The big dogs of FCS football will battle one last time as equals Saturday night inside sold-out Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Since the start of the new millennium, no team has managed to keep pace with Montana when it comes to wins (137). Appalachian State comes closest with 128 and the Mountaineers have been more consistent lately with eight straight playoff appearances.
Sure, there are others who can argue they’re big dogs, including that program three hours east of Missoula and another about three hours west. But for fan support and success over the past dozen seasons, the Griz and Mountaineers are the St. Bernards of the FCS.
“It’s everything a person could ask for in an opening game,” Montana second-year coach Mick Delaney said. “It really becomes almost like a playoff game because when these two teams have faced each other, other than last year, it has been in the playoffs.
“We’re really looking forward to it. It will be a dynamic atmosphere.”
* * * * *
Two great unknowns heading into the game are Montana’s offense and Appalachian State’s defense.Both units have new schemes and coordinators.
The Griz offense will operate largely out of a run-friendly pro set formation, with Kefense Hynson calling plays from the booth. Montana has a new fullback in Boise State transfer Jamal Wilson, who has built a reputation as a punishing lead blocker in preseason workouts.
The Mountaineers, who are moving up to the FBS ranks next season, have switched to a 3-4 defense under the direction of Nate Woody. He served as Wofford’s defensive coordinator when the Terriers came to Missoula six years ago and bounced UM out of the playoffs.
“We’re going to be playing a lot of young players,” App State first-year head coach Scott Satterfield said of his defense, which features six athletes with starting experience.
“We haven’t played four linebackers and three defensive linemen, so it’s different than what we’ve done. One key is how quickly our young players understand what we’re trying to get done and the speed of the game. That’s the one thing I think is hard for a young player to understand is the sense of urgency and the speed that college football is played at.”
Three freshmen will take the field with the ASU starting defense. They include inside linebacker John Law and free safety Alex Gray, who red-shirted last season, and true freshman outside linebacker Rashaad Townes.
“They’re talented but they haven’t played, so that’s going to be interesting,” Satterfield said.
The leader of App State’s defense is end Ronald Blair, a bona fide pro prospect at 6-foot-4, 275 pounds. The junior has a great deal of respect for Montana’s offensive line and calls Griz senior tackle Danny Kistler Jr. one of the best he’s ever played against.
Blair says communication will be crucial for his young unit. Not even he knows exactly how the Mountaineers will respond in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, but he believes Satterfield, who led ASU to its only unbeaten regular season as a QB in 1995, has done an outstanding job preparing the troops.
“He’s a young guy who can relate to the guys,” Blair said. “He can talk to you about his college days and tell you the struggles he’s went through to help you with yours. It’s been a good transition.”
* * * * *
The most intriguing question mark for Montana is junior quarterback Jordan Johnson. He has looked sharp in practice but hasn’t played a game since December of 2011.
One thing Johnson has going for him is the faith of his teammates.
“He’s one of a kind,” Grizzly senior wideout Cam Warren said. “He puts that kind of confidence in our receivers that he’s going to go with the ball where it’s supposed to go. He’s going to take what the defense gives him.
“Just having somebody back there who we have so much trust in and he trusts us, it lets us play full speed. It’s just exciting to have him back.”
Warren is also sold on Montana’s switch from a read option attack in 2012 to the pro set scheme.
“We’re playing football again,” he said. “We’re back to reading defenses and taking advantage of what they’re giving us.
“It’s not just go-go-go, run it to run it. Everything has a method behind it. Hynson has been awesome. I think everybody is 100 percent behind this offense. We’ve been clicking and it’s exciting to play this kind of football.”
Delaney believes his team is “about as ready as you can be.”
“We’re tired of practicing against each other, I know that,” he said. “Our young men made a huge commitment this summer to work against each other in 7-on-7 and pass-rush, pass -protection type stuff. They’ve been facing each other for almost five months now.”
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). ... The only current ASU player who made the trip to Missoula four years ago for an FCS playoff semifinal loss to UM is starting linebacker Michael Frazier. He said he tried to stand near a sideline heater as often as possible. ... Appalachian State arrived in Missoula on Thursday night. ... The capacity of Washington-Grizzly Stadium is 25,217 and the all-time attendance record is 26,210, set in last season’s Griz-Cat game. ... Satterfield, a former walk-on, replaced legendary head coach Jerry Moore. His 24-year run came to an end following the 2012 campaign.