MISSOULA — There are many unknowns heading into Montana’s first football game in 485 days when the Griz host Central Washington at 11 a.m. Saturday in front of about 5,000 fans at Washington-Grizzly Stadium
A team’s identity can change drastically over an offseason, especially one as long as the past 69 weeks, because of coaching and player changes within a program and time to stew up new attacks in the laboratory. So, teams can potentially catch their opponents off guard early in the year with formations, schemes, plays or lineups they’ve never put on film.
That lends itself to the team that can adapt quickly and appropriately throughout the game having the better chance of winning. UM should have the athletic edge with 63 scholarship players compared to the 36 scholarships D-II teams offer. CWU does have 11 former D-I players on its roster, so don’t expect them to be a typical D-II team getting blown out by 40-plus points.
“These next two weeks, I don’t have a real definitive idea of what we’re going to see from the other team,” UM coach Bobby Hauck said. “So, I think maybe the best thing we’ll get a chance to see out of our team is their ability to adjust on the fly to things we haven’t planned for.”
Here are five things to watch in this game:
How does the offense operate with a new QB?
It’s rare to have a backup QB who’s replacing a starter enter a season with starting experience. That’s the case UM finds itself in as Cam Humphrey made three starts in 2019, came into spring camp as the frontrunner and gets the nod this week. He’ll have a different offense around him with All-American wide receiver Samori Toure having transferred, running back Marcus Knight potentially not playing and now a deep group of tight ends. It would make sense that Humphrey plays a lot unless he leads Montana to an insurmountable lead or he struggles mightily.
How does the veteran, reshuffled OL look?
If the O-line is as good as it looks on paper, then it better dominate in the trenches against a D-II team. The O-line was the weak point when Hauck took over ahead of 2018, but it’s now the team’s most veteran group with four starters back and some beefed-up size. UM revamped the line with Nebraska transfer AJ Forbes at center, Colton Keintz sliding to guard as Dylan Cook has locked down right tackle as a former NAIA quarterback walk-on. Conlan Beaver is back for his third season starting at left tackle, while Moses Mallory showed his mettle at guard in 2019.
How do the backup RBs perform?
Knights’ status is unknown as he wasn’t listed on the two-deep for this week. Whether or not his absence is long term, creating running back depth is key for a deep playoff run in the fall. Nick Ostmo, a 6-foot, 221-pound sophomore, is in line to make his first career start after being the backup running back in 2019 but having his carries limited to 6.9 per game as Knight was the 2019 Big Sky newcomer of the year. True freshman Xavier Harris, at 5-10, 180, impressed enough to earn the second-string spot over two others with more experience in the program.
How does Montana’s defensive front transform?
UM primarily played with a 4-2-5 defense in 2018 but transitioned to a 3-3-5 more often in 2019. The Griz may not be able to replace linebacker Dante Olson with one player, but they can replace his production with multiple players as Jace Lewis is joined by Patrick O’Connell and Marcus Welnel. The D-line has four of six upperclassmen on the two-deep and will try to prove it has the depth where the first and second strings can be rolled in with little or no drop-off. Arizona transfer Justin Belknap will look to show the talent that helped him excel before injury.
How much of a strength are UM’s new CBs?
Cornerback is an intriguing position to see who emerges as UM went heavy on transfers since 2019. Oregon State transfer Omar Hicks Onu, a converted safety, and sophomore Corbin Walker, the lone Griz with game action in a UM jersey, headline the depth chart. Louisville transfer Justin Ford and true freshman Autjoe Soe should also see playing time as UM tries to see if cornerback is actually a strength. It should be more of an upgrade after playing with converted receivers the past two years, but the CBs need to prove themselves in live action.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.