MISSOULA — Montana will face arguably the most physical FCS defense it’s seen this year when it hosts No. 3 Weber State this Saturday in Missoula.
The Wildcats lead the Big Sky Conference in four defensive categories: scoring defense (20.7), total defense (355), rush defense (110.8) and turnover margin (plus-13). They’re also third in sacks (27) and red-zone defense (76.9%), and fifth in pass defense (244.2).
The big battle will take place in the trenches. The Wildcats’ defensive line is their standout position group, followed by their linebackers.
“They’re big, strong guys. I’d say that’s their most outstanding trait,” Montana senior center Cy Sirmon said. “They’re physical. They like to try to control the point of attack. They’re all built well. It’s going to be a challenge.
The Wildcats have four of the top 13 sack leaders in the Big Sky, all of them being defensive ends. Jonah Williams is tied for fourth with 6.5 sacks, George Tarlas is seventh with six, Adam Rodriguez has 4.5 sacks and McKade Mitton has four.
Williams, towering over others at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, is also 12th with 8.5 tackles for loss, while Jared Schiess has eight.
“They’re good. They’re physical. Well coached,” Hauck said. “They do a nice job not getting knocked off the ball. They’re good with their hands. Just what good D-lines do.”
He added: “I think the whole group is pretty good. They roll them in pretty good. They’re just good across the board.”
Weber State plays largely with four down linemen and man-free coverage in the secondary, Hauck said. The regular starting D-line averages 277.5 pounds, with a 300-pounder and a 290-pounder clogging up the middle.
“They try to get a push,” Sirmon said of the D-tackles. “It’s just casting a net around the quarterback. They want to create a push up the middle and cut off escape lanes with their pass rush outside. To do that, you got to have big, strong guys in the middle – big, disciplined guys to maintain pass rush lanes. That’s what they do well. They’re a physical group.”
Weber State’s rush defense has been even more impressive in conference play, holding teams to a paltry 82.7 yards per game. Montana is second, and that’s all the way back at 113.3 yards.
The Griz counter with a rush offense that’s averaging 180.2 yards in conference play. Marcus Knight leads the way for the Griz, averaging 78.5 of those yards, and his 17 total touchdowns this season are tied for the fourth most in a single season in school history.
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“I think they’re a lot bigger than some teams that we’ve played,” Knight said. “They’re big, physical, hustle to the ball, tackle well. All the ingredients there."
Weber State’s pass defense has been susceptible in league play, allowing 272.2 yards per game, fifth worst in the Big Sky. The key for the Griz will be getting the time to throw — they've allowed 24 sacks, tied for seventh in the Big Sky — and establish enough of a run game to keep Weber State’s defense honest.
The Wildcats have also recovered a league-best 13 fumbles in 10 games, so holding onto the ball will be paramount to success.
“We just have to hustle on every play,” Knight said. “When someone gets the ball, try to go make the touchdown block. For the running backs, you got to take care of the quarterback, know where to go and just keep putting the ball where it’s supposed to be so we can get those 2-, 3-, 4-yard runs. We’re just emphasizing hustle and being tough.”
Weber State’s offense leans more to running than passing, and why wouldn’t they with the reigning FCS freshman of the year in Josh Davis.
Davis leads the Big Sky with 120.2 rush yards per game in conference play and is second with 134.3 all-purpose yards per game. However, the 5-foot-9, 195-pounder went into concussion protocol this past Saturday, and his status for this week isn’t known.
The Wildcats have capable backups behind him in 6-foot, 210-pound speedster Kevin Smith and 5-foot-10, 235-pound bruiser Kris Jackson. Smith is adding 56.4 rush yards and has two rushing scores in nine games, while Jackson is averaging 36.4 yards and has 10 touchdowns in 10 games.
“I think it’ll be one of the most physical games we play,” Montana safety Robby Hauck said. “Credit to them, they like to play physical and so do we. We like to pride ourselves on that. I’m sure they do as well. It’ll make it a fun game. Kind of how we like it.”
Weber State complements its running with a pass game that’s shown flashes in recent weeks. The Wildcats have had three consecutive games in which a player has gone over 100 receiving yards. Devon Cooley had 104 against UC Davis, Ty MacPherson had 117 against Sacramento State and David Ames had 105 against North Dakota.
Those are the only 100-yard receiving performances this year by the Wildcats. Quarterback Jake Constantine has thrown for over 200 yards just twice in seven games.
“They’re a good team with a good O-line, good skill positions. We have our hands full,” Montana linebacker Jace Lewis said. “It’ll be a good game. We just have to run to the ball, be 11 on a tackle, work hard. Coach always says every week that this game has to be our most physical game. We’re preparing for that like we do every week.”