No. 24 Griz host No. 13 N. Iowa in Saturday’s challenging home-opener

The Northern Iowa Panthers and Grizzlies are set for a 7 p.m. showdown on Saturday, Sept. 1 to open the 2018 season under the lights in Missoula. (GoGriz.com)

In December of 2009, Trumaine Johnson broke up an Armanti Edwards pass in blizzard-like conditions under the lights at Washington-Grizzly Stadium to seal an epic 24-17 Montana win over Appalachian State in the FCS Semifinal.

Soon after, head coach Bobby Hauck jogged off the field with his team for the last time during his seven-year run with the Griz.

On Saturday, Hauck will run back onto that field with Griz for the first time since that magic moment in Grizzly history as Montana hosts Northern Iowa (fittingly, under the lights at Washington-Grizzly Stadium) to begin act-two of his head coaching career at UM.

Since being re-hired in November of 2017, his long countdown to returning his home turf with the team he previously led to seven Big Sky Championships is about to come to an end.

“I haven’t been out that tunnel with that team for something like seven years and eight months, so I’m excited about it,” said Hauck. “I always relish the chance to go out there.”

It won’t be the easiest return for Hauck, however, with the No. 13 Panthers looking to spoil his homecoming and pick up their first-ever win over the No. 24 Grizzlies.

THE GAME: The Northern Iowa Panthers and Grizzlies are set for a 7 p.m. showdown on Saturday, Sept. 1 to open the 2018 season under the lights in Missoula. Griz fans are encouraged to MAROON OUT the stadium by wearing their best Montana maroon outfit. The game is presented by Western States Equipment.

The game is widely billed as the FCS game of the week, if not the season, as the two traditional powerhouse programs collide in the only Top-25 game of the week, with Hauck’s return adding extra spice to an already enticing matchup.

In 2017, Montana and Northern Iowa put up similar numbers, each possessing passing attacks that accumulated over 3,000 yards in the year. But for Montana, comparing the 2017 season is like comparing apples to dump trucks, as UM prepares to come out of the tunnel for the first time under Hauck and his new-look squad.

One thing Hauck knows that is different between the two teams before they take the field Saturday: the playoffs. Montana missed the playoffs for a second-straight year in 2017, while Northern Iowa advanced to the second round.

Hauck is under no illusions that UNI will be a tough test for his young Grizzlies, bringing with them a veteran coach, a seasoned quarterback in Eli Dunne who threw for 2,704 yards last season, and an All-America defensive end Rickey Neal Jr. who led the Missouri Valley in sacks last season.

“They went into the playoffs last season and finished the year 20 or so spots ahead of us in the rankings. This year, they’re ranked double-digit slots ahead of us, and they’ve got an established program. Coach Farley has been there for 18 years. They’re kind of a machine, and a very, very difficult first game prep,” said Hauck.

WATCH/LISTEN: The Griz/Panthers game will be broadcast statewide on your local ABC Montana stations, and on SWX in Billings. If you live in Montana (the ABC/SWX broadcast footprint), you can also stream the game for free on your smartphone or tablet using the Watch SWX app. If you live out of state, you can stream the game at GoGriz.com worldwide.

Ron Davis will provide the play-by-play, alongside Grizzly legends Grady Bennett and Mick Delany on color and analysis. Shaun Rainey will provide the sideline commentary.

Riley Corcoran returns for his third season as the “Voice of the Griz” in 2018 on the Grizzly Sports Radio Network.

Fans from Polson to Plentywood can tune in to hear the live call on one of over 15 radio stations statewide. You can also hear a digital stream of the game live worldwide via GoGriz.com or the TuneIn app on our computer or smartphone.

Fans can also follow the numbers with a live stats feed at GrizStats.com, or follow the links at GoGriz.com.

SERIES HISTORY: In six meetings Montana has never lost to Northern Iowa, with the Griz holding a 5-0 record in the series. One game is vacated from the series total, with the 2011 playoff matchup being stricken from the record.

LAST MEETING: Northern Iowa Coach Mark Farley may still be losing sleep with visions of Jerry Louie-McGee and his 81-yard punt return for a touchdown dancing through his head in the last matchup between the two programs.

On Sept. 10 of 2016, the Griz traveled to Cedar Falls to face the, then, No. 3 Panthers and put on a defensive spectacle, with Louie-McGee scoring one of UM’s two touchdowns in a 20-14 Griz win. UM opened the game with a quick score when QB Brady Gustafsonhit a wide-open Josh Horner on a play-action pass for a 35-yard TD.

Montana allowed 351 total yards to the Panthers and stuffed UNI on all three fourth-down attempts. Third downs helped the Montana defense as well, limiting Northern Iowa to just six conversions on 19 attempts.

BIG SKY / MISSOURI VALLEY CHALLENGE SERIES: The Montana/Northern Iowa matchup is one of eight games this season played between teams from the Big Sky Conference and the Missouri Valley Football Conference, kicking off the second year of the official challenge series between the two FCS powerhouse leagues.

