,” MSU head coach Jeff Choate said. “And it will be no different this weekend.”
Montana State has had above average to elite offensive lines for almost all of the 21st century. Jason McEndoo carved out a reputation as one of the best offensive line coaches in the Western United States, helping groom All-Big Sky and All-American players under former head coaches Mike Kramer and Rob Ash.
Standouts like John Weidenaar, Joel Horn and J.P Flynn played for McEndoo and 2015 OL coach Jason Eck. Flynn made it to the 2016 season, Choate’s first at the helm. Even though that Bobcat team entered the Cat-Griz game with a 3-7 mark, MSU went to work decimating a Montana defensive front intent on standing up in two-point stances.
Following a 24-17 victory that saw the ‘Cats rush for 368 yards — former dual-threat quarterback Chris Murray consistently followed Flynn through the hole on quarterback draw plays — Choate simply said, “It’s Football 101. You stand up your defensive linemen and we are going to attack you.”
The Bobcats again dominated the line of scrimmage, rushing for 322 yards in a 31-23 win over UM in 2017. That offensive line featured Mitch Brott, Lewis Kidd and Taylor Tuiasosopo, a sophomore and two freshmen who are still starting on the Bobcat offensive line today.
And last season, Montana State defensive tackle Chase Benson blew up the interior of UM’s mediocre offensive line, nose tackle Tucker Yates and middle linebacker Grant Collins smacked Griz tailback Adam Eastwood to force a fumble and defensive end Derek Marks recovered to seal MSU’s first three-game rivalry winning streak since 1985.
Montana’s offensive line went from nationally peerless to the weakness of the team in less than a decade. The 2015 and 2016 Griz started multiple players recruited to play other positions, including former tight ends Cooper Sprunk at center and Mike Ralston at right tackle.
In 2018, MSU employed a variety of overmatched players, from former walk-on redshirt freshman Colton Keintz at right tackle to former walk-on junior Cody Meyer at center. A slew of offensive linemen went down with injuries or left the program.
UM head coach Bobby Hauck, who coached a seemingly endless string of All-Americans during his first tenure 2003 until 2009, went to work on fixing both fronts the moment he took the job. His Griz team enter Saturday’s showdown against Montana State with a much-improved offensive line.
“I’m really impressed with the job that Coach Hauck has done in Year 2,” Choate said. “He has clearly addressed some issues on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
“What I see is a bigger, better offensive line. And I think that has allowed them to be more balanced…They have invested in that offensive line and Chad Germer is a really good football coach. It was probably just a matter of time.”
Junior Conlan Beaver has made the jump from stiff and struggling blind side to durable, solid left tackle. Fifth-year senior Angel Villanueva went from two-year starter to benched to out of shape to battling a bad back before this year. But he lost nearly 40 pounds, earned his starting spot at left guard back, and is peaking as a senior.
Fifth-year senior Cy Sirmon came to UM as an all-state linebacker from Wenatchee, Washington. He played linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle before moving to guard last season before settling in at center this season.
Montana added mauling junior college guard Moses Mallory — “That’s the type of guy you want on your team…he is downright dirty and nasty,” receiver Samori Toure said — continued developing Keintz and added Dylan Cook, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound former quarterback at Montana State-Northern to the tackle rotation.
“Honestly, in every aspect of the game, from their strength to their knowledge of the game to their communication, across the board, they are all playing really well,” UM senior tight end Colin Bingham said when asked about the offensive line. “They love being the guys in the trenches doing the dirty work and winning us games. They have won us quite a few games this year and they are going to keep doing it for us.”
The Griz defensive front is suddenly athletic, aggressive and physical if not inexperienced. Senior captain Jesse Sims is the lynchpin in the middle as a durable nose tackle. He is flanked by a precipitously deep group featuring former NC State transfer Joe Babros, sophomores Braydon Deming and Eli Alford along with redshirt freshman Alex Gubner.
Redshirt freshman Milton Mamula, who suffered what looked like a serious non-contact knee injury last week, along with true freshman Jacob McGourin have been productive as pass rush specialists. And sophomore Patrick McConnell a former walk-on who transferred from UM from the University of Mary despite going to high school in Kalispell, leads the team with 6.5 sacks.
“They roll a lot of guys in and out there on the defensive front,” Choate said. “Sims is the stalwart and he plays three downs. No. 99 is a guy who shows up. But they play those linebacker body types a lot at or near the line of scrimmage and that’s really an extension of their defensive line is their linebacker core with some of the bogus pressure they do.”
Even with Montana’s massive and impressive improvements on both fronts in such a short period of time, Montana State still holds an advantage in the trenches. The Bobcat defensive line features former Washington transfers end Bryce Sterk, Buck end Amandre Williams and tackle Jason Scrempos, all who are playing at a career-high level. Senior Derek Marks and junior Chase Benson have both had all-conference caliber seasons on the inside.
That quintet has combined for 45 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks this season. They have also been productive tacklers at the line of scrimmage and in open space. Sterk is third on the team with 51 tackles while Williams is fifth with 48, Benson sixth with 47 and Marks eighth with 40. If not for the team effort, all but Scrempos would have arguments as first-team All-Big Sky players this season.
And the Bobcat offensive line, anchored by left tackle Brott and his 46 straight starts, is also bolstered by four other players with at least two years of starting experience. Kidd, a 6-foot-6, 305-pounder has evolved from stout but sometimes soft to menacing and powerful. Tuiasoso and sophomore Zach Redd form a productive platoon at left guard when Redd isn’t playing center. Sophomore Denver Krone is one of the surprising contributors on this year’s Bobcat team and plays plenty of snaps at center. Right tackle Connor Wood’s status for Saturday — he’s missed the last two games with a knee/leg injury — is unknown but junior Jake Sessions has proven to be a more than adequate backup.
The unit has helped the Bobcats plow their way to a Big Sky-best 260 rushing yards per game and 33 rushing touchdowns, top in the conference.
“They are are also a year older, a year more experienced,” Choate said. “They are a bigger, more physical group overall and I really think that has helped them to balance that group out.
“I like our fronts. We have continued to improve. Saturday, that will be a key battle in the game.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.