Cat-Griz Football

THE MATCHUPS: Stout Griz run defense against ‘Cats’ Big Sky best rushing attack

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Montana has struggled mightily to run the football this season, a circumstance that can mostly be attributed to attrition.

All-American Marcus Knight, he who scored 25 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2019, tore his ACL last spring, rendering him unavailable all fall. Nick Ostmo, UM’s second-string running back, suffered an injury during fall camp that has cost him the entire season to this point entering Saturday’s rivalry showdown.

Xavier Harris, Isaiah Childs….Montana’s running backs have been so decimated, Junior Bergen entered last week as the Grizzlies’ leading rusher. He was a Wildcat quarterback at Billings Senior last fall.

That’s all to serve as affirmation for the Grizzlies’ unbelievable performance this season stopping the run themselves.

Montana head coach Bobby Hauck would be the first to tell you that if you have twice as many rushing yards as your opponent, you have a good chance to win. UM’s 139 rushing yards per game ranks eighth in the Big Sky entering the regular-season finale Saturday in Missoula against rivalry Montana State.

Montana defenders Jace Lewis (37), Patrick O’Connell (58) & Marcus Welnel (10) celebrate vs. Western Illinois in 2021/by Blake Hempstead

Yet Montana’s rush defense has been so dominant, the Griz have nearly doubled up their opponents in the ground game. UM has rushed for 1,396 yards. The Griz have allowed 725 yards on the ground all season, or 72.5 yards per game, the third-best mark in the country.

Cal Poly led the Big Sky Conference in rushing yards per game every season from 2012 to 2017. Slick trigger men like Andre Broadus, Chris Brown and Dano Graves along with bruising fullbacks like Joe Protheroe helped accentuate the ground dominance. So did the fact that Cal Poly ran the true triple option.

Even before former head coach Tim Walsh retired and the offensive system went away, the Bobcats managed to overtake the Mustangs as the league’s dominant gainers on the ground.

MSU led the league in 2018 and 2019. The Bobcats lead the league by almost 50 yards per contest at 230 yards per outing, which is actually less than each of the last two league-leading seasons.

Montana is giving up 2.1 yards per carry this year. MSU averages 5.5 yards per tote. Something’s got to give on Saturday.

“It really starts on their run game, everything is built off of that, they are running the ball really well and it’s going to be a tall order to slow that down,” Montana head coach Hauck said. “Everything starts from that.”

MSU’s ability to run the ball stems primarily from former head coach Jeff Choate’s priority on stacking up talent along both fronts. Left tackle Lewis Kidd has started at every position other than center during his standout Bobcat career. All-Big Sky senior Taylor Tuiasosopo is the best guard in the league and still might bump out to tackle Saturday with normal starter in redshirt freshman T.J. Session out indefinitely (ankle), according to first-year head coach Brent Vigen.

Zach Redd, a standout at center in 2019, has acclimated to guard without much trouble. Regardless of the line MSU rolls out against Montana’s hyper-disruptive front, the Bobcats, like Hauck, have respect for their opponents entering the rivalry. 

Montana State running back Isaiah Ifanse (22) in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

“They are loaded,” Kidd said. “They have a strong, physical box, a bunch of studs, defensive line that can make plays, linebackers that can make plays.

“It’s kind of the same story every year. They are always one of the best boxes we play, if not the best. As an offensive lineman, that’s fun. You get to put their best against your best.

Montana State has made a habit of running the ball down Montana’s throats during its current four-game rivalry winning streak. That has been particularly urking for a Griz fan base that grew accustomed to beating their rivals and every other opponent in a very similar fashion: almost exactly how the Bobcats have bested the Grizzlies since a 2016 game in which MSU won at Washington-Grizzly Stadium 24-17 despite completing two passes.

MSU has completed a total of 34 passes for 395 yards over the last four rivalry games. The Bobcats have piled up exactly 1,300 yards and scored 13 times on the ground during MSU’s longest winning streak in the rivalry since 1972 to 1977 back when Sonny Holland was the head coach.

“They love to run the ball and they have a good offensive line,” UM senior All-American linebacker Jace Lewis, a Townsend native, said on Monday. “That allows them to run the ball and get to the second level.”

The Grizzlies employ a 3-3-5 stack defense in which the pre-snap movement is perplexing and the post-snap aggression is starting. Montana plays as many fronts and sends as many blitzes as any team in the country. That helps its individual play-makers rack up statistics.

Montana has an astounding 94 tackles for loss already this season. Montana State has 29 sacks, one of the top totals in the country, yet seven behind the Griz for the Big Sky lead. Montana’s 35 sacks rank fifth in the country.

Montana State tackle Lewis Kidd (76) in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

UM junior Patrick O’Connell is having a season for the ages. The edge rushing outside linebacker from Kalispell has 11.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, Big Sky and nationally elite totals.

Jace Lewis has 13.5 tackles for loss. Marcus Welnel has nine stops behind the line. Montana’s linebackers are the key play-makers in UM’s aggressive scheme directed by Kent Baer, a college defensive coordinator of some sort since the late 1970s.

“They are a very aggressive defense, very much an attack style. They have a couple guys in O’Connell and Lewis who are Buck Buchanan watch list guys and that is well deserved,” Vigen said.

“They are finding a way to disrupt, tackle well and then turn people over and those are things that we are going to have to contend with.”

Montana State has averaged 325 yards per rivalry game since 2016. Former quarterback Chris Murray rushed for 142 of MSU’s 368 yards and two of the Bobcats’ three touchdowns in 2016.

Murray rushed for 99 yards and a score to compliment Nick LaSane’s 121-yard day as Montana State rolled up 322 yards on the ground in a 31-23 win in Bozeman, MSU’s first home rivalry win since 2005.

In 2018, Andersen accounted for 107 of MSU’s 228 yards and three of its four rushing touchdowns. And last season, Isaiah Ifanse had one of his 14 career 100-yard games, piling up 171 yards and three scores. Senior Logan Jones added 121 yards and a touchdown while Tyrone Marshall accounted for 81 yards and a score on an afternoon Montana State rushed for 382 yards to post its largest margin of victory over the Griz since 1974.

Ifanse did not play in the second half of last week’s 20-13 Bobcat win over Idaho in the final regular-season home game for 19 MSU seniors. He left the game for no apparent reason late in the first half. In the final minutes before intermission, Session went down with an injury to his lower left leg. Early in the second half, MSU freshman running back Elijah Elliott also left with a lower leg injury.

If Ifanse wouldn’t have been in street clothes, who knows if he would return. Hauck said Monday he fully expects the league’s leading rusher (1,208 yards, eight touchdowns) to play.

Montana defensive end Patrick O’Connell (58) in 2021/by Blake Hempstead

“I wouldn’t put too much into that (him not playing in the second half); I think Ifanse is as good a running back as there is in the league and I think he’s playing,” Hauck said. “I’ll be shocked if he is not out there.”

Montana thrives off of feasts in the opponents’ offensive backfield. Montana State thrives off of breaking the will of its opponent, the primary formula usually including Ifanse running behind a top-notch offensive line combined with the most athletic defensive front in the league.

Will O’Connell, Lewis and the Grizzlies party on the pile on their home field? Or will Ifanse and company run wild again?

“They are loaded,” Kidd said. “They have a strong, physical box, a bunch of studs, defensive line that can make plays, linebackers that can make plays.

“It’s kind of the same story every year. They are always one of the best boxes we play, if not the best. As an offensive lineman, that’s fun. You get to put their best against your best.”

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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