The Grizzlies have fared well against the MVFC since the league’s inception in 2008. Montana is 7-2 overall with teams from that league in the last ten years, with the only two losses coming at the hands of North Dakota State.

HAWKEYE HEAVEN: Speaking of wins over Midwest teams… Montana is 5-2 all-time against teams from the Hawkeye State, with all five wins coming over Northern Iowa. The only two losses have been against the University of Iowa. Hauck was the head coach last time the Grizzlies faced the Hawkeyes in 2006, with UM leaving Kinnick Stadium with a 41-7 loss. The Griz faced Iowa previously in 1954, losing 48-6.

HAPPENINGS

REUNION: Former Grizzlies who played under Hauck between 2003 and 2009 are planning a reunion of sorts for this week’s home-opener against UNI. Former players are encouraged to gather at the GSA Tailgate outside of the stadium two hours before kickoff. A block of tickets is reserved for former players and their families in section 115 of Washington-Grizzly Stadium. To reserve your tickets, call Nick Jutila at 406-243-6472.

FOOTBALL 101: Coach Hauck will give University of Montana students the inside scoop on Griz football to prime them for Saturday’s home opener. On Thursday at 2:30 p.m., students are invited to the Griz Den student section at Washington-Grizzly Stadium to learn about Griz football, enjoy some free pizza and pick up a free MAROON OUT t-shirt. More details

SUCCESS IN HOME OPENERS: The Grizzlies will be looking to keep winning streak alive against UNI, having won every home-opener inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium since 2003 when NDSU upset the Griz.

Since the stadium hosted its first season opener in 1987, the Griz have gone 27-4 in first-up contests. Montana holds a commanding home-field advantage in the stadium with a 197-30 overall record since 1986, an 86.7-win percentage.

LIGHT UP THE NIGHT: Montana has also had success in night games at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The Griz hold a 6-2 all-time record in games that kickoff within an hour of sundown at home.

MILESTONES ON THE HORIZON: As the Grizzlies begin the season, they also begin the hunt for a pair of milestones.

In the 30-plus years of action in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Montana has won an amazing 197 games, just three shy of the 200-win plateau. Hauck won 80 of those games during his first stint at UM, and has since gone on to compile a total of 95 career wins as a head coach.

Should the Griz pick up three wins at home and five overall wins this season, UM will celebrate 200 wins in the friendly confines, and Hauck will cross the century mark as head coach.

PACK THE HOUSE: Montana once again led the FCS in attendance in 2017, averaging 23,535 fans over the course of six home games. It’s the fourth-straight season the Grizzlies have has the most fans per-game in the FCS, and the seventh time in the last 11 years.

NEW STARTERS: Fourteen Grizzlies are scheduled to get their first start in maroon and silver against Northern Iowa Saturday, with seven on offense, six on defense, and one specialist. That doesn’t mean the Griz are short on experience, however.

Quarterback Dalton Sneed will make his first Division-I start since October 29 of 2016 when he started for UNLV against San Jose State. Sneed started in four games for the Rebels that year, leading them to a pair of wins over Fresno State and Hawai’i.

Colin Bingham makes his first start as a Griz after making 20 previous appearances his freshman and sophomore seasons, giving the tight end ample game-day experience to draw from.

Center Cody Meyer will also get his first start. A former walk-on, Meyer was awarded with a scholarship by Hauck during fall camp, announcing it to the team after practice. The crowd went wild.

Reggie Tilleman also picks up his first start after waiting his turn behind some of the best defensive players in Montana history. Tilleman has made 16 appearances in his career, and is poised for a breakout senior season at defensive end.

Tilleman not only gets it done on the field, he takes care of his business in the classroom as well. After graduating from the UM School of Business with honors in the spring, he has begun work toward his MBA, boasting a 3.87 cumulative GPA.

As such, the two-time Academic All-Big Sky pick has earned Montana’s 2018 nomination for the National Football Foundation’s Scholar-Athlete Awards – the most prestigious academic awards in college football.

Speaking of being a force on the field and in the classroom… Linebacker Dante Olson also gets his first start of an already illustrious career, having made 20 career appearances to-date.

Olson was named second-team All-Big Sky on special teams in 2017, and is a two-time recipient of the Hauck Family Special Teams Player of the Year award. He’s also a two-time Academic All-Big Sky performer off the field, and takes time to mentor a class of underprivileged kids in Northern California.

OH CAPTAINS MY CAPTAINS: At the end of fall camp, the Grizzlies elected team captains for the season, voting two offensive and two defensive players into leadership positions on the team.

Seniors Keenan Curran and Reggie Tilleman were voted captains, and also represented the team at the Big Sky’s annual media days in Spokane over the summer. The league’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year Josh Buss was also named captain, along with junior quarterback Dalton Sneed.