No one has taken Montana’s defensive struggles more to heart than coach Ty Gregorak.
The Griz defensive coordinator has watched his veteran crew surrender record-setting passing numbers the past two weekends against Eastern Washington and Sacramento State. Considering the high expectations he had heading into the season, it’s been a stunnning turn of events.
“I can promise you we will work our butts off to try to get this thing right,” said Gregorak, whose unit is preparing for another test at South Dakota on Saturday at noon. “I expect our team to get better this week. I really do.
“I know the defense is ticked. We’re definitely frustrated and disappointed. This time of the year we should be playing our best football and we’re not.”
The good news for the Griz is they’re 7-2. If they can win at least two of their three remaining games, they will likely secure an FCS playoff berth.
But to get anywhere in the playoffs, they’ll need to shore up their defense. In particular their pass defense, which ranks next to last in league-only competition.
Two weeks ago Eastern quarterback Vernon Adams threw for a school-record 457 yards and six touchdowns in a win at Montana. Last Saturday the Griz pulled out a pivotal 51-48 overtime win at Sacramento State that saw Hornets junior QB Garrett Safron set single-game school standards in completions (41), passing yards (412), total yards of offense (505) and total touchdowns (6).
“What’s frustrating and maddening is that one series we can call the defense and execute it to perfection,” Gregorak said. “And then the next series, or two series later, we can call the exact same call and one missed tackle here or a wrong fit there and it’s a 35-yard touchdown.
“If you look at a lot of the big plays, there’s guys close. We need to make plays. I’ll never blame someone that plays on this defense. I blame myself first and foremost. I need to do a better job. We need to constantly emphasize tackling. They’ve got to go finish tackles and run through ball carriers as opposed to reaching and grabbing. Take that extra step.”
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In fairness to the Griz, they’ve faced what head coach Mick Delaney calls two of the best quarterbacks in the entire FCS division. Adams has been hard on a lot of defenses, including FBS Oregon State, who surrendered 49 points to the Eagles in a season-opening loss. Safron and the Hornets scored 38 points against Northern Arizona’s salty defense on Oct. 12.
Like Sac State, South Dakota (4-5) will attack the Grizzlies with a pistol offense. However, the Coyotes do not have a pesky scrambler under center like the Eagles and Hornets.
“They’ve got a bigger body quarterback,” Gregorak said, referring to sophomore Kevin Earl. “He’s 6-foot-6, 220 (pounds). They do a lot of fly motion and their running backs run hard.
“They have a couple Joeys (Counts) in the backfield, so to speak. They run the ball hard. They have some skill at receiver and they’ll be tough at home. We’ve got our work cut out for us going to a (Dakota) dome and playing a team that plays pretty well at home.”
The Coyotes suffered their first home setback last Saturday, 38-34, against ninth-ranked Youngstown State. Earl threw for 219 yards and two touchdowns and his team held a 34-31 lead with a minute left.
Saturday’s game will be special for Montana free safety Matt Hermanson, who grew about an hour north of the DakotaDome in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The junior believes the key to successfully defending the pass is effort.
“We just need to cover longer,” he offered. “Quarterbacks have been able to escape the pocket, make some plays down the field. If we just cover for a few extra seconds I think our D-line can get there and make a big difference.”
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A more effective pass rush could make all the difference for a Griz secondary that has been inconsistent in both man and zone coverage. Montana has averaged one sack a game the past three weeks after recording 14 in its first six contests.
“You go back through the whole season with those two quarterbacks though,” Delaney said, referring to Adams and Safron, “and together I think they’ve been sacked about six or seven times for the whole season combined.”
In the final analysis, Gregorak says it’s all about consistency for his embattled crew. The first two weeks of the season the Griz defense allowed just 20 points combined to a pair of respectable offenses from Appalachian State and North Dakota.
“Hopefully we can right the ship,” Gregorak said. “They’re good players, good guys. The problem (last Saturday) is we had moments where we could have really finished them. And we didn’t finish.
“The two-minute drill before half, then when we had them down 38-24, we kept giving Sacramento State hope ... But you know what? Life is good. We’re 7-2 and we still have three opportunities, hopefully more, to get better.”
QUICK KICKS: Max Media will air Saturday’s game. That includes subscribers of Charter (ch. 2 in Missoula), DirectTV (ch. 24) and DISH (ABC/Fox affiliate) ... Middle linebacker Brock Coyle leads the Griz defense in total tackles (86) and solo tackles (37). His tackles for a loss (7) are second only to defensive end Zack Wagenmann (11.5) ... Delaney did not have any updates on injuries to report Tuesday. The Griz played in Sacramento without running backs Counts and Travon Van, wideouts Taylor Walcott and Mitch Saylor, reserve LB Kendrick Van Ackeren and FS Steven Rominger.