For a man with a mountain of responsibility on his shoulders, Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson sure doesn’t show it.
The junior has built a reputation as a poised performer with a knack for coming up big late in games.
He has guided the 10th-ranked Grizzlies (7-2) to come-from-behind wins two of the past three Saturdays and was within a touchdown of making it three straight weeks. In that time he has completed 32 of 57 passes in the fourth quarter and overtime with six touchdowns.
Then there’s the intangibles: It’s hard to measure just how much No. 10 means to the Maroon and Silver from a leadership standpoint. No one is more focused in practice. No one is more driven to perfection.
“He works his butt off all week and he’s one of the smartest quarterbacks I know,” said Montana wideout Ellis Henderson, who has been on the receiving end of 12 TD passes from Johnson this season. “He makes me right a good majority of the time and I just try to return the favor as much as possible.”
* * * * *
South Dakota coach Joe Glenn, whose squad will try to contain Johnson Saturday at noon in a nonconference clash at the DakotaDome, has his own take on Montana’s unflappable field general.
“He didn’t play against us last year and he’s a big difference when he’s on the field,” the coach said. “The guy throws strikes over and over and over and sometimes he’ll even throw it close enough that his guy might get it when nobody else is going to get it.”
Johnson’s performance in Saturday’s 51-48 overtime win at Sacramento State was a testament to his will. He started the game completing 6 of 16 passes and you wondered if it was going to be one of those days. He finished with a career-high 381 passing yards and threw a game-winning 25-yard TD pass to Henderson in overtime.
“(Henderson) makes a lot of plays and I feel like I’ve grown as a player since two years ago, which I think helps that relationship a lot,” Johnson said. “We just seem to connect. I don’t really know what it is but he’s always open. He’s so good that it makes it look like I’m just kind of picking him out and throwing to him.”
Henderson says he and Johnson, who has a 24-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, never really talk about their football chemistry.
“We tend to avoid talking about it if anything,” he said with a grin. “We just go out there and have fun and I think just playing with each other, we never really needed to speak on it. It just happens.”
* * * * *
Johnson and the Grizzlies will have their hands full with South Dakota’s defense, according to Montana coach Mick Delaney. The Coyotes have been especially good rushing the passer with 27 sacks.
“They’ve got an outstanding defensive end,” Delaney said of sophomore Drew Iddings. “He’s as good as there is. He’s big – 6-foot-6, 255 – a very good pass rusher and plays the run well.
“Then they have a linebacker (Tyler Starr) I think is pretty special and they’re solid down the middle with their safeties. They have a 6-4 corner (Jarrid Bryant). He’s a long leverage guy that’s got his hands all over people. They pressure quite a bit but most of it is zone pressure so they’re not sticking themselves where they’re playing a ton of man-to-man.”
Starr has been a one-man wrecking crew from his spot at outside linebacker. The senior has a team-high eight sacks and 14 tackles for a loss along with four fumbles forced and four pass break-ups.
One way to counter the Coyotes’ pass rush is to maintain a good ground game. Montana’s go-to running back, junior Jordan Canada, is playing some of the best football of his career, scoring four touchdowns in Saturday’s win.
Three of those scores came from a yard away, and the tendency is to look upon those as easy. But don’t tell that to Delaney.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of five or six inches where you can lean into that seam and (Canada) always seems to know where it’s at,” the coach said. “Once in a while even he’ll bounce. He just has great feel for where his feet and eyes are at and where the defenders feet and eyes are at.”
Canada, who is carrying even more of the load lately with the loss of Travon Van and Joey Counts to ankle injuries, joked he’s considering a different method of scoring on short-yardage situations so as to avoid the big pile-ups.
“I think I’m going to start looking into John Nguyen’s method of just jumping over the top,” said the junior, referring to his backup. “That might be a little easier than what I’ve been doing.”
QUICK KICKS: Max Media will air the game in Montana. That includes subscribers of Charter (channel 2 in Missoula), DirectTV (channel 24) and DISH (channel 17). The game will also air regionally in nine states on Altitude, but that broadcast will be blacked out in Montana ... Johnson ranks second in the Big Sky Conference in passing efficiency at 165.3. Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams leads in that department at 185.6 ... Henderson and Canada are tied for fourth in Big Sky scoring with 72 points apiece.