MISSOULA — Montana was on a roll heading into its game against Portland State last year, coming off back-to-back conference wins in which it averaged 44.5 points and 526.5 yards.
The Griz were then flummoxed by Portland State’s rarely seen flex defense. They were held to a season-low 289 yards and hurt themselves by fumbling four times in a 22-20 home loss.
Montana will try to avenge that loss when it travels to Hillsboro, Oregon, to face the Vikings at 3 p.m. MT Saturday. To do that, the Griz will have to solve the Vikings’ flex defense, which coach Bobby Hauck described simply as "different."
“The front’s different. How they roll the coverage is different. Everything about it’s different,” Hauck said. “It’s not like anything we’ve played against. Going to have to go back to the early 1990s and watch some Arizona Wildcat defense.”
In simplest terms, the flex defense run by Portland State defensive coordinator Payam Saadat puts one more defensive player in the box than the offense has blocking. One purpose is to get offensive linemen in one-on-one blocking and not allow them to double team a defender.
In one option, the defense will come with an all-out blitz and leave its secondary in one-on-one coverage, which makes getting quarterback pressure imperative. They could also drop some of those players into coverage, hopefully having discouraged the run with a loaded box, and then playing zone in the secondary to take away throwing lanes.
Whichever Griz quarterback will have to face the flex defense is still to be determined since the status of injured starter Dalton Sneed is unknown. Whether he or Cam Humphrey start, Hauck said that won’t change the preparation for the defense, which is holding teams to 24.9 points, third best in the conference.
Humphrey played a serviceable game Saturday as he was boosted by a run-heavy attack and surging defense. Whoever starts will be benefited by getting those groups to rise up again.
Portland State, though, has stuffed the run, giving up a conference-low 108.6 yards per game on the ground. The Vikings' eight rushing scores allowed are the third fewest in the league.
“I’ve never really seen a defense like the flex before, so it’s going to be interesting,” Griz running back Marcus Knight said. “It'll be fun to see a different defense. I think they’re really good tacklers. They rally to the ball. They’re pretty quick. They’re fast and aggressive. So, we’ll have to attack them fast.”
Humphrey was sacked just once last week as he got good protection from his line and was able to avoid pressure when needed. Unlike Eastern Washington, Portland State has one of the top defensive lines at getting to the quarterback, ranking third in the conference with 21 sacks.
“They do a lot of stuff to mess with your eyes,” senior left guard Angel Villanueva said. “They’re a good team. All-around good players. We really have to hone in. We got to go out there and just play to our level and be the best team we can be. I think that’s the most important thing.”
If Montana can protect its quarterback and establish the run, the Vikings have struggled in pass defense. They rely largely on one-on-one coverage in the secondary and are giving up 250.4 yards per game through the air, ranking seventh in the 13-team conference.
Portland State didn’t get a single sack or quarterback hurry against Idaho State. The defense got burned for 332 passing yards and six passing touchdowns.
“In our group,” senior tight end Colin Bingham said, “our emphasis isn’t changing week to week. We just want to be incredibly physical and set the tone in the run game. And just start early and stay on them often. I think that’s kind of what a lot of guys on the team want to do this game.”
Portland State was churned out points, scoring 35.4 per game to rank fourth in the Big Sky.
The Vikings have found success on the ground, running for 212.8 yards per game, third in the league. Sirgeo Hoffman is averaging 77.4 rush yards, sixth in the league, as the lead back. Quarterback Davis Alexander is right behind with 48 yards per game to go with his average of 227.3 passing yards.
When Portland State throws the ball, it has big weapons in wide receiver Davis Koetter and tight end Charlie Taumoepeau. Koetter leads the team in receiving yards (460), touchdown catches (five) and yards per reception (17). Taumoepeau dealt with an injury but is coming off a season-best performance of 127 receiving yards.
“They do a lot offensively,” senior safety Josh Sandry said in breaking down the Vikings. “I think their leader of the offense and the guy they rally around, their quarterback, he’s a great player, and he’ll give us all we can handle. They got good receivers, good backs. They’re good up front. I just think they’re a very solid football team.
“We just got to take care of the basics. Get lined up, read our keys, things like that. We got a tough test this weekend, and we’ll be ready to go.”
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Montana has rewritten the narrative of its second-half struggles from last season.
Not only are the Griz improved in the final two quarters, but their point different of plus-115 in that time frame is tops in the FCS, according to STATS. They’ve scored 182 points and allowed 67 in the second halves of their eight games.
Montana has pitched three consecutive shutouts in the fourth quarter and hasn’t allowed a team to score in that frame in five of eight games. The Griz have outscored teams 77-20 in the fourth quarter and haven’t given up more than seven points in a single fourth quarter.
Hauck couldn’t pinpoint an exact reason for the second-half success.
“It’s hard to answer,” He said. “I think we train to be good as the game wears on. I think that the mindset of our guys is that we’re going to play better in the second half and be stronger as the game goes on. I think we’re good at that part of it.”
Knight has found his way into the end zone on a regular basis in his first season with the Griz.
The junior college transfer has totaled 13 touchdowns, the most in the Big Sky and the ninth most in the nation.
His 12 rushing scores are the most in a single season by a Grizzly since 2013, when Jordan Canada ran for 16. Canada’s 16 are the fifth most in a season in school history.
Montana senior linebacker Dante Olson was named one of 12 finalists for the William V. Campbell Trophy on Wednesday.
The Campbell Trophy is called the “Academic Heisman” and “annually recognizes an individual as the absolute best football scholar-athlete in the nation for his combined academic success, football performance and exemplary leadership,” according to National Football Foundation.
Olson was an All-American linebacker in 2018 and boasts a 3.90 grade-point average in business administration and management. He’s the fifth Grizzly finalist, joining Dave Dickenson (1995), Joshua Branen (1997), Vince Huntsberger (2001) and Derek Crittenden (2015).
“We’re very proud of Dante Olson, and certainly he is deserving of this national recognition,” Hauck said in a news release. “We think he is a great example of the young men we have in our locker room and sets a great example for others like him on our team around our campus.”
The winner will be announced on Dec. 10 at the NFF Annual Awards Dinner in New York City. That person will receive a $25,000 postgraduate scholarship, while all the other finalists will each receive an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship.
Croy commits to Griz
Bozeman running back Asher Croy became the sixth-known commit in Montana's 2020 recruiting class when he announced his commitment via Twitter on Wednesday night.
"While I wish I could be a Bozeman Hawk forever, after spending plenty of time and consideration I have decided to continue my education and football career at the University of Montana. Thank you to everyone who helped along the way," Croy wrote in a tweet.
Croy is in his first season at Class AA Bozeman after transferring from Class B Huntley Project this past summer. He's run for a Class AA-best 1,282 yards and 14 touchdowns on 176 carries, for an average of 7.3 yards per rush.
Croy was an all-state running back at Huntley Project as a junior, running for 2,173 yards and 32 touchdowns.
Croy is the son of Guy Croy, who played for the Montana Grizzlies.