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Griz host NAU, not content as 1-hit wonders

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Montana head coach Bob Stitt congratulates quarterback Chad Chalich on a touchdown run.

When the Montana Grizzlies shocked the FCS world last month, slaying Goliath in front of a national television audience in coach Bob Stitt's first game in maroon, their victory over North Dakota State changed things.

Expectations intensified. This team should be special. They'd never lose a game, right?

Two painful defeats later -- one because of its competitiveness, the other a lack thereof -- Montana is a team searching for an identity. Is it the national contender that beamed into 1 million homes in Week 1 or a one-hit wonder destined to share shelf space with the Chumbawambas of the world?

Saturday's homecoming clash with Northern Arizona, a 2 p.m. kickoff at Washington-Grizzly Stadium to open Big Sky Conference play, will go a long way to deciding that.

"I think that when you're thinking about a game like that (against NDSU) for as long as we thought about it and then you do have success, it was natural to have a little bit of a letdown," Stitt said this week, on the heels of losses to Cal Poly and Liberty. "But you would expect it to be at most that next week and be able to rebound. It really carried over into the second week."

With a win this weekend, all could be forgiven for the No. 14 Grizzlies (1-2), who would pull even in overall record and more importantly move to 1-0 in league contests. The Big Sky games are paramount don't forget. Even three  nonconference flops could be erased by a Big Sky title and Montana is hunting its first since 2009 (its co-championship in 2011 was vacated).

"We're all oh-and-oh now, every team coming in, and that's the way we look at it," Griz defensive tackle Caleb Kidder said. "You look back on these three games and it's just added experience to us. We played three top-25 teams and I think that's only gonna help us in the long run."


Northern Arizona (2-1) is coming off its own clunker, a 77-13 laugher against in-state big brother Arizona. Though the game was once close -- 14-13 in the second quarter if you can believe it -- the FBS Wildcats scored the final 63 points.

"You hope that there's some merit from that game that we can carry over into conference play," NAU coach Jerome Souers said. "We're not gonna let this stand in the way of what we hope is a promising season."

The Lumberjacks' defense will attack the Grizzlies with two-front warfare, playing sticky man-to-man D' in the secondary and harassing the quarterback with its front. Senior cornerback Marcus Alford is the general in coverage while big senior D-end Zach McDonnell leads the line.

That's the plan NAU has for any game, Souers said, and the success that Cal Poly and Liberty had running zone has less bearing on what his team wants to do.

"Their defenses are different styles than ours so it really doesn't apply," Souers said. "We're gonna come out and play what we know."

"They probably tightened up on us a little bit," Stitt added of defensive adjustments against his team in its most recent two outings. "That's why we took some shots later in the Liberty game and got some big plays. ... We've got to be able to take some shots and get Jamaal (Jones) and Ellis (Henderson) over the top."

The Grizzlies' two big-play receivers will be joined by H-back Ben Roberts in the starting lineup for the first time Saturday. Roberts moved inside from his backup role behind Jones and is now starting opposite Z receiver Chase Naccarato.


The Griz have had to rely heavily on the pass game so far and Northern Arizona hopes to force Montana into further throwing situations. With backup quarterback Chad Chalich starting in place of the injured Brady Gustafson, the Jacks wants to make Chalich beat them with his arm, said NAU's McDonnell.

"We hope to get a lot of opportunities to pass rush but before that we've got to stop the run," said McDonnell, who leads the team with three sacks. "If we can stop the run game, force them into predictable situations, we set up ourselves for a good situation to pass rush."

The Northern Arizona offense will look to return to the balance it enjoyed in the early season with running back Casey Jahn likely back after missing last week with a bad hamstring. He's a perfect complement to the Jacks' youthful passing attack, led by freshman QB Case Cookus and sophomore WR Emmanuel Butler.

Cookus has been slowed by an ankle injury and may miss Saturday's contest though. In that case, senior Kyren Poe would start.

Together they hope to knock off the Grizzlies in Missoula for a second straight time and claim the program's first three-game win streak over UM since a stretch of four from 1976-79.

Montana leads the overall series 34-13.

Prior to a 41-31 win at Wa-Griz in 2012 and a 34-16 beating in Flagstaff, Arizona in 2013 (the teams did not meet last year under a restructured Big Sky schedule), Montana had won 14 in a row over the Lumberjacks.

The Griz are also hoping to avoid their first three-game losing streak in almost a decade.

"We could be 3-0, could be 0-3 and not feeling very good," Stitt said, "and 1-2 doesn't feel much better. ... All it takes is one win to get yourselves feeling great again."

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