Tim Walsh has been coaching long enough to sense when he’s being snookered.
Or at least inadvertently led astray, shall we say.
“As much as Coach (Mick) Delaney wants to talk about how well Montana runs the ball, which they do with a big 6-foot-6, 315-pound offensive line,” said Walsh, Cal Poly’s fifth-year football coach, “their quarterback can hurt you in the air too with their wide receivers. You better be prepared for the run and the pass.”
Truth is the Griz have been befuddling defenses with balance. They have piled up just over 1,400 yards rushing and passing and on Saturday they’ll shoot for more diversity in a key Big Sky Conference clash with the Mustangs at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
From Walsh’s perspective, the big difference between Montana’s offense this year and last, when it posted a 5-6 record, is junior signal caller Jordan Johnson. Give him a little bit of time and he has a habit of dissecting opposing defenses.
“He allows them to be a better football team,” Walsh said. “... Combined with their big offensive line and run game, it makes it difficult. We’re going to have to slow them down and not many teams have been able to do that.”
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Cal Poly (2-0 conference, 3-3 overall) will use a 4-3 defensive scheme that relies on the quickness of under-sized personnel. Delaney compared the defense to that of Northern Arizona – a scary thought for Montana since the Lumberjacks stifled UM in handing the Griz (2-1, 5-1) their only loss three weeks ago.
“They run well, they use their hands well and they’re very physical,” Delaney said of the Mustangs’ defense. “It’s going to be one heck of a matchup.”
Cal Poly has a history with Johnson. The quarterback had what Walsh called his “coming-out party” in Montana’s first home game of the 2011 season. Johnson threw for 240 yards and two touchdowns and led the Griz in rushing with 54 yards on 10 carries in a 37-23 win.
After missing the 2012 campaign, Johnson is playing even better in 2013. He ranks second in the Football Championship Subdivision in passing efficiency and hasn’t thrown an interception all season.
“I wish you’d quit saying that every week,” Delaney joked after being asked about it by the media. “But that’s incredible. It just tells you what kind of preparation Jordy does.
“He doesn’t make bad decisions. If he doesn’t have an opportunity to put the ball in there he will scramble and do some things, maybe throw it away. When he does have to force one a little bit he puts it where you have a chance to catch it. Every time we needed a play on offense last week he made it.”
Johnson threw for 163 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday’s 42-7 blowout win at UC Davis.
“His knowledge of the offense and the game – he puts us in great positions out there,” said Montana senior offensive tackle Danny Kistler Jr. “He sees how the safeties are rotated, sees the coverage, sees an advantage he wants to hit so he’ll check the play. His intelligence and sheer will – he just battles.”
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Kistler said he and his offensive linemates are preparing for anything and everything against the Mustangs. Cal Poly defensive lineman Sullivan Grosz is among the best in the league at getting to the quarterback with 3.5 sacks this season.
“They’re a physical front and they’ll get after you,” Kistler said. “Coaches put us in a lot of adverse situations during the week, a lot of different looks, so we can get as much of a challenge during practice so when we go into a game it’s a little bit easier when they throw the book at us. We can react and just have fun out there.”
Cal Poly’s most active defenders are middle linebacker Nick Dzubnar and outside linebackers Cameron Ontko and Johnny Millard. All three are among the top 11 in the Big Sky in tackles, with Dzubnar averaging over 10 per contest.
They’ll have their hands full trying to contain Johnson and Montana’s dynamic running back duo of Jordan Canada and Travon Van. Together they combined for 193 rushing yards and three touchdowns in last week’s win.
“It’s always fun to see Travon going out there one-on-one with somebody,” offered Kistler. “You know that he’s probably going to win that matchup and it’s fun to chase him down to see what he’s going to do celebration wise.”
QUICK KICKS: Max Media (KTMF-FOX in Missoula and Kalispell) will carry Saturday’s game. That includes subscribers of Charter (ch. 2 in Missoula), DirectTV (ch. 24) and DISH (ABC/Fox affiliate) ... Cal Poly ranks fifth in the Big Sky defensively, allowing 24.8 points on average per game. Montana ranks No. 1 at 17.5 points per game ... The Mustangs rank dead last in the league in interceptions with two. Montana has a conference-high 10 pickoffs ... The Mustangs have recorded six sacks this season, which ranks 12th in the league.