Montana football: Grizzlies look to start fast, end strong against NAU

To paraphrase a quote from the great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

The Montana Grizzlies may be down following a 41-27 loss at Weber State, but with a 5-3 record and three more chances to prove themselves, UM’s playoff hopes have not been killed off.

In that loss at WSU, anything that could have gone wrong for UM did in the first half, testing the young Grizzlies’ resolve to its fullest extent. But after an impressive second-half bounce back, Montana returns home this week feeling stronger and ready to make a push for the playoffs.

“Because of that second half, our football team got better, if you can believe that. It’s a crazy thing to think about, but we are a better football team because of how we handled that,” said head coach Bob Stitt.

“Is the process going in the right way? Heck yeah, it is. Our football team gets better every single week, and all the things that are thrown at us are going to make us stronger, and we truly want to win.”

Montana heads home for the first of two home games to start the month of November, hosting the league-leading Northern Arizona Lumberjacks.

The Griz are looking to finish the season strong, and it all starts with knocking off the ‘Jacks, who come to Missoula undefeated in Big Sky play.

THE GAME: The Griz (5-3, 3-2 BSC) return to the happy hunting grounds of Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Saturday to face the No. 18/16 Lumberjacks (6-2, 5-0 BSC) in the second matchup against a ranked opponent for UM in as many weeks. Kickoff for the afternoon tilt is set for 3:38.

A breakdown of the numbers paints a picture of two similar teams set to take the field on Saturday, both featuring two of the most potent offenses in the nation with 20 passing touchdowns each.

The Grizzlies enter the game with the No. 5 passing offense in the FCS, averaging 342.2 yards-per-game in the air thanks in large part to Gresch Jensen‘s 150.4 efficiency rating and Keenan Curran‘s 76 yards-per-game receiving, the sixth-highest total in the Big Sky.

Led by former FCS Freshman of the Year Case Cookus, NAU comes to Missoula with the No. 6 passing offense in the FCS, averaging less than one fewer yard-per-game than UM at 341.4.

“They are a great football team,” said Stitt. “Their quarterback is fun to watch, me being a quarterback guy. He is so accurate. They do a good job offensively of moving him around, moving his launch points. And they have some nice receivers too.”

Because of a shoulder injury, NAU is without the services of prolific wide receiver Emmanuel Butler, a preseason All-Big Sky pick and the only receiver to post back-to-back 1000 yard seasons for the ‘Jacks.

But Cookus isn’t without his weapons in the passing game. Third-team All-Big Sky senior Elijah Marks is the second-leading receiver in the league this year, averaging an impressive 135 yards-per-game on 54 receptions. He’s also the league leader in all-purpose yards as NAU’s go-to on special teams.

The one-two punch from Grizzly running backs Jeremy Calhoun and Alijah Lee separate the two teams a bit further offensively with UM outrushing the ‘Jacks by an average 142 yards-per-game to 119.

But NAU boasts a running threat as well in Joe Logan, a 2016 All-Big Sky Honorable Mention who torched the Griz for 114 yards as a freshman in Flagstaff last year, giving the ‘Jacks balance to their attack.

“They can run the ball, they are not just a straight spread team,” said Stitt. “If you look at their scores what they are doing passing the ball you would think they are spreading it out but it’s not, they have a nice scheme.”

Defensively the ‘Jacks check in as the No. 15 team in the FCS in pass yards allowed, and the No. 4 team in passes intercepted led by free safety Kamron Johnson who has four picks on the season.

“Defensively they have a really good scheme. They are very sound, they are aggressive, and they are a good football team,” said Stitt. “They are where they are at for a reason. They’ve got a lot of great players, but their coaches do a great job too.”

The Grizzlies’ “bend but don’t break” defense boasts at least one player among the top-five in every major defensive category in the Big Sky stats, including the Big Sky’s leading tackler in James Banks, who is averaging 10.4 takedowns per-game.

