A year ago last week, the Montana football team was humbled by Montana State in front of a frustrated crowd of 26,210 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Griz offense was anemic in a 16-7 loss.
The Bobcats’ chances of doing the same thing defensively seem remote in Saturday’s 113th Brawl of the Wild at 12:10 p.m. inside Bobcat Stadium. A big reason why, as Montana State coach Rob Ash will attest, is there’s a whole different kind of captain at the controls.
“They’ve got Jordy Johnson back,” Ash said of Montana’s dual-threat QB, who missed last season dealing with personal issues. “In the game of football at all levels, when you’ve got a great player at that position ... then you’ve got a chance to be successful.
“And no disrespect to anybody that played last year, but Jordy is a special player. That’s been a big blessing for them and he has stayed healthy and played all their games.”
Johnson’s health was a topic of discussion after he left last Saturday’s game at halftime complaining of flu-like symptoms. The junior confirmed earlier this week he will be playing against the Cats, providing a dangerous complement to Montana’s resurgent running game.
“I think they were very smart to make the change with their offense,” offered Ash, referring to the Grizzlies’ switch from a read option to a pro set scheme. “It fits their personnel extremely well.
“Then they picked up a couple play-makers. You know with the receivers and running backs, the transfers that fit in nicely,” Ash added, referring to Boise State transfer Jamal Wilson at fullback and Washington transfer Jamaal Jones at wideout. “They went to work and made some positive changes.”
How much better is Montana’s offense with Johnson? At this point in 2012 the Griz averaged 219 yards passing per game with 17 TD strikes. This year they average about 259 yards and Johnson has thrown for 27 touchdowns.
“It’s very diverse and they balance it out with good play-action that keeps you balanced in how you have to deploy yourself against them,” Ash said of the Grizzlies’ attack. “You can’t just load it up because Jordy (Johnson) will throw it over the top or bootleg out.
“You have to be disciplined about playing the entire field, which makes it more difficult defending the run. We have to be gap sound and very diligent, disciplined in terms of our assignments. The most important thing is to just get a guy in every gap so that hopefully we can flatten things off and rally to the ball.”
Gone from Montana State’s 2012 defense is end Caleb Schreibeis. That’s good news for Griz fans because Schreibeis was a one-man wrecking crew in last year’s Cat-Griz encounter, piling up a game-high 16 tackles with one sack and two pass break-ups.
The most dangerous defender for this year’s Cats (7-4) is senior end Brad Daly from Helena. He leads the FCS in sacks with 14.
“Their anchor is Daly at one end and (Alex) Singleton at the linebacker,” Montana coach Mick Delaney noted. “Then in the secondary their corners are good cover corners. By doing that it enables them to do some things with the safeties and linebackers.”
Daly has come a long way since the winter of 2009 when he dropped out of Montana State and spent a year in the oil business with Cathedral Energy Services.
“He’s a totally different person than who he was when he came in here out of high school,” Ash said of Daly’s freshman season in 2009. “He’s far more mature, much more settled in his life.
“He’s gotten rid of all the demons. He’s just completely changed his life around and it’s been remarkable to watch. He’s also improved on the field every year.”
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Delaney’s goal, just as it has been all season, is to get the running game going in Bozeman. Last week the Griz (9-2) piled up 338 yards rushing, but that came against the worst defense in the Big Sky Conference from Weber State.
The Cats are better defending the run, but they did show their vulnerable side in last week’s 22-14 home loss to Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds continually pounded the rock, running the ball 53 times for 179 yards. That helped them keep the ball away from Montana State’s savvy senior quarterback DeNarius McGhee, with SUU possessing the ball 10 minutes longer than Montana State.
Montana will be healthier at running back than it has been in a month. Reserve Travon Van hurt his ankle in October and has been sidelined ever since, but he has looked good in practice this week. Plus Wilson, who missed last week’s game with an ankle injury, is back in the mix.
“I think it has a tremendous impact,” Delaney said of Wilson and Van’s availability. “You know Jamal, when our running game is real effective, Jamal is the one that’s doing all the blocking in the 2-back stuff and does a great job of it.
“Travon, it’s the first time in four and a half weeks he has been practicing and he’s slowly working in. He’s a guy that can take it to the house when he gets a step on somebody. I’m excited to see how we are at running back with almost everyone healthy.”
QUICK KICKS: The one Griz running back who will not be in the mix Saturday is Joey Counts, who continues to be sidelined by an injury ... Singleton leads the Cats in tackles with 100, including 65 solos. He also has three interceptions and two forced fumbles ... Montana and MSU are both hoping to reach the FCS playoffs and are approaching Saturday as a must-win situation ... ROOT Sports will broadcast the game (in Missoula that includes Charter channels 60 and 560, DirecTV channel 687 and DISH channel 426).