MISSOULA — Montana has gotten off to a promising start in the second year under coach Bobby Hauck, specifically in the second half of games.
Through two contests, the Griz didn’t allow a single point in the fourth quarter to either South Dakota or North Alabama. In fact, they’ve given up just seven points in the second half of games, and that touchdown came on a drive that included a fluky, acrobatic 30-yard catch by South Dakota's Kody Case.
The second-half shutout against North Alabama was the first such performance since Nov. 3, 2018, against Southern Utah and the first at home since Sept. 16, 2017, vs. Savannah State. The two blankings in the fourth quarter are just the second and third time the Griz have done that in the 13 games since Hauck returned.
Opposing teams have had 13 second-half drives and have scored just once. The other 12 have ended with five punts, three interceptions, two turnovers on downs, one fumble and one end of half.
So what adjustments are Hauck and his staff making during the intermission to be putting up zeroes in the second half while outscoring teams 59-7?
“I don’t think anything real crazy,” Hauck said. “We’re just playing a little better in the second half. A lot of it is we have some flexibility in our defense. We have the ability when teams are getting at us a certain way, we have answers to it. I think that’s pretty much it.”
Carrying over that success against FBS No. 15 Oregon on Saturday could be more of a challenge. But being able to sustain it or perform close to that level will be key for the rest of the season, specifically conference play.
Montana has emphasized the need to finish games this season since it blew four fourth quarters leads last year. They were outscored 134-72 in 11 fourth quarters last season.
Senior nose tackle Jesse Sims highlighted the strong play in the second half of games as the thing that’s most impressed him about the defense.
“I would say the main thing is just finishing the second halves,” Sims said. “That’s been a big emphasis off last year coming into this year is not just starting strong in the first half but finishing them off in the second half.
“We just come out like the score’s 0-0. Whether we’re ahead or we’re down, we’re going to play like we still need to win the game in the second half.”
Senior linebacker Dante Olson said the mindset coming out of halftime has to be the same as going into the game. The difference is being able to take adjustments from the coaches and then be able to turn around and execute quick.
“The way we prepare, the way we’ve been playing as a whole team, not just the defense, just the whole team, we’ve been playing well together when the game’s on the line,” Olson said. “We’ve just been able to come together.”
Defending third downs
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Montana has limited the opposition to five third-down conversions on 23 attempts. The conversion percentage of 21.7% ranks ninth in the FCS.
That percentage is nearly half of what it was last season, when opposing teams converted third downs 39.1% of the time (70 of 179) against Montana.
“We’re probably getting off blocks pretty well in the short-yardage situations and we’re probably getting to the quarterback a little bit in the longer situations,” Hauck said. “I would attribute some of it to also playing better on first and second down so those are third-and-longers rather than third-and-shorters.”
Of the opposing teams’ 23 third-down plays against Montana, they’ve needed to pick up 5 or more yards 14 times and 10 or more yards eight times. Their average distance-to-go has been 7.3 yards.
Four of the five conversions have come with 1 yard needed, and one came with 8 yards required. All the conversions have come on runs, while the pass defense hasn’t allowed a conversion in 13 attempts through the air.
On third downs, defensive end Alex Gubner has an interception and a quarterback hurry, safety Josh Sandry has a sack and forced fumble, grad transfer Ryder Rice has a quarterback hurry, defensive end Milton Mamula has a fumble recovery and Sims has a tackle for loss.
“I would say one thing we’re doing better is not giving up as many yards on first and second downs,” Sims said. “So, they’re in a bad position on third down and we can get pressure on them and limit those third-down conversions.”
Timing it right
The Griz have won the time-of-possession battle each of its first two games. They rank 11th in the country with an average time of possession of 33:58 for a per-game edge of 7:56.
That’s quite the difference from 2018, when Montana controlled the ball an average of 28:16 for a difference of minus-3:28 per game.
In the season opener, Montana’s defense forced two turnovers on downs and got an interception while the offense controlled the ball over 12-plus minutes to seal the win.
“Well, the fourth quarter was a thing of beauty,” Hauck said about that 31-17 win. “We had the ball for over 12 minutes, and I think we had it the last 6:38 or something.
“That’s dominance in the fourth quarter if there ever was any. That’s something that has been a point of emphasis, and hopefully we can continue to do that moving forward.”