Given the credentials of the combatants, it might be the most compelling home opener in Montana football history.
The Grizzlies and Appalachian State Mountaineers will debut Saturday in the first regular-season night game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Between them these tradition-laden programs, whose fan support is second to none on the FCS level, have 41 playoff berths and 10 title game appearances.
“This is probably as exciting an opening game as anybody that’s involved with FCS football could ask for,” Montana coach Mick Delaney said. “You take two programs which have been very successful in the last 20 years and one of them, in Appalachian State, is about to move up to the FBS level.
“I know the place will be rockin’. It’s sold out and I know the coaches and the players are really anxious to get on the field and see where we’re at.”
Anxious because the Griz are ready to redeem themselves after a rare losing season in 2012. Anxious because it’s the first time in 12 games Montana won’t have to play with an NCAA investigation hanging over its head.
Anxious because junior quarterback Jordan Johnson, who led the Griz to the FCS playoff semifinals two years ago at age 19, is back after a year absence. He’s stronger, wiser and well-supported by an offensive line Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield holds in the highest regard.
“They’re extremely big,” said the first-year skipper, “probably the biggest line we’ll play this year, probably including Georgia.
“I just think they’re a well-rounded, really good football team. We certainly have a huge challenge in front of us. We’ve never won on this side of the Mississippi. We’re 0-9. But it’s a challenge that we relish.”
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The Mountaineers, ranked 12th in the Sports Network preseason poll, certainly have the potential for a breakthrough win in Missoula. It all starts with their senior quarterback, Jamal Londry-Jackson, who has the talent to burn the 20th-ranked Griz with his arm, legs or both.
With a reputation for accuracy on the move, the 6-foot-3 righty is considered to be a 2014 NFL Draft prospect. He has a veteran line in front of him and a cast of receivers he considers the best in the FCS. Together they’ll challenge a veteran Grizzly defense with a no-huddle spread attack.
Montana senior linebacker Brock Coyle, one of 11 veterans on the starting defense, believes he and his pals are up to the challenge.
“We’re excited to get out there and play as a defense we know we can be – fast and physical,” he said.
“Going against our offense all fall camp has been a really good challenge for us. I feel our offensive line to our receivers to our quarterback and running backs are some of the best if not the best we’ll see all year. They’ve made us a lot better.”
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Montana gave Appalachian State all it wanted last year in Boone, N.C., despite playing with a young quarterback in Trent McKinney. When the redshirt freshman hit running back Dan Moore on a screen pass and he rumbled 87 yards for a touchdown with just over eight minutes left, the Griz found themselves down by a point, 28-27.
Londry-Jackson and the Mountaineers answered with a 78-yard touchdown drive to thrill a crowd of 30,856. But Montana wasn’t done until a bomb by McKinney with 18 seconds left was intercepted at the goal line.
The Griz have changed considerably since that night. They’ve got new co-offensive coordinators in Kefense Hynson and Scott Gragg and a new pro set scheme that should help the run game, especially in the red zone. They’ve got a battle-tested quarterback in Johnson. They also have new special teams co-coordinators in Ross Brunelle and Jake Cookus, the latter of whom directed Weber State’s special teams for six seasons.
“We do reflect on last year in that we’ve got to finish games,” Delaney said of losing to ASU. “But other than that this is a new start. This is these seniors’ football team. There’s different dynamics and different players with different commitments.”
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The X factors for the 20th-ranked Grizzlies are their hometown fans and enclosed confines. If you don’t think they make a difference, ask Satterfield, who has tried to prepare his offense for considerable crowd noise.
“There’s no question it’s one of the top facilities that we’ve played at as far as the crowd,” he said. “They just have a very unique environment in that they have that bowl stadium and they’re right on top of you. You don’t have much room on the sidelines.”
Coyle, who calls Saturday night a “dream game,” is counting on the fans to give his defense a lift.
“It’s huge,” he said. “I love playing in that north end zone. Just knowing the passion our fans have for us is huge. It adds to our defense to have that 12th man, so to speak.
“Having Appalachian State coming into our house at night under the lights in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, our team couldn’t be more excited.”
Montana’s offensive personnel is just as anxious.
“It’s kind of what college football is all about to get a game like this,” senior wide receiver Cam Warren said. “... I’m excited about having a chance to show what we can do, how hard we’ve been working and what we’re capable of.”
QUICK KICKS: Saturday will mark the Griz debut of junior running back Travon Van, a transfer from FBS Marshall who has been exceptional in preseason workouts. ... When the Mountaineers use a running back in their spread offense he will be young. Sophomore Ricky Fergerson is slated to start, with a pair of freshmen backing him up. ... Montana’s most significant injury concern is projected starting center Kjelby Oiland, who sat out most of fall camp with a pulled hamstring. Delaney said he is “day to day.” If he cannot go, the Griz have a capable backup in Logan Hines, who started two games last season.