MISSOULA — The numbers were dizzying, really. But not in a good way.
Montana’s pass defense was a big reason — not the only reason — that the Grizzlies finished the 2012 season with a losing record for the first time in 25 years. It wasn’t pretty: UM ended the year ranked last in the Big Sky Conference and second-to-last in the FCS with an average of 288.4 passing yards allowed per game and 22 touchdowns.
The Grizzlies were in every contest, they just couldn’t hold leads. Young cornerbacks, new schemes under a first-time defensive coordinator, a head coaching change midway through spring practice … it all added up to a general lack of cohesiveness.
“A lot of the stuff with us (last year) was just being on the same page,” senior strong safety Bo Tully said during Montana’s annual Media Day on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. “And so that’s a huge thing we’ve tried to work on this offseason is from coverage to coverage and different situations knowing exactly what the other guy’s doing.
“That way we can work together. Because we got some good players, so if we’re doing the right things, we’re going to be a good squad.”
Last year was last year, but it’s hard to forget North Dakota wide receiver Greg Hardin racing up and down the field for a Big Sky record 333 yards in a 40-34 win over the Griz. UND quarterback Braden Hanson also shattered the league record with 660 passing yards.
That game in Grand Forks, N.D., last October summed up what UM’s secondary went through all season. But if fall camp has revealed anything, it’s that they’re putting the past away.
Tully and junior Matt Hermanson return as the safety tandem, while Josh Dennard, Anthony Goodwin, Nate Harris and Sean Murray — all of which started at different points a year ago — are back at corner. J.R. Nelson has also seen significant playing time at cornerback in camp.
Montana isn’t changing up too much scheme-wise under fourth-year DBs coach Aric Williams and second-year defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak. They’re simply working to improve on the system that’s already in place. But they know they’re under a microscope.
“Consistency and finishing games. Those were things that we lacked last year,” said defensive end Zack Wagenmann, who did his part with 11½ sacks in 2012. “There was quite a few games where we were in the lead, or at the end of the game we were right there able to, you know, make a push to win the game and were unable to do so.
“So finishing games, playing consistent, not having blown coverages, not missing assignments that lead to touchdowns, being sound and finishing games … it’s going to help us.”
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Moreover, another area in which the Grizzlies are looking to reverse their fortune is takeaways. Perhaps nowhere in college football in the past decade has the importance of turnover ratio been more evident than at Montana.
In seven years under former coach Bobby Hauck, the Griz were an unbelievable plus-92 in turnover margin. Is there any surprise, then, that the team had an 80-17 record in that span and made three trips to the national championship game?
In Robin Pflugrad’s first year as coach in 2010, UM was minus-7 in turnovers and missed the playoffs. The following year, Pflugrad’s Griz were plus-11, the best in the Big Sky, and made a run to the semifinals.
Last season under Mick Delaney, they reverted back to negative territory — minus-2 — and finished 5-6. Needless to say, the Grizzlies a putting a huge onus on turnover margin again in 2013.
“When you’ve got (an opposing) quarterback knowing he’s going to get hit or knowing when that ball comes out he’s going to get hit, it makes him think about it,” said senior linebacker Jordan Tripp. “When you’ve got lock-down corners, you’ve got ‘backers that can cover and swarm to the ball, and those wideouts are thinking about getting smacked, it’s going be a difference.
“They’re going to be thinking about something rather than catching the ball and not getting hit. We’re going to play fast, we’re going to play physical. We’re going to fly around and hit. That’s just what Montana football is. We’re going to be the smartest people out there. We’re going to know what’s coming and when it’s coming. That’s just going to allow us to play fast.”
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Prior to interviews on Saturday, the Grizzlies held their final scrimmage of fall camp as they prepare for the season opener against Appalachian State at home on Aug. 31.
Each unit had its moments, but a new-look, pro-style offense provided the most consistency during an eight-play 65-yard drive that was capped by a two-yard touchdown from running back Joey Counts.
The key play on that drive was a 40-yard pass from quarterback Jordan Johnson to wideout Ellis Henderson, which set the offense up with a first-and-goal at the 4.
“I think we have progressed every day,” said Johnson, who threw for 64 yards in the scrimmage. “We’re still installing some stuff every other day. It’s all going to be good stuff, but we’re still learning. Come game week we will have everything in and be ready to go.”
“Our next two weeks have to be focused on getting everybody healthy, and starting mental and physical preparation to play against a very talented Appalachian State team,” said coach Mick Delaney. “We’ll put a lot of emphasis on mentally getting ready for our opener, and I think physically we are getting close to where we want to be.”