Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect Montana and Northern Iowa's depth charts, which had not been released at the time of this story's publication.
MISSOULA — Bobby Hauck's best defense ahead of Saturday's matchup with No. 13 Northern Iowa is the unknown.
And his plan has worked thus far. Most everything is still a secret to the Panthers.
“You look at the personnel they had from last year,” Northern Iowa head coach Mark Farley said at his Monday press conference of how the Panthers are planning for Montana. “That is really all you can do. We did not exchange tape with them.
"The big key to this game will be how will we adapt, particularly in the first quarter to see what they are going to do and try to dissect their plan a little bit so we can get people in the right place.”
A look at all eight position groups, the intangibles and who has the edge:
QUARTERBACK: Montana named its QB1 on Wednesday afternoon: dual-threat Dalton Sneed, a junior. He hasn't suited up in a game for Montana, but Hauck is confident in his abilities. Trade that in for Northern Iowa's senior signal caller Eli Dunne. Dunne started in 12 games last season for the Panthers and threw for 2,704 yards. But he's one-dimensional, having -155 net yards rushing last year. Calling this a toss up.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Hauck's thoughts on his offensive line were succinct on Monday: "I think it's an area of major concern. That's what I think." Meanwhile, the Northern Iowa pipeline returns three starters: junior right guard Jackson Scott-Brown, senior left tackle Cal Twait and senior left guard Ezrah Szczyrbak. That trio combines for 53 starts heading into this game. The Panthers carry the edge here.
RUNNING BACK/FULLBACK: Montana returns senior starter and last year's leading rusher Jeremy Calhoun, but just how much Calhoun will be utilized, if at all, is uncertain. Look for redshirt freshman San Diego State transfer Adam Eastwood, as he's getting the start on Saturday and senior Alijah Lee, who had 509 yards rushing and six touchdowns last year. In addition, watch for sophomore Rey Green, who's back from an ankle injury that held him out all of last year. Northern Iowa returns senior star Marcus Weymiller who led the Panthers in the run game last year with 809 net yards and eight rushing touchdowns. Their No. 2 running back Trevor Allen is also returning too. Allen carried the ball 92 times for 412 yards, starting the season before Weymiller took over for Week 7. Giving Northern Iowa the slight edge here.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END: Dunne may be back in the pocket for the Panthers, but his best target from last season has since graduated. Isaiah Weston could have been the guy for UNI this year, but he suffered a season-ending ACL tear during a preseason practice. Dunne's best targets now are tight ends Briley Moore and Elias Nissen who combined for 698 yards last season. Montana's receiving corps are full to the brim with talent as Keenan Curran, Jerry Louie-McGee and Samori Toure and all return for more in addition to tight end Colin Bingham. Montana takes the edge here.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Two of Montana's top tacklers on the line either graduated or left the program since last season, but junior Jesse Sims, senior David Shaw and senior Reggie Tilleman are holding down the fort. For Northern Iowa, Montana is game planning for their version of Buss in Rickey Neal Jr., who lines up at both defensive end and linebacker.
Neal had 15 tackles for loss — 9½ of which were sacks — last season for a loss of 84 yards.
"They have some good players, definitely some guys jump out. Their defensive end, No. 7, he's a pretty good player," Curran said Monday. "What he's able to do on the edge is impressive."
"He gets off the ball well. Plays hard. He's a good athlete. He can drop, they drop him some. He's kind of a multi-purpose player, but the best thing he does is rush the passer."
Watch out for senior defensive tackle Bryce Douglas as well. The 305-pound FBS dropdown had eight tackles for loss last season. The edge goes to, well, Northern Iowa's edge rush.
LINEBACKERS: Montana's All-American linebacker Josh Buss on Monday isn't starting for Saturday, but he could see a few snaps. Expect two-time reigning UM special teams MVP Dante Olson to go off with his physicality. Northern Iowa's Neal drops back some alongside senior linebacker Duncan Ferch — UNI's top returning tackler. If Buss plays a lot and plays well, the edge goes to Montana. If he doesn't, flip the edge to Northern Iowa.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Montana's secondary will look very different to last year. Two starters either graduated or left the program. Three of the five defensive backs are either new to the program — Arizona dropdown safety Gavin Robertson, Northern Arizona transfer safety Robby Hauck — flipped positions from last season — junior cornerback Justin Calhoun started at wide receiver last season. In addition to all the new faces, Montana's second-leading returning tackler and leading returning pick-off player in junior safety Josh Sandry is back and is starting at nickel. Northern Iowa sophomore Xavior Williams is the lone returning starter in the Panther secondary. To make matters potentially worse for UNI, junior safety Christian Jegen, who suited up at running back/wideout last year, is questionable for the game. The edge goes to Montana.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Montana is going with Tim Semenza for PATs and field goals, newcomer in Adam Wilson is on kickoff duty and proven senior Eric Williams is on punting duties. Northern Iowa hasn't named their starting placekicker.
Northern Iowa, remember Jerry Louie-McGee and his 81-yard punt return touchdown? Yeah. He's a junior now. And he has a coach who is a special teams guru teaching him now. Montana has the edge.
INTANGIBLES: It's Hauck's home opener after being gone for seven years and eight months in what should be a packed Washington-Grizzly Stadium. It's under the lights. It's going to be intense.
Even Farley knows Montana has the edge here.
“(Washington-Grizzly Stadium) is one of the top-five places to play FCS football,” Farley said. “(Hauck) is Montana football. So, what you will see is a very high-energy team, I’m sure. A very high-energy stadium. It’s a night game on top of that so I expect the best from Montana just because it’s the first game, but yet it’s Coach Hauck’s first game back. I expect it to be a huge challenge and (Coach Hauck) is a part of that challenge.”
Notes: The first Grizzly Coaches Show of the season with Bobby Hauck and Voice of the Grizzlies Riley Corcoran is Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. The Coaches Show has changed venues this year and is now hosted at the Press Box instead of Brooks and Browns. All Grizzly Coaches Shows will be on Wednesdays during the season at the Press Box at 6:30 p.m.
Senior defensive lineman Reggie Tilleman is Montana's nominee for the 2018 National Scholar-Athlete Awards. Tilleman graduated in May with a bachelor of science in business administration on the finance track. His degree was granted with magna cum laude honors. He's currently pursuing his master's in business administration.
All former Montana football players who played under Hauck from 2003-09 have been invited back to attend the Northern Iowa game. Call Nick at 406-243-6472 for details.
Amie Just covers Griz football and Missoula-area preps. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!