MISSOULA — When Montana hosts Idaho State this weekend, the Bengals’ coaching staff will feature a slew of former Grizzlies.
Because of that familiarity, Montana coach Bobby Hauck said his staff will have to be extra cautious in their preparation leading up to kickoff of the Grizzlies’ homecoming game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“The programs know each other really well. The staffs know each other really well,” Hauck said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “Numerous of their guys are guys who have worked here and/or alums of our place.
“With that crossover, we’re going to have to change some things on offense, defense, special teams and try to keep them from knowing ahead of time what we’re doing on any given play.”
Montana comes into the game ranked No. 8 in the STATS FCS Top 25, a jump of 10 spots following its 45-20 road upset of then-No. 4 UC Davis. The Griz are 4-1 overall and 1-0 in Big Sky Conference play, while Idaho State comes in at 2-2, 1-0.
The Bengals are led by head coach Rob Phenicie, who was Montana’s offensive coordinator from 2003-09 under Hauck. The Griz made the national championship game three times during that stretch.
Phenicie then followed Hauck to UNLV from 2010-14 when Hauck was hired as the head coach. In his time there, he spent two seasons as the offensive coordinator, three years coaching the quarterbacks and two seasons as the tight ends coach.
Mike Ferriter, Idaho State’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, played at Montana under Hauck as a three-year starter at receiver and later spent two years as an offensive graduate assistant under Hauck at UNLV. He was Montana’s wide receivers coach under Bob Stitt from 2015-17 and was the passing game coordinator in 2017.
JB Hall, Idaho State’s safeties coach and special teams coordinator, was Montana’s cornerbacks coach from 2015-17 under Stitt.
Idaho State strength and conditioning coach Dan Ryan even has experience with Montana. He was a volunteer student manager and undergraduate assistant coach in the latter part of Hauck’s first head coaching stint at Montana. He then followed Hauck to UNLV, working in strength and conditioning.
“I think they’re really well coached,” Hauck said. “Those guys do a good job — Rob, as well as their assistant coaches. Their strength coach is a guy that’s been with us. They’re a fit-looking, good-looking group. Dan Ryan does a great job in their weight room.
“They know how we do business. We probably don’t have quite as good an idea how they do it. We haven’t been immersed in it. But as I mentioned, we’ll have to change a few things to counteract that.”
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Hauck said that what Phenicie’s staff is running at Idaho State isn’t too similar to what the Griz ran in their time together at Montana.
“We’ve all evolved quite a bit, so I wouldn’t say real similar at all,” Hauck said.
Even without the crossover, Idaho State is already a tough prep, Hauck said. The Bengals’ defense has been stellar, ranking 23rd in the FCS by allowing just 20.3 points per game. They hung tough in a 31-0 loss at Pac-12 Utah and a 13-6 loss at ranked Northern Iowa.
The offense has been a work in progress from a consistency standpoint. Quarterback Matt Struck beat out Gunnar Amos in fall camp but split time with him in the second game and didn’t play in the third game because he was in concussion protocol, the Idaho State Journal reported.
Struck returned to throw six touchdowns in a 51-24 win over Portland State on Saturday, giving him 10 touchdowns to one interception. Amos retired on Monday, according to a news release.
The Bengals’ offense includes returning All-American wide receiver Mitch Gueller, who’s closing in on becoming the program’s all-time receiving leader. Tanner Conner ranks sixth in the Big Sky with 85.5 receiving yards per game and first with five touchdown grabs.
“We’re happy to be 1-0 in the Big Sky right now. Certainly fired up for homecoming week here in Missoula with Idaho State coming to town,” Hauck said. “They present a big challenge. They’ve got their quarterback back. They’ve played really well with him in the game. They absolutely killed Portland State last week.”
He added: “They play hard. They’re sound. Their scheme’s excellent. They’re a handful to prepare for. I know they feel real strongly about their skill players, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, which I agree with. Then you look at the defensive side of the ball, they’re only giving up 20 points a game, or there about.
“This is a dangerous, dangerous opponent, and they’ve got our attention early on in the week this week”
Montana linebacker Jace Lewis, who led the team with 13 tackles and two quarterback hurries at UC Davis, is up for the challenge.
“I always think the challenge is fun,” the Townsend native said. “Coming in every week with a new game plan and just seeing what it is and what we have to do to execute that, it’s always a fun thing. I think everybody accepts the challenge every week, and it’s always fun on Saturdays.”