Bye weeks can be a mixed blessing for college football teams.
On one hand, they offer a terrific opportunity to rest bruised and battered troops. On the other, they can kill momentum for a sky-high squad like 11th-ranked Montana, who ripped through Appalachian State on Aug. 31 but hasn’t played since.
Saturday’s tilt at North Dakota may feel a little like starting over again for the Grizzlies. Will they be rusty out of the gate against an upset-minded foe that played last week? Will they be so fresh that dinged-up NoDak is out of it by halftime?
We’ll soon find out.
“This early in the season it’s kind of an unusual situation,” Montana coach Mick Delaney said of sitting idle last week. “But our guys mentally worked so hard in our fall camp and put a lot of emotion and mental preparation into the Appalachian State game, so I think it came at a good time.
“We don’t have any serious injuries, but what little nicks and bruises we got, they had a chance to get through those.”
Delaney makes no bones about the intentions of his pro-set offense. Montana (1-0) will try to run the ball down the throat of a NoDak defense that was abused by South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner last week. He rushed for a whopping 295 yards in a 35-28 win.
“We’ve come into this season with the philosophy we have to run the ball no matter who it’s against,” said Delaney, whose team rushed 52 times and passed 23 in a 30-6 win over App State. “I’m sure (UND) shored some things up since last week. But we will attempt to run the football because that’s our M.O.”
North Dakota (1-1) ranked next to last in the Big Sky Conference against the run in 2012, allowing an average of 235.3 yards per game. This year UND has shaved that number to 189.5, although you might argue it’s due to a lack of competition in a 69-10 debut win over Valparaiso.
Despite the fact his team surrendered 298 yards on the ground to South Dakota State last week, NoDak coach Chris Mussman believes his defense made progress.
“Six of the nine series in the second half our defense was on the field we held them,” he noted. “They scored on one series I thought they earned. The other two we gave it to them with turnovers.”
There was little to complain about in Montana’s offensive debut against App State. The Grizzlies piled up 497 yards and would have scored even more points if not for a classy decision to sit on the ball inside the Mountaineers’ 5-yard line as time ran out.
Delaney’s only beef was a failure to capitalize on all opportunities. In the first half Montana stalled at the App State 19-yard line on one drive and fumbled the ball away inside the Mountaineers’ 5 on another.
“We have to clean up the red zone,” he said. “We were there three times without scores.”
The Griz showed a lot of potential at the running back position. Marshall transfer Travon Van came up big in his Montana debut, using his spin moves and sharp cuts to collected a game-high 118 yards on 20 carries.
He served as backup to Jordan Canada, who carried the ball 25 times for 112 yards. Canada said he wasn’t the least bit surprised by the way Van sparkled.
“Soon as he came in we were expecting big things, and he stepped to the plate,” Canada said. “I expect even more out of that dude.
“I love having him on the team ... It really helps as far as carrying the load.”
Another Montana running back who figures to play a key role Saturday, regardless of how many carries he has, is sophomore Joey Counts. Not only does he give the Griz a third legitimate option as a ball carrier – he had three totes for 15 yards against App State – he is quickly emerging as a special teams star.
Counts had one tackle and foiled more than one App State kick return with his aggressive wedge-busting approach.
“We expect him to be a great player on special teams,” Delaney said. “We also told him he better look out of the side of his ear holes this week because people are not going to continue to let him run down there and blow them up.
“Ask Dan Moore,” Delaney continued, referring to a former UM running back who attacked on kickoff coverage. “There will be somebody kamikaze-ing him real quickly. He better have his head on a swivel.”
Canada believes he and his Grizzlies have some unfinished business in Grand Forks, N.D. Last year NoDak scored a touchdown with 12 seconds left to earn a 40-34 victory over Montana.
“We worked hard and basically let it fall through our fingers,” recalled the running back, whose team fumbled the ball away twice and went 6 for 18 on third-down conversions. “We started shooting ourself in the foot.
“Honestly I’m going to go into this game with a mental focus, making sure we don’t let those same mistakes happen.”
QUICK KICKS: The game will air on KTMF-FOX in Missoula and Kalispell. That includes subscribers of Optimum (ch. 2 in Missoula), DirectTV (ch. 24) and DISH (ABC/Fox affiliate) ... Due to a scheduling quirk, Montana will play at UND three years in a row. The third trip is slated for Oct. 4 next season ... Montana will have a 21-year-old freshman at tight end in Jordan Harper of Great Falls. He had a TD reception in Montana’s opener and will fill in at starter Saturday for senior Clay Pierson, who has a broken hand.