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Montana blows out Central Washington in spring season opener, but QB battle is far from settled
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Montana blows out Central Washington in spring season opener, but QB battle is far from settled

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MISSOULA — It took a little while for Montana’s offense to find its rhythm, but what’s 20 or so minutes when UM waited 485 days to play a football game.

The Griz scored touchdowns on seven consecutive drives across the final three quarters to turn a one-score game into a 59-3 thrashing of Division II Central Washington on Saturday at Washington Grizzly Stadium. But the quarterback battled was a little murkier and far from settled following the first of two spring games in front of a socially distanced crowd of 4,122 fans.

Senior quarterback Cam Humphrey, who started three games in 2019, engineered the first four of those seven drives, and six total scoring drives throughout the game. He overcame some seemingly early jitters to complete 19 of 31 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns while running six times for 45 yards and one score.

Redshirt freshman QB Kris Brown, the highly-touted challenger from Bozeman, led the final three touchdowns drives in relief in the second half. He came out sizzling after 40 minutes watching from the bench and completed 6 of 8 passes for 88 yards and one score while running once for 17 yards and another TD.

“I think that both of those guys need to play more,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said of his instant evaluation. “I think they’re good players, and the more they play, the better they’re going to get. I think we missed a few things, but that’s to be expected to a degree. We’d like it to be perfect, it wasn’t, but both Cam and Kris played really well.”

They had some good receivers to throw to as Gabe Sulser and Sammy Akem made key catches in their return from injuries in 2019, using the canceled fall season to be even more healed up and prepared to play. Sulser grabbed four passes for 62 yards, both team highs, and one score, while Akem hauled in three passes for 49 yards, second on the team, and one touchdown.

Sulser also made an impact in the special teams, where UM had a 182-56 edge in yards. His 54-yard kickoff return in the second quarter provided the first of a flurry of sparks after UM was clinging to a 10-3 lead in the second quarter.

Humphrey, a Boise State transfer by way of Saddleback Community College and two-year backup to Dalton Sneed at UM, needed to step up or his leash might get shorter. That was especially true after he overthrew a wide-open Mitch Roberts in the end zone and starting a drive at CWU’s 14-yard line that ended with a missed field goal over the previous two drives, the only two of UM's nine red zone trips that didn't produce points.

Humphrey ripped a pass to Sulser, who used all of his 5-foot-9 frame to high point the ball in the end zone for a 13-yard score and a 17-3 lead with 6:16 left in the third quarter. That play looked like it might get him settled into the game after a shaky start that featured just 10 points through the first five drives, although four started in CWU territory.

Things could've changed drastically when Humphrey came up limping on the next drive after an inside run, but he appeared to shake it off after one play, connecting with Sulser for a 33-yard, one-handed catch, hitting Sulser for a 13-yard gain and capping the drive with a 5-yard TD run for a 24-3 lead.

“I think it was just kind of a matter of kind of figuring out what they were running,” Sulser said. “It was kind of a tough team to prepare for as far as prep.

"They had a new DC coming in, and we faced a lot of different looks, and we didn’t necessarily know for sure what we were going to get. So, I think Cam did a great job of settling in once we just kind of got out there and started to see what they were actually giving us. So, it worked out great.”

Montana led 24-3 at the break, but they left points on the field as they failed to take advantage of short fields. The defense covered up some of the offensive struggles early in the first half and came out of the intermission by making a fourth-and-1 stand near midfield.

“When we came out in the third quarter, you know it’s going to take touchdowns against those guys to even have a chance there in the fourth quarter,” CWU coach Chris Fisk said. “We went for it there on that fourth-and-1 and didn’t get it, and I think that took the wind out of our sails. A little disappointed in how our kids reacted at that point and really didn’t make it a ball game after that.”

Not satisfied with just a stop, Humphrey converted the turnover on downs into a 23-yard touchdown pass Sammy Akem down the left sideline in one-on-one coverage, maybe his easiest throw of the day.

Humphrey added a third TD pass, but it was hardly how it was drawn up – game of hot potato, as Sulser referred to it. His pass into double coverage was batted at the goal line by linebacker Donte Hamilton and nearly intercepted by linebacker Tevita Timoteo before running back Nick Ostmo snagged the bobbled ball out of the air and ran in for a 5-yard score and a 38-3 lead.

“We got to finish in the end zone, do a better job of that, if I’m going to nitpick, and I will,” Hauck said after referencing the first-half empty drives. “When you come out the gate in the second half, that’s something we talked about in the locker room at halftime is coming out and making plays and not letting them get points on the board and then going and getting them ourselves, and we felt we’d get away from them, and that’s kind of what happened.”

Brown replaced Humphrey late in the third quarter and engineered a touchdown drive against CWU’s No. 1 defense, capping it with a 17-yard TD run. His second drive, against a mix of first- and second-stringers, ended with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Keelan White and a 52-3 lead. Brown’s third drive closed with Xavier Harris punching in a 1-yard score one play after Malik Flowers took a jet sweep 49 yards.

White and Harris each had their first scores in Griz uniforms. Brown also had his first rushing and passing scores at UM, and Hauck saw enough of him that third-stringer Kirk Rygol even got in the game for the final 5:54.

“I just want to see them execute,” Hauck said of what he was looking for from his quarterbacks. “Whatever the play call is, execute it the best they can, get us in the right checks. In the run game, when it’s their turn to run it, get yards and throw the ball where it should be thrown based on coverage. So, it was solid.”

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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