It was a sunnier press conference Tuesday for the Montana Grizzlies, coming on the heels of their 40-17 Big Sky Conference football win at Northern Colorado on Saturday.
Montana heads into this Saturday’s home game against Southern Utah (1:30 p.m. MDT kickoff) having pushed up to ninth in the 13-team Big Sky in turnover margin, for one thing.
The Griz have pushed up to eighth in the Football Championship Subdivision in rushing, for another.
Montana came up with five turnovers at UNC while giving up none, though Trent McKinney fumbled once – teammate Greg Hardy caught the ball – and then was on the receiving end of a chancy goal-line lateral from teammate Brett Kirschner.
“It was kind of a playground play,” McKinney, a redshirt freshman who ran for his second touchdown on the lateral, said. “I was just following through on my fake and (Kirschner) was kind of hidden.
“I went to push the pile and he just turned and pitched it to me and I went into the end zone – well, I flew into the end zone.”
McKinney’s sixth rushing TD of the season ended with a hit that launched him over the goal line.
“Put my pads down,” said the quarterback, smiling. “That’s what I learned there.”
Montana coach Mick Delaney could chuckle at the series of events a couple days later.
“That’s one of those plays we used to draw in the dirt back at Naranche Stadium,” said Delaney, a Butte Central product who played at the Butte landmark, which reopened in 2011 after four decades. “Years ago.”
The win over the Bears had other warning signs. The offense took a while to sustain a drive. Montana’s special teams scored a TD and then gave it back on the second-half kickoff – UNC’s Dominic Gunn returned it 98 yards.
“We’ve got to clean up the penalty situation,” Delaney added. “We had five 15-yard penalties, which is unacceptable. But we’ll get that cleaned up.
“We have to because we’re moving on to a Southern Utah team that’s as good as anybody we’ve played to date. Their record is 2-4, but they’ve lost to Cal, Utah State and Montana State, which are three very fine football teams.”
Montana is 3-3 and in search of something Griz fans generally take for granted: A winning streak. The Grizzlies have yet to win two straight games this season.
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Southern Utah is coming off a 27-22 home loss to Sacramento State in which the Thunderbirds led 16-7 at halftime.
Quarterback Brad Sorensen had his 10th 300-yard passing game against the Hornets and the senior seems well on his way to his third 3,000-yard season for Southern Utah, which sits in Cedar City. The drop-back passer helped the Thunderbirds, who joined the Big Sky this season, to a 6-5 record last year.
Delaney said in terms of conventional pocket passers, “I really feel he’s the best quarterback we’ve played.
“He’s not going to run the ball, though he can escape if he has to,” Delaney added. “He has a lot of experience, he’s very, very intelligent and he’s hard to put pressure on because he has such a quick release.”
Sorensen, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 235, and North Dakota’s Mark Hendrickson lead the Big Sky with 14 TD passes each.
“We need to get some pressure on him,” Delaney said. “That was a key last week. Two of the interceptions we had, (UNC quarterback Seth Lobato) had to fire the ball up in space. This week it’s key. He’ll pick you part if you just let him sit there and throw and throw.”
Another thing Southern Utah has going for it: A league-best plus-10 in turnover margin. The Thunderbirds have forced 14 fumbles, four by middle linebacker Zak Browning.
Browning is one of four true freshman starters on defense for Southern Utah. Another redshirt freshman, Miles Killebrew, starts at strong safety.
“They do have a few young guys,” Delaney said of the T-birds. “But they are just solid, defensively.”
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The status of running back Dan Moore remains in doubt for Saturday. Delaney said the senior, who was hurt early in Montana’s Sept. 29 loss at Eastern Washington, underwent another MRI Saturday.
“It showed a real severe high ankle sprain,” Delaney said. “But he’s making progress. He will not be ready this weekend. He says he will, bit I can’t see that happening.
“It would be great to have him back with us when we got to North Dakota (Oct. 20). That would be almost two weeks early for that kind of injury.”
Delaney added that running back Jordan Canada, who left Saturday’s UNC game after taking a screen pass 32 yards, had a “tweak” that shouldn’t sideline him.
“He worked out with us Sunday night and did everything we did,” Delaney said of the sophomore.
Delaney later said safety Matt Hermanson, who missed the latter part of the UNC game with a “stinger,” may miss practice this week but should be able to play against Southern Utah.
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QUICK KICKS: Delaney did note that he “screwed it up,” not deferring after winning the coin toss at UNC. The Griz ended up kicking off to open the first and third quarters, a rarity. … The Griz remain unranked in either FCS poll but are No. 11 among FCS teams in the Sagarin Ratings. Southern Utah is No. 38. Eastern Washington is No. 2, Cal Poly is No. 5 and unbeaten MSU is No. 13. … Southern Utah is 1-2 in Big Sky play with the win coming on the road, 49-42 at Portland State on Sept. 22. … Montana leads the Big Sky and ranks sixth nationally in sacks, averaging 3.0 per game. Griz DE Zach Wagenmann leads the Big Sky with 6.5 sacks. That’s also sixth in the FCS. ... UM is averaging 251 rushing yards a game, second in the Big Sky to unbeaten Cal Poly (310.2).
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