Montana is also ranked No. 4 in the nation in tackles-for-loss, with Josh Buss tied for most in the league at 12.5 on the season, and Tucker Schye checking in at No. 3 with 11.5 TFLs. Add Banks’ 9.5 TFLs to the mix, and the Griz linebacker corps boasts three of the top-10 players in TFLs in the league.

SERIES HISTORY: The Griz and Lumberjacks celebrate the golden anniversary of football between the two schools this week, playing the 50th all-time contest in this classic Big Sky rivalry on Saturday.

The Griz hold a convincing 35-14 overall lead in the series that dates back to 1966. Since NAU joined the league in 1970, Montana holds a 33-12 advantage, and the Griz lead 19-5 in all the games played in Missoula.

Montana welcomes back former Grizzly defensive coordinator Jerome Souers, who served as a defensive backs coach for the Griz from 1986-88, and D-coordinator during Montana’s national championship runs in 1995 & ’96.

Souers has been Northern Arizona’s head coach for the last 20 years and will retire at the end of the 2017 season. The Griz are 15-3 against Souers during his career at NAU.

LAST MEETING: The Griz got a taste of déjà vu last week at Weber State, a feeling reminiscent of last year in Flagstaff when UM traveled to NAU riding a three-game win streak. The Griz came out flat against the Lumberjacks in that game, eventually falling 34-45, starting a slide that would see UM drop four of its last five games of the year.

This year’s Grizzlies remember that experience well, and after Saturday’s loss in Ogden, the 2017 seniors got together and decided they don’t want to let history repeat itself.

“I think our backs are against the wall now in a sense, and we need to handle what we went through last year and applied it to this year,” said right tackle Mike Ralston. “We need to come out strong against NAU and keep that good momentum we had going from the first half of the season and keep it going.

“We’ve been through a lot as a team, and I think the more we face those scenarios, we handle them and get the chance to face them again – just the maturity and the experience of having done it before – we know how to go about it better this time around.”

LAST TIME IN MISSOULA: On Homecoming in 2015, Chad Chalich got the start at QB over an injured Brady Gustafson and led the Griz to a 16-0 halftime lead over NAU thanks to the foot of kicker Daniel Sullivan. Northern Arizona scored two quick touchdowns in the third quarter, however, to close the gap to just two points.

But as the Griz were celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the 1995 National Championship team, Montana added another touchdown with four minutes to play to seal the 23-14 win.

WHERE TO WATCH: This week’s matchup against Northern Arizona is the third of five Griz games to be broadcast on the ROOT Sports Network this season. The remainder of Montana’s 2017 regular-season schedule will be shown on ROOT Sports.

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 Lumberjacks with support from analyst Jason Stiles and Jen Mueller on the sidelines.

LISTEN & FOLLOW: “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran will have the radio call of Saturday’s game against NAU, 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 TuneIn app.

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

WELCOME GRIZ FAMILIES: It’s family weekend at UM, with students and their families gathering to celebrate all the tradition that surrounds Griz football and the University of Montana.

THAT TIME OF YEAR: Grizzly Athletics will do its part to help make the holiday’s a little brighter for local kids on Saturday in the lead up to the UM/NAU game with the annual Griz for Kids toy drive.

Fans can drop off new, unwrapped toys or donations at entrances around Washington-Grizzly Stadium, on the walking bridge over the Clark Fork River or wherever they see the Griz for Kids logo.

EARLY GRIZ/CAT ACTION: Saturday’s football game is also the first in a double-header of Grizzly Athletics action on campus, with the Griz volleyball team facing off against the Bobcats on the big stage inside Dahlberg Arena after the game.

Fans can show their football ticket to get FREE entrance into the Brawl of the Wild volleyball showdown, with the first serve set to go up at 7:30 p.m.

FIRST & 10 WITH THE GRIZ:

BUSS NOMINATION: Buss earned a ROOT Sports Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week nomination after a superlative performance at WSU, tabbing nine tackles, four tackles-for-loss and a pair of sacks. It’s his second nomination of the year.

