No. 24 Grizzlies host defending champs North Dakota for Homecoming

Saturday marks the 98th homecoming football game in the history of the University of Montana. The Griz hold an overall 64-32-1 record on homecoming and a 28-3 record since moving into Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 1986. (GoGriz.com)

After two straight road wins, the Montana Grizzlies moved into the national rankings this week, checking in at No. 24 on the STATS FCS Top-25 for the first time this season.

The timing for the momentum boost couldn’t be better either, as the Griz (4-2, 2-1 BSC) return to Washington-Grizzly Stadium for Homecoming to face the North Dakota Fighting Hawks (2-4, 1-2 BSC), who were picked by to repeat as Big Sky Conference Champions in 2017.

This year’s homecoming game kicks off at 1:08 p.m. on Oct. 14, with the Griz Walk getting tailgate festivities underway at 10:45 a.m. and the GSA Tailgate opening to the public at 11.

THE GAME: The Fighting Hawks bring one of the nation’s top running backs with them to Missoula in junior John Santiago, a two-time first-team All-Big Sky selection and second-team All-America return specialist.  Santiago registered 100 yards rushing four times last year and finished 2016 less than 20 yards shy of 1,000 on the season. Adding to the UND rushing attack is Brady Oliveira, who is averaging almost seven yards-per-carry and 74 yards-per-game this season.

“Their two running backs are elite, so that’s going to be a tall task for our defense because they have a million run schemes,” said Montana head coach Bob Stitt. “It’s going to be a lot of work for us in the box to be able to defend that and stay gap sound.”

While this year’s UND defense has been decimated by injury in recent weeks, Montana’s offense is preparing for a full-strength Fighting Hawks unit, which produced the Big Sky’s No. 1 overall defense a year ago.

“You really don’t know, but they are a very aggressive defense and a 3-4 front, which gives you a lot of issues and a little bit more zone and then man in the back end,” said Stitt. “They are great against the run, and they move a lot with their defensive front and their linebackers, they are always stemming, which gives you a lot of problems as far as getting points.”

HOMECOMING CELEBRATIONS: Saturday marks the 98th homecoming football game in the history of the University of Montana. The Griz hold an overall 64-32-1 record on homecoming and a 28-3 record since moving into Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 1986.

Homecoming weekend will officially kick off at the “Yell Night Pep Rally,” held annually on the oval in front of Main Hall. This year’s pep rally will be emceed by the “Voice of the Griz,” Riley Corcoran, and will feature members of the Grizzly football team, the UM Marching Band, the “lighting of the M,” and fireworks as well. The pep rally starts Friday, Oct. 13 at 8 p.m.

The annual Homecoming Parade gets Grizzly game day underway on Saturday morning, starting at 10 a.m. on Higgins Ave. in downtown Missoula, and finishing on University Ave.

The theme of this year’s University of Montana Homecoming is “Reflections.” For a complete listing of Homecoming activities, visit GoGriz.com.

WHERE TO WATCH: This week’s matchup against North Dakota is the second of five Griz games broadcast on the ROOT Sports Network this season.

The remainder of Montana’s 2017 regular-season schedule will be shown on ROOT Sports, with the exception of the game at Weber State, which will be on SWX Montana stations.

ROOT Sports is a division of AT&T Sports Networks, and is available nationwide on DirecTV channel 687, Dish Network channel 426, and locally on Charter Spectrum cable on channel 60, 122, and in HD on channel 560. Visit GoGriz.com to find a link to a ROOT Sports channel finder to see if the broadcast is available in your area.

The game will also air LIVE regionally on AT&T Rocky Mountain, AT&T Southwest, and the Audience Network. Check local listings to see if you can watch. No webstream is available for ROOT Sports games this year.

Veteran announcer Tom Glasgow will lead the play-by-play call against the Fighting Hawks, with support from analyst Jason Stiles and Jen Mueller on the sidelines.

The Griz/Eagles game will directly follow the Seattle Mariners/Cleveland Indians game in Seattle on ROOT Sports.

