At times during Montana's second fall football scrimmage Saturday, the defense played like it had been right in the offense's huddle. Of course these Griz don't huddle, so perhaps there was some mind reading at play.
Or at least pattern recognition.
"At this point of camp our defense knows what we're doing," said Bob Stitt, Montana's second-year head coach. "They know our checks, they know everything."
The Griz defense continues its accelerated ascension toward mid-season form despite the calendar still stuck on August. The defenders forced three turnovers and held the offense to a single score until late in the simulated game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The defense jumped on near every offensive miscue, whether blowing through a missed block for a sack or pouncing on an errant throw for an interception. And there were plenty of mistakes, quarterback Brady Gustafson acknowledged.
"Defense playing well, giving us a bunch of different looks, but more than anything it felt like us shooting ourselves in the foot," said the senior starter.
Gustafson's first-string offense failed to score on its initial seven possessions. A holding penalty erased a 30-yard John Nguyen run on one try, redshirt freshman kicker Tim Semenza missed a 37-yard field goal on another and twice the unit turned it over on downs when passes didn't make it past the line of scrimmage.
The defense did particularly well when the O reached the red zone. Once the second-stringers scored from 4 yards out -- a Chad Chalich pass to true freshman receiver Samori Toure, though the PAT was wide -- but three other times they were held out of the end zone. That included the missed field goal and an interception by redshirt freshman linebacker Holden Ryan near the goal line against the 2s.
"They've got all these double moves and motion and stuff; it gets a little harder for (the offense)," junior middle linebacker Connor Strahm said of the offense's forays into the red zone. "For us it's definitely a mentality. Bend a little but don't break."
For the longest time, Chalich's TD strike was the only offensive highlight of the day. Fellow QB Reese Phillips was victimized by the stingy defense, throwing another interception to junior safety Justin Strong. Then they got to Chalich too. True freshman D-lineman Randy Rodriguez stole a fumble after a bad snap.
Finally the running game started to make some headway and overturn the offensive funk. Expect to see more of that, especially in second halves of games this season, Stitt said.
"We're going to have a lot of success when you get to the 60th, 70th play when fatigue sets in, where you never get that in a scrimmage," the coach said. "... If we can run the ball effectively like we did today, it's really gonna open up some things in games."
The offense ended the scrimmage on a tear thanks in part to defensive coordinator Jason Semore's rotation of younger players through the lineup.
Set up with a short field after Rodriguez's fumble recovery, Gustafson and the 1s got a confidence boost against an amalgamated defense of some players seeing rare reps. Gustafson hit Nguyen on a short screen from the opponent's 39-yard line, then let the back earn the first down on the ground. Then he went 28 yards to senior receiver Lane Hovey who hauled in his first Griz touchdown.
Phillips followed with an eight-play drive -- the highlight being a 35-yard catch and run from sophomore receiver Mitch McLaughlin -- that ended with redshirt freshman kicker Brandon Purdy knocking through a 33-yard field goal.
Gustafson and the 1s were at it again moments later. The QB went 3 for 3 on the possession and with the help of a 23-yard reverse scamper by Nguyen, a senior who totaled 55 yards on seven carries, the drive cashed in for six. With two receivers running near identical routes up the left seam, Gustafson dropped a dime right between them.
Redshirt freshman Jerry Louie-McGee, who led all receivers with five catches, came away with the touchdown. His sliding grab covered 32 yards.
That wasn't exactly how the play was drawn up, Gustafson said, but with both receivers beating their coverages it was "better to be lucky than good."
"Right spot, right time," continued Gustafson. "What I love is they're making plays in the air. Ball's in the air and they'll go get it. That's what you like to see out of your wide outs."
Gustafson finished 15 for 24 for 139 yards and the two scores while Phillips connected on just 5 of 12 attempts for 65. Chalich was a perfect 7 for 7 over 51 yards to go with his score. The trio was sacked a combined five times, two apiece from sophomore linebacker Josh Buss and redshirt freshman defensive end Jesse Sims.
Saturday marked the Grizzlies' last public scrimmage as opening day draws nearer. Montana will hold one final scrimmage behind closed doors next Thursday in preparation for its matchup against Saint Francis in two weeks.
"It can really be a grind at this point of camp. We've got to give 'em some time off and keep 'em excited," Stitt said. "We've only got three practices left before game week."
That comes on Saturday, Sept. 3.