STANDOUT BACKERS: Montana’s two other starting linebackers (Banks and Connor Strahm) posted a game-high 10 tackles each against Weber and seven TFLs between all three. UM’s 12 TFLs were the second most they have piled up in Big Sky play. Banks’ 2.5 TFLs against Weber were a new career high for the senior.

GRIZ IN THE POLLS: Montana slipped out of the national top-25 polls this week following the loss to now-No. 14/19 Weber State – the highest ranking for the Wildcats since 2009.

UM picked up 88 points in the STATS FCS media poll to come in at No. 32, and nine votes in the coaches’ poll to come in at No. 33.

CURRAN IS MONEY: Curran passed his previous season career high of 601 receiving yards on 40 catches at Weber State, now totaling 609 yards on just 27 catches.

Curran has come through in the clutch in the Griz passing game this year as well, leading the team in “money receptions” (plays resulting in a first down or touchdowns), with 21 first down catches and six TDs.

LAST TIME IT HAPPENED: Montana was a total of 10 yards shy of having two receivers catch passes for more than 100 yards in a game at Weber State. Curran and Samori Toure, Montana’s two leading receivers this season, caught passes for 97 and 93 yards, respectively.

The last time two Griz caught passes for more than 100 yards was against NAU last season in Flagstaff where Justin Calhoun and James Homan had 133 yards each in the loss.

– Freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen and the Griz suffered five turnovers against WSU, with Jensen throwing a career-high three interceptions in the first game he actually suffered freshman mistakes.

The last Grizzly to throw three or more interceptions in a game was Gustafson, who threw four at North Dakota State in the 2015 playoffs.

STARTING FAST: Montana is 4-1 this season when scoring a touchdown on one of its first two drives of the game. When forced to punt twice to open the game, the Griz are 1-2.

QUICK HITS: Montana’s loss at Weber was the first loss for the Griz this season when posting more total yards on offense than their opponent. UM both out-passed and out-rushed Weber to post 503 yards to WSU’s 298.

– The Griz gave up 21 points on turnovers to the Wildcats. UM is now 1-2 this season when losing the turnover battle.

– Despite having two players ejected from the game for targeting, UM had fewer total penalties than WSU, 5-7. Montana is 3-3 when having fewer penalties, only drawing more flags than an opponent twice this season.

– UM’s halftime deficit of 28 points at NAU is tied with the biggest deficit of the year occurring at Washington on week two.

AROUND THE SKY: With the playoffs looming, a top-of-the-pile finish in the Big Sky Conference will be crucial to the Grizzlies’ postseason chances. Fans will want to keep an eye on several games this week around the league to see how Montana’s path to the playoffs might be paved.

Kennesaw State at Montana State: The Bobcats (4-4, 4-2) scheduled Owls thinking they were going to get a late-season nonconference boost in the arm with a walkover win.

But KSU (7-1) has been one of the surprises of the FCS this year with seven-straight wins that include a Big South Conference win over the Liberty Flames and a potent offense that has outscored its opponents 220-96 during that run. The Owls entered both the STATS and the NCAA Top-25 this week at No. 25, and travel to Bozeman looking to keep their dream season alive.

Weber State at Eastern Washington: The only two teams to beat Montana in Big Sky play this year square off on Saturday, and one of them will fall to 4-2 with a loss.

Weber travels to Cheney to face their second-straight team that is coming off a bye week in the Eagles. A win for the Griz and loss for one of these two will muddy the conference waters even further but could be beneficial to UM’s playoff hopes.

North Dakota at Southern Utah: The Fighting Hawks got back to their winning ways last week at Portland State, returning to Grand Forks with a big 48-21 win over the Vikings.

Despite being picked to finish seventh in the league, the Thunderbirds are on a roll at 6-2 with wins over Eastern Washington, Weber State and Northern Iowa on their resume. An upset from North Dakota on the road in Cedar City would help Montana’s playoff chances greatly.