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Sunday Notes: Team effort pulls Griz past Portland State for road win

“The offense picked up the defense, and the defense picked up the offense, and we played well as a team. It’s been a long time to get a Big Sky road victory, so it was a great plane ride home,” said Griz head coach Bob Stitt. (GoGriz.com)

The Montana Grizzlies got a gorilla off their backs in Oregon on Saturday, snapping a five-game losing streak on the road with a 45-33 win over a Portland State team that had given a pair of FBS teams fits to start the season.

With the win, the Griz move to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in Big Sky play, building momentum for the rest of the conference season as the halfway point of the year approaches.

“We got another week of great effort out of our team, and that gave us a chance to win,” said head coach Bob Stitt on Sunday.

“The offense picked up the defense, and the defense picked up the offense, and we played well as a team. It’s been a long time to get a Big Sky road victory, so it was a great plane ride home.”

Three of the stars of Saturday’s game have each earned a nod as Montana’s Player of the Week nominations, and the notes on each point to a dominant day for the Griz, with superlatives, abound.

OFFENSE: Montana nominated junior running back Jeremy Calhoun for ROOT Sports Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Week.

Calhoun rushed for a career-high 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Montana’s win at Portland State. Those two TDs give him 23 career rushing scores, now the sixth-most in Montana history after passing his position coach Justin Green‘s career mark of 22.

The Long Beach, Calif., native is tied at No. 11 in the nation in rushing touchdowns so far this season with five and tied for the second-most in the Big Sky.

Calhoun has scored a pair of touchdowns three different times in his career and ran for three scores (his career high) twice.

DEFENSE: Senior safety Justin Strong has been nominated for the ROOT Sports Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week and the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Week.

Strong was a monster for the Grizzly defense, intercepting three passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 64-yard pick-six. Strong also picked-off a two-point conversion attempt by Portland State, but as it was a PAT, did not credit as a fourth INT.

Perhaps most impressive in Strong’s performance is that he did it all with the full use of only one hand. Strong’s left hand was rendered essentially useless, wrapped in a hard cast and thick layer of padding used to protect a thumb injury for the third-straight game.

Strong potentially could have come up with a fifth interception on the day as well, diving after a PSU pass that hit him in the hands, but fell to the ground after bouncing off his cast.

Had Strong’s PAT interception counted or he hauled in the diving catch, he would have tied the school and Big Sky Conference record of four picks in a single game. Griz alum Ed Cerkovnik had four interceptions in a 1977 contest for UM, which was, coincidentally, also played against Portland State.

The pick-six was the second of his career at UM, and his three interceptions against Portland State tied his total for the entire 2016 season.

The last time a Grizzly picked-off three passes in a game was back in 2014 when Matt Hermanson had three interceptions against Montana State in Missoula. MSU QB Jake Bleskin threw five INTs in that game, the last time a Grizzly opponent had thrown three-or-more in a game until Saturday.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Brandon Purdy kicked three field goals of 34, 33, and 22 yards against Portland State to keep Montana in the red zone so far this season and earn UM’s nomination for ROOT Sports Big Sky Special Teams Player of the Week. Montana remains one of only three teams in the nation and the only team in the Big Sky to remain 100 percent in the red zone after week five.

The Griz have entered the red zone 22 times and come away with points each time thanks to six field goals from Purdy. The sophomore from Kalispell also has the most made PAT attempts of any kicker in the Big Sky with 24 completions on 25 attempts.

The last time a Grizzly kicked three field goals in a game was back in 2015 against Eastern Washington, when Daniel Sullivan made kicks from 21, 24, and 37 yards.

OTHER GRIZ NOTES:

DEFEND THE DEEP BALL: For the second-straight game, senior cornerback Ryan McKinley posted three pass breakups for a total of nine on the season. With one interception also on his resume this year, he has defended more passes than any other player in the nation this season.

BIG TIME BANKS: Senior linebacker James Banks put on another masterful display upon his return to his home state of Oregon, putting 11 tackles, a game, and career-high 2.5 tackles-for-loss and pass breakup down on the stat sheet, and doing much, much more off the stat sheet.

Saturday’s game was the fourth time in five games Banks has totaled 10-or-more tackles. He’s now ranked No. 4 in the Big Sky and No. 15 nationally in total tackles this season with 52 on the year, averaging 10.4 per game.

MISSOULA IS TFL TOWN: Montana has racked up 44 total tackles for loss so far this season, more than any other team in the nation. Senior defensive end Tucker Schye leads the way for the Griz with a total of eight TFLs, the most in the Big Sky Conference.

GRIZ IN THE TOP-10: Montana enters week six ranked among the nation’s top 10 teams in several key categories after Saturday’ win at PSU.

UM is ranked:

  • No. 2 in defensive TDs scored with three.
  • No. 9 in offensive first downs with 114.
  • No. 9 in overall passing offense, averaging 308.2 yards-per-game.
  • No. 1 in red zone offense at 100 percent
  • No. 3 in passes intercepted with nine.
  • No. 5 in team tackles for loss per-game, averaging 8.8 a contest.

Griz individuals are ranked:

  • No. 1: Brandon Purdy is one 13 individuals that remain perfect on field goal attempts
  • No. 3: Tucker Schye is No. 3 in the nation with a pair of fumble recoveries.
  • No. 1: As mentioned, McKinley is No. 1 in passes defended.
  • No. 11: Keenan Curran comes in at No. 11 and No. 3 in the Big Sky in yards per reception at 23.93.

Montana hits the road again this week in another must-win scenario against a resurgent Idaho State Bengals in Pocatello. Idaho State (3-2) upset the Mountain West’s Nevada Wolfpack on week three and defeated Cal Poly at home last week 38-34.