Desperation mode has been a key ingredient in Montana’s offensive success lately.
Of the 58 points it tallied in its last two home tilts, 34 came either in the fourth quarter or OT. With a salty Sacramento State team awaiting the Grizzlies’ visit to Hornet Stadium Saturday at 2:07 p.m., one question begs to be answered:
Can the 12th-ranked Griz be more effective when their backs aren’t against the wall?
“We scored a bunch of points toward the end and now we’ve got to put that effort into the beginning of the game and et cetera,” Montana coach Mick Delaney said. “We’re excited to go to Sac State. They’re an excellent football team.
“We’re excited to get back on the field again and at the same time we know we’re going to have to play as well as we’re capable of playing to have a chance to be successful.”
All season Delaney has emphasized the importance of establishing a running game. It hasn’t been easy lately with ankle injuries to Travon Van and Joey Counts, the latter of which will not play Saturday, according to Delaney.
The Griz (3-2 Big Sky Conference, 6-2 overall) were forced to abandon the run when they fell behind Eastern Washington 42-17 last weekend. Montana did its best work in the final frame when it went almost exclusively with the pass and scored three touchdowns in a 42-37 setback.
Montana finished with 140 yards rushing.
“I think we just got away a little bit from the physical vertical blocking schemes we have and started to slide sideways a little bit more,” Delaney said. “But when you get down 42-17, there’s not enough hours in the day to run the ball and catch up.”
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For Griz fullback Jamal Wilson, a blocking specialist who hasn’t had a carry all season, Montana’s inability to run the ball consistently against Cal Poly and Eastern Washington is easy to explain: The Griz simply haven’t responded to a spike in defensive resistance.
“Recently we’ve been playing a lot of defenses that are physical as well,” the sophomore said. “Most of the time we haven’t been able to match that physicality.
“I still think we’re real close in our run game. There’s little things we have to correct. We’re leaving 200, 300 yards out there just on some little minor things. We have to adjust when we come against more physical defenses.”
Running the football is not going to be easy Saturday. The Hornets (3-1, 4-4) have held Big Sky foes to an average of 113.8 yards rushing, which ranks fourth best in the loop, right behind Eastern Washington.
Likewise, Sac State’s defense ranks fourth overall in Big Sky-only games, allowing about 364 yards per game. Montana’s defense ranks ninth, allowing about 421 yards on average in five league games.
“They play hard, they play fast and they’re not overly big,” Delaney said of Sac State’s defense. “... The safeties are solid and the corners are kind of hands-on guys. They’ve been called for a lot of pass interference but they still keep grabbing and stuff.
“They play a lot of zero coverage or one-free. And they blitz a lot. When you face a team like that you’ve got to win your one-on-one matchups with your receivers and running backs. If we get grabbed and can’t get off the press or the corners or the safety with the inside receivers, it puts in for a long day.”
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Montana’s best offensive weapon has been scrappy junior quarterback Jordan Johnson. His ability to escape pressure was especially important last week. He finished with 52 yards rushing on 11 carries in addition to completing 26 of 44 passes for fourth touchdowns, three coming in the final stanza.
Johnson’s day ended on a painful note when he slammed into the turf on an ill-fated attempt to score a two-point conversion run. Between that play and the hits he absorbed running away from pressure, the junior has sustained some bumps and bruises.
“He’s getting knocked around,” Delaney said, “but we’ve got a lot of guys that are banged up and sore.
“He’s going to be fine. He has practiced well this week.”
Sac State coach Marshall Sperbeck, who led his team to a home win over the Johnson-led Griz back in 2011, believes his team will have its hands full with Montana’s offense.
“They’re big up front, big and strong and physical,” he noted. “I think (Johnson) is a very good player, a good athlete.
“You get him trapped, you think you have him for a loss and he can escape and get out and make plays. That’s probably where he’s actually best is when he’s out playing the game and freelancing a little bit.”
Johnson’s favorite receiver, Ellis Henderson, is having a breakout season as a sophomore. He ranks third in the Big Sky in scoring with 11 touchdowns, three coming in last Saturday’s loss.
Henderson may need to have another big day for the Griz to win in Sacramento.
“He’s got good speed,” Sperbeck said, “and he’s one of those guys that can change the game.”
QUICK KICKS: Jordan Canada leads the Griz ground game, averaging 72.5 yards per game. Van, who continues to nurse a tender ankle, averages 57.4. ... Griz wideout Jamaal Jones, a transfer from FBS Washington, has 21 catches but has yet to record a TD. ... Montana senior tight end Clay Pierson did not have a catch against Eastern Washington. He had four catches two weeks ago against Cal Poly. ... Max Media will air Saturday’s game. That includes subscribers of Charter (channel 2 in Missoula), DirectTV (channel 24) and DISH (channel 17).