LISTEN & FOLLOW: “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran will have the radio call of Saturday’s game against UND, supported by long-time color commentator Greg Sundberg in the booth. Fans can tune-in to the flagship station of Grizzly athletics, KGVO 98.3 FM and 1290 AM in Missoula, or statewide on the Montana Grizzly Sports Network. Fans worldwide can stream the radio broadcast of the game at GoGriz.com, via the official Grizzly Athletics mobile app, or via TuneIn.com and the TuenIn app.

Live updates are available on the official Twitter feed of Griz football @MontanaGrizFB, and live stats are available at GrizStats.com.

SERIES HISTORY: Montana leads the century-old series with North Dakota 14-8-1 dating back the first meeting between the two in 1915 when the two teams tied 10-all in Grand Forks. The Griz are 6-2 against UND in Missoula, are 2-0 inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium, and are 4-1 since North Dakota became a D-I program.

Interestingly, Saturday’s matchup is the second time in history the two have played during Montana’s homecoming celebration. In 1941 North Dakota paid a visit to Missoula for homecoming weekend, with the Griz coming away with a 13-6 win.

LAST MEETING: Due to an unbalanced Big Sky schedule, UM and UND did not play during North Dakota’s conference championship season in 2016. The last meeting between the two schools came in Missoula in the 2015 season, with the Griz coming away with a 42-16 win.

Then-quarterback Makena Simis tied the previous school record with six passing touchdowns in a game, with 323 yards off of 16 completions. Receivers Jamaal Jones and Ellis Henderson each caught passes for over 100 yards and scored two touchdowns each in the Montana route.

Santiago, then a freshman for UND, burst onto the Big Sky scene that year, rushing for 180 yards and a touchdown for the Fighting Hawks while Oliveira added 65 more yards.

FIRST & 10 WITH THE GRIZ

GRIZ IN THE POLLS: Montana has made an FCS record 23 appearances in the playoffs, and after two wins on the road, returned to the Top-25 for the first time this season at No. 24 as the Griz begin their march toward a twenty-fourth all-time appearance.

The Griz received 251 votes in the STATS FCS media poll to come in at No. 24, but sit just outside of the NCAA FCS Coaches Top-25 at No. 28 with 16 votes. Weber State (No. 18) and Eastern Washington (No. 10) are the only other two Big Sky schools to come in ranked in the media poll, with Northern Arizona knocking on the door. NAU swaps places with UM in the Coaches’ poll at No. 24 with a 2-0 league record and an upset over a Top-10 team in Illinois State.

Montana appeared in the rankings for 195-straight weeks from 1998 to 2012.

STARTING FAST: In three seasons and 30 games under Coach Stitt, the Grizzlies are 6-8 in games where they have not scored a touchdown in the first two offensive drives of the game.

In UM’s only two losses this season, the Griz have been forced to punt twice to start the game and dug themselves a 21-13 hole at halftime of the Idaho State game after punting twice to start the game.

To buck that trend against a dangerous North Dakota rushing attack, Stitt knows his team will need to strike early and often to come away with a win.

“This team (UND) is not built to come from behind so it’s very important for us to go out and start fast and shut them down early and get a lead, and manage it from there,” said Stitt. “I feel good about the matchup but, again, it’s a faceless opponent, and we don’t care. It’s a scheme that we are going to go after, and it’s a scheme that we are going to have to stop.”

GROUND GAME: With an ever-improving rushing attack led by juniors Jeremy Calhoun and Alijah Lee, the Griz averaged 164.5 yards rushing during the two-game road sweep of PSU and ISU. Compare that to the 74 average yards rushing per game over the first four games of the season, and it paints a picture of a drastically improved ground game with more than double the output.

The balanced offensive attack led the Griz to a pair of key wins over the last two weeks, and for Stitt, will be key against North Dakota, and for the development of his offense as a whole.

“It’s very important because in our first couple years we felt like we had to throw the ball a lot, and teams would say ‘hey we are going to lighten the box on you and take your pass away.’ So, we knew we would have to run it, and we had less success in running it,” said Stitt. “Now when people lighten the box on us, they are going to get hurt.”

