Montana football coach Mick Delaney mentioned Tuesday that Southern Utah, the Grizzlies’ opponent Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, might be the best team they’ve faced so far.
In terms of whom he’s looking at across the line of scrimmage, Griz center Kjelby Oiland tends to agree.
There’s 300-pound defensive tackle Cody Larsen for one thing, and freshman linebacker Zak Browning for another, when the Griz and T-Birds tee it up at 1:30 p.m. Mountain.
“It’s not just him,” Oiland said of Larsen. “It’s the front seven, especially No. 35 (Browning). He’s a downhill player, so that means we’re going to have to be great on our combos.”
Which means either guard, William Poehls or Jake Hendrickson, will help Oiland with Larsen while keeping an eye on Browning. The Thunderbirds, 2-4 on the season, have other talented, if young, players.
“The front four, they’re probably the best we’ve seen since Eastern,” said Oiland. “They’re stout. They’re not going to be flashy players but they’re definitely going to stay in their gaps.”
And yes, Oiland is aware that he and his fellow linemen paved the way for 407 rushing yards against Eastern Washington.
“They had some guys up front,” he asserted of the Eagles, who beat the Griz 32-26 on Sept. 29. “Southern Utah’s a little more put together than Eastern. But I’m looking forward to it. It’s another test for us.”
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It’ll be a test for Southern Utah as well: The Thunderbirds’ opponents are gaining an average of 200 rushing yards, though that has been skewed some by Portland State (317 yards, and the Vikings still lost) and Cal (289 yards).
Now comes a Montana team that is averaging 251 rushing yards a game. Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb figures one key is keeping track of Griz QB Trent McKinney.
“It’s really about making sure we are in a sound system of defense that accounts for the quarterback,” said Lamb. “He is so much a part – (he’s) at least a threat to pull the ball and run, and also in their designed passes to pull the ball down and run.”
Lamb said typically, defenses need to bring another defender into the tackle-to-tackle “box” to account for that extra run threat from the quarterback.
Last week, in a 27-22 home loss to Sacramento State, Hornets’ QB Garrett Safron ran 12 times for 91 yards, including a 63-yard TD. He threw for another 192 yards.
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Delaney has often talked of the continued improvement of Montana’s secondary and last Saturday he could see the proof in the pudding: Three interceptions by Griz defensive backs in UM’s 40-17 win at Northern Colorado.
“I think I’ve stated every week that I felt the secondary was getting better,” Delaney said Tuesday. “You could just see the progress being made week by week … we put a ton of emphasis on taking the ball away last week.
“All three interceptions were great interceptions. Josh (Dennard) played the ball right to the high point, as we call it, and Bo Tully the same way. And then Nate (Harris), at 5-foot-2, went up over the top of that guy and came down with it.”
Harris took the ball away from 6-foot-3 Jace Davis and returned it 29 yards, setting up a field goal as the first half ended. But the redshirt freshman corner is taller than 5-2.
“He’s 5-7.” Delaney said of Harris. “Isn’t he, Josh?”
Dennard nodded. Harris, for the record, is listed at 5-10 on Montana’s two-deep.
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Southern Utah’s most impressive performance may have come at California on Sept. 8. The Thunderbirds trailed the (2-4) Pac-12 Bears just 20-17 after a Brad Sorensen TD pass at 8:27 on the third quarter.
From there, though, it was all Cal: An interception return for a touchdown came in the middle of a 24-0 burst. The T-Birds surrendered a 69-yard punt return to fall behind 44-17 midway through the fourth quarter. The Bears scored 17 points in a little over three minutes.
“In a heartbeat,” was how Delaney put it. “We expect a really, really fine football team coming in here.”
QUICK KICKS: Saturday’s game will be televised statewide on Max Media of Montana. That’s channel 23 & 42 over the air in Missoula and Kalispell (KTMF-ABC) and channel 9 on Missoula’s Optimum Cable. The game can also be streamed through bigskytv.org. UM’s final four regular-season games, which cannot be streamed, are on Root Sports. … In case you missed it, Peter Nguyen was UM’s nominee for Big Sky Conference offensive player of the week. Caleb Walden was nominated for special teams. … With 1,499 yards, Nguyen is 194 from moving into UM’s top 10 in career rushing. … Southern Utah’s lone win over the Griz in five tries came at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, by a 45-35 score in 1998.