The improvements of Montana’s offensive line have been thoroughly chronicled throughout the 2019 season.
That progress has helped the No. 3 Griz run the football more efficiently, particularly in comparison to a 2018 UM squad that struggled mightily converting short-yardage situations.
But make no mistake. Although this Griz team is starting to resemble the Montana teams that Bobby Hauck led on the way to seven straight Big Sky Conference titles in his first tenure between 2003 and 2009, this version of UM has been most dangerous when exploiting its mismatches on the perimeter.
And that will be a crucial matchup Saturday in the 119th edition of the rivalry between UM and Montana State in Bozeman.
The Griz entering the game throwing for just shy of 300 yards per game despite the fact that senior quarterback Dalton Sneed, the early front-runner for Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year honors, missing two and a half games with an injury.
“You look at No. 18 (Samuel Akem) and No. 16 (Jerry Louie-McGee) and No. 8 (Samori Toure), those three guys are a three-headed monster,” Montana State head coach Jeff Choate said on Monday.
“Toure and Akem have similar skill sets, big, tall, athletic guys who win 50/50 balls, break tackles on short gains. Very competitive guys. And they have top end speed. And Jerry Louie-McGee has his own skill set. He is a very good compliment to those other two guys.”
Akem, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior who led the Big Sky with 13 receiving touchdowns last season, is doubtful for Saturday’s game. He went down with an injury early in UM’s 42-17 win over Idaho before appearing on the sideline on crutches. He did not play against Weber State. This season, he has 59 catches for 848 yards and five touchdowns.
Toure, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior from Portland, has been a revelation. After a breakout freshman season in 2017, Toure struggled to acclimate to Hauck and his staff last year, flashing talent but also inconsistency for more of his sophomore year. This year, he became the first Griz to go over 1,000 yards receiving since Jamaal Jones did it in 2015. Toure has 63 catches for 1,052 yards and 10 scores so far this season after last week’s 193-yard, three-touchdown explosion in a 35-16 win over No. 3 Weber State.
And then there’s Louie-McGee, a human joystick who has made as many opposing defenders miss as any player in the Big Sky over the last four years. Although he has only caught one pass in the last two weeks — he went without a catch against Idaho, his first game with no grabs in his career — Louie-McGee still has 49 catches for 424 yards and three touchdowns this season. He has a Montana program record 214 catches for 2,171 yards and 11 touchdowns in his career.
“After we get our blocks and the ball is released, we are chasing after it and it’s like watching a highlight reel,” Montana senior center Cy Sirmon said following a practice during homecoming week on the UM campus earlier this season. “Those guys, the catches they make, it blows me away. Film doesn’t even do it justice. It’s amazing the type of plays those guys make.
“And they are always hungry. Nothing is ever good enough for those guys.”
Louie-McGee is also a prime candidate for All-Big Sky honors as a punt returner. He leads the league by averaging 17.1 yards on 14 returns, including a 74-yard return for a touchdown in a 61-17 win over North Alabama. He has three punt return touchdowns his career, tied with Marc Mariani and Levander Segars for the most in school history.
“Akem and Toure, they are great impact players. We know they are dangerous,” said Montana State defensive tackle Derek Marks. “Jerry Louie-McGee can do a lot of things in the open field. We’re going to have to rally to the ball and play with great effort.”
Those two former Griz standouts have been a part of some of the standout receiving corps of the Hauck hears at Montana. In 2003, Hauck’s first season, Jon Talmage led a largely average group with 507 yards and five touchdowns. The following season, Montana marched to the national championship game thanks in part to 1,240 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches by Jefferson Heidelberger and 819 yards and nine more scores for Talmage.