The added ground threat to Montana’s offensive scheme gives the Griz the No. 16 total offense in the nation this week, up from No. 20 last week. UM is now averaging a total of 462.2 yards per game. UND enters the game as the No. 53 total offense in the nation, producing an average of 382.2 yards per game.

IN THE RECORD BOOKS: Freshman receiver Samori Toure is Montana’s leading receiver so far this season with a total of 366 yards to his name. Almost half of those 366 yards have come from two catches: one for 71 yards against ISU and one for 80 yards against Savannah State.

However, on both of those plays Toure was tripped up before he could reach the end zone, putting him in the UM record books for the longest pass ever without a TD (80) and the third-longest catch ever without a TD. The previous record of 72 was thrown by QB Shay Smithwick-Hann at Weber State in 2012.

FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK: Quarterback Gresch Jensen has shown Griz nation his potential, passing for an average of 334 yards in his first three games as a starter.

His career-high 360 yards and four touchdowns in the air at ISU last week earned him his third STATS FCS National Freshman of the Week Honorable Mention in the last four weeks.

Only three other players in all of FCS football threw for more yards than Jensen did at ISU. Peter Pujals of Holy Cross threw for a huge 509 yards, while Big Sky QBs Gage Gubrud of EWU and Case Cookus of NAU threw for 452 and 380, respectively.

“Gresch threw the ball great, and his arm felt great,” said Stitt. “We rested him (last week), and he was very, very sharp, and our guys made plays.”

TACKLE TIME: Linebackers Connor Strahm and James Banks tallied 14 tackles each at Idaho State. Only one player had more tackles in the Big Sky Conference last weekend, Southern Utah linebacker Chinedu Ahanonu, who posted 15.

Banks has tallied double-digit tackles in every game except Washington and has hit his career-high of 14 twice this season. His 66 total tackles put him at No. 2 on the Big Sky’s top tackler list, and his average of 11 per game ranks him No. 11 nationally. Strahm’s 14 tackles is also a new career high for the senior.

Sophomore D-tackle Jesse Sims posted two career-highs against the Bengals with eight tackles and 2.5 sacks and TFLs, as did junior Chris Favoroso with nine tackles and two TFLs.

Despite the superlatives from the Grizzly defense, Stitt came away impressed with the group’s second-half adjustments.

“I liked what our defensive coaches did at halftime. Changed up some coverages, played a little more 3-4 in the second half, where you can disguise your coverages a little easier out of that grouping,” said Stitt. “I thought Chris (Favoroso) played really well. Jesse Simms had a great game. Markel Sanders, Josh Sandry, and the back end were very, very good.”

GRIZ QUICK HITS:

Korey Alexander won a team-wide coin toss-off during fall camp to earn flipping duties for the Griz this season. His good luck seems to have paid off. Montana is now 3-0 when winning the pregame coin flip.

Tucker Schye blocked a punt against the Bengals. The last Grizzly to block a punt? Schye and Strahm combined for a block at Liberty in 2015.

Strahm got his 40th career start as a Grizzly at ISU. Senior O-lineman Robert Luke will earn his 20th career start this weekend against UND.

Montana has scored a total of 28 touchdowns this season as the Nation’s No. 11 scoring offense. The 28 TD’s have been split evenly on the ground and over the air, with 14 passing and 14 rushing scores to date.

FOUR DOWNS WITH THE FIGHTING HAWKS

North Dakota snapped a three-game losing streak with a 48-38 homecoming win over Northern Colorado. Those 48 points were the most for UND under head coach Bubba Schweigert and the most since 2013.

After being held to 204 combined rushing yards in losses at South Dakota and to Montana State in the Big Sky opener, UND’s ground game has bounced back to produce 608 yards in the past two games. The UND running back combo of Santiago & Oliveira have accounted for 456 of those 608.

UND is expecting to miss the services of 11 players who were expected to feature in this year’s two-deep on Saturday. All-American DB Deion Harris has missed the entire season and fellow DB All-American and reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Cole Reyes is slated to be out for his third-straight game.

At No. 24, Montana is the third ranked opponent UND has faced this season, falling to now-No. 4 South Dakota and No. 25 FBS Utah of the Pac-12.