Cat-Griz Football

THE MATCHUPS: Montana State front seven vs. Griz offense


Montana State’s defensive front remains elite. Montana’s offensive line has been striving for years to recapture its former elite reputation. 

How will the Grizzlies be able to handle one of the fastest, most athletic defensive units in the FCS Saturday in the 120thmatchup against two historic rivals in Missoula. 

The battles in the trenches will certainly serve as a determining factor as Montana State hunts its fifth straight rivalry win against a Griz team with plenty to spoil. MSU is tracking its first undefeated Big Sky Conference season since 1976. The Griz can earn a playoff bye for the second year in a row if No. 7 UM can knock off No. 3 MSU at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. 

“We’ve dropped the last two to these guys, so we need a win. That’s what it is,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “I think they are good up front on both sides of the ball and that’s where it starts. It should be a heck of a game.”

Jeff Choate quickly established a high priority on recruiting and developing to Montana State’s offensive and defensive fronts. 

Montana State defensive end Amandre Williams (3) in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

The well-regarded longtime FBS position coach and special teams coordinator quickly helped MSU earn a reputation as one of the most physical, stout teams in the Big Sky Conference during his four seasons as the head coach. 

Before Choate left for a co-coordinator position at Texas, the Bobcat defensive front experienced a few key losses with the graduation of all-league end Bryce Sterk and all-conference tackle Derek Marks. But the group returned All-Big Sky talents in nose tackle Chase Benson and edge Amandre Williams. 

When Choate split to Austin and defensive coordinator Kane Ioane moved on to a similar position at Boise State, Brent Vigen hired Freddie Banks, who quickly went about changing the scheme and in turn the positions of several of MSU’s most talented players. 

Troy Andersen, an all-league performer at running back, quarterback and outside linebacker already in his career, is in the midst of another banner year in his first campaign playing inside linebacker. 

The switch from Choate’s odd-man front to Banks’ 4-2-5 also meant Williams, a former transfer from Washington who was one of the best “Buck” ends in the league, would have to transition to a more traditional edge position. 

The move not only bumped MSU’s two primary edge players to different positions, it also moved Daniel Hardy from the same Sam linebacker spot Andersen earned first-team All-Big Sky honors playing, to a true three-point defensive end spot. 

From safety Ty Okada emerging as MSU’s “big nickel” and essentially a third linebacker with Andersen and junior Callahan O’Reilly in MSU’s run fits, to the smooth adjustments by Hardy, Williams, Benson and Andersen, Montana State’s front has been lights out again. 

Hardy, a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder who is one of the rangiest and fastest ends the league has seen in recent years, has 10 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. Williams, a 6-foot-2, 245-pounder, has 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, each top 20 totals in the league. And Benson, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound powerhouse, has battled through an ailing back to play at an all-league level throughout MSU’s stellar season. 

Montana offensive lineman Conlan Beaver (78) in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

“I think they are excellent,” Montana senior captain right tackle Dylan Cook said when asked about MSU’s front. “I think they have a lot of speed, they have a lot of power and I think it will be a good test for us.”

Cook and fellow senior Conlan Beaver, his towering bookened, have been solid this season for the Griz, as has sophomore left guard Hunter Mayginnes. But with Cook missing the last two games with a lower body injury and center A.J. Forbes certainly not close to full strength, the offensive front has been a point of concern the last six weeks. 

The unit looked like a Griz front of yesteryear against Washington, holding one of the best fronts in college football at bay as the Griz sprung a 13-7 upset over the then-No. 20 Huskies to open this season. 

But against Cal Poly, Forbes, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound transfer from Nebraska who was a walk-on in Lincoln, had a hard time identifying the Mustang fronts. And most of the rest of the season, Montana’s play on the offensive line has been average at best. 

A rash of injuries that has messed with almost every position group, pariticularly at the offensive skill positions, has also contributed in UM leaving something to be desired when then have the ball. 

But a Montana State defense that has given up 13 touchdowns in 10 games is not underestimating a Griz offense averaging just shy of 30 points per game (with some help from a defense that’s made a habit of scoring) entering Saturday’s showdown. 

“Big, physical, they know what they want to do,” Williams said. “They are not going to line up and try to trick you. They know what they want to get done and they are affective at it. We don’t expect too much of a change. They are solid, they are well coached and they are going to try to do what they do best. There’s nothing different.”

Williams has one previous rivalry game experience. That afternoon in 2019, Montana State blasted Montana 48-14. Williams spent that day engaging in his first battle with Beaver and Cook, who were each starters as juniors as well. 

Montana State defensive tackle Chase Benson (41) in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

“We know their offensive line is big and physical, coached well and they are going to try to come out and run the ball, establish the run and they are great pass setters, athletic guys so when it comes to us knowing our assignments, being precise, knowing our jobs, executing that, we are confident in that as a defensive line.”

Montana had to endure a month without senior quarterback Cam Humphrey, instead starting redshirt freshman Kris Brown. The little brother of former Bobcat quarterback Kamden Brown moved to Montana from California when his parents decided to follow his older brother to Bozeman. Brown was accurate but had a hard time producing on third downs and in the red-zone during the month of October. 

The Griz have scored 30+ points per game since Humphrey’s return. And the running back ranks have gotten Xavier Harris and Isaiah Childes back from injuries in recent weeks. 

Can Montana establish a running game or mitigate the defensive pressure of the Bobcats? If Cook is still out and Brandon Casey has to make a third straight start, Hardy might have a heyday. 

Hauck, in standard fashion, didn’t say much more than his direct, concise opinion. 

“Their defense is good,” Hauck said. “They aren’t giving up very many points. I like their front. They are good.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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