It’s either time for the Montana Grizzlies to start getting well or the Northern Colorado Bears to turn a corner.
Saturday’s Big Sky Conference football matchup in Greeley, Colo., has generally been a mismatch in the past, but this one features two sub-.500 teams thanks to Montana’s 0-2 start to league play.
The Bears, who are playing their homecoming game, have a big, capable passer – and pass defense hasn’t necessarily been the Grizzlies’ strong suit.
Montana counters, well, with its tradition and talent even if its record hasn’t measured up.
“They’re still one of the elite teams,” Northern Colorado coach Earnest Collins, Jr., said of the Griz. “Everybody’s talking about them not winning a conference game, that they’ve lost three games – but every team they’ve lost to has been at the top of FCS football.
“So Montana is still who they are and we have to come prepared, ready to play and try to get one done.”
A big step for UNC would be not letting the Griz build a big lead. Northern Colorado hasn’t put up big offensive numbers thus far, but has a solid defensive front seven that includes Buchanan Award candidate Clarence Bumpas at middle linebacker.
“From watching them I know they have a very good run defense,” Griz quarterback Trent McKinney said. “I haven’t seen them give up a run of more than 15 yards.”
That may bode well for a pass game that was on the back burner last week, in UM’s frustrating 32-26 loss at No. 7 Eastern Washington. Then again it could snow at Nottingham Field and besides, any strategy to take down the Bears, asserted UM coach Mick Delaney, takes back seat to finding consistency on both sides of the ball.
“Number 1, I think we have to go out and worry about Montana,” Delaney said. “I do think we have to run the ball decently; I believe we can do that against anybody. You do that and you have opportunities in the play-action pass to get the ball down the field.”
It’s been a strange year for the Griz, from their 407 rushing yards against Eastern back to McKinney’s 300-yard passing performance at Appalachian State. Neither statistic brought home a win, and the Griz need to get some of those.
Corralling Northern Colorado quarterback Seth Lobato, a 6-foot-5 junior, would seem to be the key. He was 30 for 46 passing for 254 yards in UNC’s 55-28 loss to Montana a year ago.
Those numbers, and two 400-yard games later in the season, came without all-Big Sky receiver Jace Davis, who was academically ineligible.
Davis is back, and at 6-2 he isn’t of the stature of Eastern Washington’s 6-5 Brandon Kaufman, but he is good. Despite an emphasis on running the ball this season, the Bears seem more likely to pass.
Delaney won’t have any of it: Buchanan Award candidate Jordan Tripp and the rest of UM’s front seven have to plug the gaps up front, first.
“Lobato being a big, strong, target guy, we’ll try to stop the run,” Delaney said. “And try to put enough pressure on him to make it a miserable afternoon.”
Offensively Montana lost running back Dan Moore to a high ankle sprain against Eastern Washington. He won’t play Saturday, but it’s worth noting the Grizzlies’ rushing performance last week came with the 235-pounder getting just four carries.
Jordan Canada, who had 167 rushing yards, Peter Nguyen (119 yards) and McKinney (95) more than picked up the slack.
“Peter and Jordan, for the first time in a while, broke a lot of tackles,” Delaney said. “We complain to our guys about bad tackling, but … Jordan and Peter made a lot of guys miss and ran through a lot of tackles.”
McKinney’s work in the option game was impressive, and he was also 14 of 17 passing.
On what could be a wet track in Greeley, the run game may be the focus on both sides. And Montana has run it extremely well.
“It’s a challenge,” said Collins, who is looking for his second victory as UNC’s coach. “Really for us it’s about assignment football, and not trying to do more than you’re supposed to do.”
That’s what it is about for Montana. Both teams feel major momentum is close by, if they can just seize it.
“I know they’re young, but they’re good,” Davis said of the Griz. “But we’re good too.”
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247, at email@example.com or @Fritz_Neighbor.