UM’s passing offense was lackluster in 2005 and Talmage led the group with 551 yards and five touchdowns. The next two seasons, the Griz had a three-headed monster similar to what they have now. In 2006, Eric Allen had 801 yards and five TDs, Ryan Bagley had 725 yards and four scores and Craig Chambers had 641 yards and eight touchdowns. The following season, Mike Ferriter led the way with 733 yards and four scores, Bagley chipped in 692 yards and six touchdowns and Allen had 490 yards and seven scores.
In 2008 and 2009 Mariani led the Griz with 1,308 and 1,479 yards, respectively, catching 15 touchdowns as a junior and 13 more as a senior. In 2008, Ferriter chipped in 820 yards and 10 TDs. The following year, Jabin Sambrano had 512 yards and five scores.
The top pass-catchers in the Griz wide receiver group collectively went over 2,000 yards in 2003, 2006 and 2008. The group had at least 17 touchdowns five times in seven seasons.
But Montana’s top three pass catches this season have already caught 171 passes for 2,324 yards and 18 touchdowns. And the regular-season still has one game left, a showdown against the No. 8 Bobcats.
“We’ve all come a long ways since last year,” Toure said. “Last year, it’s a new coaching staff and a new system and it took us a little bit to acclimate. This year, we have a lot more experience and we are going to be a lot sharper and we are all going to keep making better decisions because we want to be the best.”
Montana State counters with a defensive group that has been solid against the pass and excellent overall despite the very limited availability of All-Big Sky senior cornerback Greg “Munchie” Filer III. A season after snaring three interceptions in his first year at MSU, Filer suffered an arm injury during fall camp that cost him MSU’s first six games.
He returned for a game against Sac State, then the next four weeks in hopes of maintaining his redshirt and returning for a fifth year next season. Filer did not play in last week in MSU’s 27-17 win at UC Davis, a victory that boosted Montana State to 8-3. But he is available and listed on MSU’s two-deep.
Without Filer and with sophomore nickel back Ty Okada missing the first two months of the season, senior Damien Washington and junior Tyrel Thomas have performed well to anchor the cornerback spots for MSU. The senior safety trio of Brayden Konkol, Jahque Alleyne and JoJo Henderson have operated in unison and synchronicity on the back end. And cornerbacks redshirt freshman Ty’Rhae Gibson and true freshman Eric Zambrano have earned Choate’s praise for their ability to hang tough when called upon. Okada has played in the last three games.
In seven conference games, MSU is giving up 227.9 passing yards per game, the fifth-best average in the league. The Bobcats are giving up a league-high 67.1 percent completion percentage but a league-low 6.3 yards per catch. MSU has given up just nine passing touchdowns, tied for second in the league to Idaho’s eight.
“Their defense, they do multiple different things that we will have to prepare for,” Sneed said. “Our offense, we are doing a good job at execuiting. But we need to be doing a better job of helping our defense by sustaining drives and keeping them off the field.”
Sneed won Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week honors three weeks in a row before going down with an ankle injury in a 49-22 loss at Sacramento State, UM’s lone conference defeat this season. Cam Humphrey led UM to wins over Eastern Washington (34-17) and Portland State (38-23). Sneed returned not at full strength against Idaho but still threw for 241 yards and a touchdown.
Even with hindered mobility last week, he still looked sharp, throwing for 265 yards and three touchdowns in the landslide win over Weber State.
“I would be reminisce if I didn’t mention Dalton Sneed,” Choate said in his opening statement. “He’s a young man that makes the whole thing go. You talk about all these moving parts. But he’s a courageous leader. You can tell that. He’s a tough kid. He’s built thick in the lower body hard to bring down in the open field. Accurate passer, very strong arm and he has that confidence, that swagger.
“You can even see, as good as Cam Humphrey did for them in terms of running their show, but when things got down at Idaho, you insert Sneed and there’s an immediate jump in the performance in everybody in that huddle. That tells you what kind of leader he is.”
“I think their two receivers are different in terms of the level of competition that they can potentially play at,” Choate said. “And you have to keep your eye on Jerry Louie-McGee. We have our hands full with that matchup on Saturday.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.