A little tweaking has Montana’s offense on a tear heading into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The Grizzlies made Montana State’s defense look confused on several zone read option runs early in last Saturday’s game. Call it an effective change-up strategy that caught the Cats completely off guard and enabled quarterback Jordan Johnson -- sore ankle and all -- to rack up 81 rushing yards in the all-important first quarter.
The 12th-ranked Griz built a 17-0 lead in the first 15 minutes en route to a blowout win. They will be looking to do more of the same with the zone read and their traditional pro set formation on Saturday when they entertain San Diego in a first round postseason tilt at 2:05 p.m. inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“It’s a change to a point but the zone read has been in our offense since Kefense (Hynson) took over,” Montana coach Mick Delaney said, referring to his co-offensive coordinator. “We work on it all the time. We’ll run zone read in the spring.
“Jordy (Johnson) was pretty beat up most of the year so you don’t want to expose him unnecessarily. But by being able to run a little more zone read I think it does open up some things it makes them have to defend. Any time you have to account for the quarterback it adds another dimension to your fits on defense. It becomes a little more sometimes assignment football rather than everybody just going to the ball.”
Montana’s running game is looking better than ever heading into the playoffs. And not just because Johnson is surprising defenses with his zone read option runs.
The Grizzlies have averaged close to 200 yards rushing in four November outings. Senior running back Jordan Canada has been a one-man wrecking crew with 512 yards.
“He’s gotten into the groove,” Delaney said. “And the guys are blocking up front. It makes me so happy we can run the ball.”
For Johnson, Montana’s productive adjustments on offense involve more than just the zone read scheme. By picking up the pace on occasion, the Griz have caught opposing defenses with the wrong personnel on the field.
“The last couple of weeks we have had success going up-tempo against Eastern Washington and Southern Utah,” he noted. “The coaches made the decision that was going to give us the best chance to be successful.”
It has taken a while for Montana’s young offensive line to click but it is peaking at the right time. Credit co-offensive coordinator Scott Gragg and a handful of regulars that include true freshman David Reese, sophomores Ben Weyer and Devon Dietrich and senior twins Logan and Jordan Hines.
“Hands down we are playing our best football right now,” Weyer said. “Montana State, that was our best game as an entire unit.
“The five of us have been together since North Dakota State now so we’re all figuring out how to play with each other and we’re really looking forward to this weekend, hoping we can build on the Southern Utah and Montana State games.”
The momentum Montana has built with its run game is bad news for the Toreros (9-2). They have been susceptible to the run at times this season with a dinged-up defensive front that averages 250 pounds.
The Grizzlies’ starting offensive line averages 277 pounds.
“The coaches have us really dialed in, focused on finishing every play, being right with our assignments,” Weyer said. “We’ve gained a lot of experience and you can tell that’s coming together right now.
“… The key to our offense all year has been explosive plays. As long as we can get a couple big plays each drive, the chances of us scoring goes up substantially.”
Johnson feels the Grizzlies are playoff-ready thanks to their tough regular-season schedule. He and his teammates are anxious to write a new playoff chapter after the 2013 Griz suffered a heartbreaking loss in their postseason opener against Coastal Carolina.
“We went and played in some hostile environments at North Dakota State, at Eastern Washington -- both top-5 teams in the country,” Johnson said. “And the Big Sky Conference alone, that schedule prepares you for the playoffs. I feel pretty good about where we’re at.”
Quick kicks: For those who cannot attend Saturday’s game, you may watch on ESPN3 or by purchasing access to ESPN’s web coverage or GamePlan program … U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Wednesday called on ESPN to expand its coverage of Football Championship Series playoff games. So far the move has not prompted action … Delaney is 0-1 as a head coach in playoff games.