MISSOULA — For the first time this season, the Montana Grizzlies will be hitting the road this weekend.
And it's going to be a tough test. Sure, the Western Illinois Leathernecks come into Saturday's contest in Macomb, Illinois, with an 0-2 record, but they're considerably better than that.
The Leathernecks opened up their season in Bozeman, losing a close contest to Montana State, 26-23. Western Illinois followed up the Bobcats with FBS Illinois, where the Leathernecks appeared to be in command through the first quarter. Illinois won, 34-14.
"I like their team. They're good. I like their defense. They've got good players at all three layers on the defense," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said during his Monday press conference.
"... They've got a lot of skill. They've got good team speed. They play hard. They do things right. They went toe to toe with Illinois out of the Big Ten last week until a blocked punt kinda undid them. It was a heck of a game. We know we have our hands full and we've got to be ready to go. I love their nickname."
A look at all eight position groups, the intangibles and who has the edge:
QUARTERBACK: Dalton Sneed's two games at Montana have been red hot. The junior captain has completed 66 percent of his passes, thrown three touchdowns and passed for 526 yards.
With those high numbers come high rankings. Sneed's completion percentage is ranked No. 23 among all FCS quarterbacks, his completions per game of 28.5 is ranked No. 5 among all FCS gunslingers and his passing yards are ranked No. 20 nationally.
Sneed also is getting it done on the ground as Montana's leading rusher and the ninth-best rusher regardless of position in the Big Sky Conference. His 123 net yards rushing are nearly double any other Grizzly.
"Dalton's done a good job. He makes quick decisions and that's what we want him to do, run or pass," Hauck said Monday. "... That's what we saw on his high school film and what we thought he would be for sure. He's got good athletic ability, he's competitive, he's got good arm strength, all those things."
Western Illinois returns fifth-year senior Sean McGuire at quarterback. This season is his fourth at the starting position and he's been a team captain since he was a sophomore. He's also earned All-Missouri Valley honorable mention for the past two seasons.
Through two games, McGuire has completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 440 yards with four touchdowns. He's also thrown four interceptions.
"They have a good quarterback. If you go and look, the throw he made on the post route in the opening drive against Illinois last week looked like the real deal," Hauck said of McGuire. "By all accounts he's a terrific player."
On the flip side, McGuire is very much a pocket passer. He's only gained nine yards on the ground. His net yardage of -28 yards relates to how he's been sacked seven times through two games. Both quarterbacks are quite talented, and it'll be fun to see them both work, but the edge goes to Montana.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Montana's offensive line is still young and has work to do and losing junior center Cody Meyer midway through the game last week didn't help. The depth chart, as of this story's publication, hadn't come out yet, but Hauck said at practice that he won't be on this week's two-deep.
Western Illinois' line is also young. Three of its five starters are redshirt freshmen. One, the center, is a sophomore. The only player on the line with much experience is senior left tackle Drew Wagner. He's played in 34 games dating back to 2015.
The differential between these two teams is small, but the edge goes to Western Illinois.
RUNNING BACK/FULLBACK: Sneed was really the only productive part of Montana's run game against both UNI and Drake. Adam Eastwood finally broke free for a long, 37-yard score against Drake, but that touch made up a significant chunk of his 66 yards on the season. Alijah Lee still hasn't seen much daylight, getting five carries for a gain of six yards.
Western Illinois has three rushers getting the job done: Steve McShane, wideout Tony Tate and Max Norris. McShane, a senior two-sport athlete in football and baseball, earned second-team league honors in football and first-team league honors in baseball last season.
"He does a nice job. He's a good player," Hauck said of McShane. "They know he is. They find a variety of ways to get him the ball. He'll have the ball in his hands a significant number of times. He's a talented kid. He does a lot of things well. He's shifty with the ball. He's got a little bit of 'make you miss.' He has good burst and speed. He's a tough guy. Guess when you describe him, you're describing what you're looking for in a football player."
McShane has 18 carries for 104 net yards so far this season with one touchdown. Tate's added seven carries for 77 yards and Norris has contributed 22 carries for 64 yards. Until Montana can figure out its run game, the edge goes to Western Illinois.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END: Montana's depth proved extremely beneficial against Drake after senior wideout Keenan Curran went down with an injury. Samuel Akem stepped up and added eight catches for 86 yards and a touchdown against Drake. Jerry Louie-McGee still holds steady as the No. 1 receiver for Montana, racking up 184 yards receiving and a touchdown on 18 catches.
Curran, Hauck said on Tuesday, is listed on the two-deep for Saturday.
McGuire has done a good job spreading the ball around for Western Illinois, as 11 different offensive players have had at least one catch. The lion's share of the receiving offense goes through McShane too, who has a team-high 12 receptions. Wideout George Wahee leads the Leathernecks in yards, though, with 104 yards on six catches.
Montana gets the edge.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Montana's starters and backups on its defensive line were dominant against Drake. The eight of them racked up 19 tackles, 3½ tackles for loss — 2½ of which were sacks — three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble.
Western Illinois' two defensive ends and one nose tackle have made their presence known, but their numbers don't necessarily reflect that. Khalen Saunders, a senior, leads the starting linemen in tackles with eight. Kyle Williams, a sophomore, has four, and Shabar Wilson, a sophomore, has two.
Edge goes to Montana.
LINEBACKERS: The Leathernecks play four linebackers, and they're good. Quentin Moon, Zach Gilsan and Pete Swenson, are the top three tacklers for Western Illinois so far this season. The three of them combine for 50 of Western Illinois' 124 tackles. Moon and Swenson share the Leathernecks' lone sack.
Montana's Dante Olson, the reigning STATS FCS national defensive player of the week and two-time reigning Big Sky defensive player of the week, has 29 tackles, 4½ tackles for loss, three sacks, an interception, two pass breakups, three passes defended, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble. And don't forget about Josh Buss, who's making his way back from injury. Montana's linebackers aren't to be trifled with. Grizzlies take the edge.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: At one point in time, Montana's defensive backs were a concern for Hauck. Now, they're a strength of the Grizzlies' defense. Dareon Nash grabbed two interceptions against Drake, returning one for a touchdown. Reid Miller and Robby Hauck were tied for second for Montana in tackles with six. Miller also grabbed a pick of his own too. The list goes on.
Zach Muniz, one of Western Illinois' starting corners, has the Leathernecks' lone interception of the season. He also has one of their three pass breakups. Strong safety Justin Fitzpatrick has the other two. Montana takes the edge.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Hard to top Tim Semenza's efforts last week with two made field goals and six made PATs. Malik Flowers' kick return game was something special to watch last week too.
Tate's on kickoff return duty for the Leathernecks and he's racked up 114 yards on four returns. Not too shabby. Punter Adam Fellner's had his work cut out for him lately, with 10 punts averaging 47.1 yards. Edge still goes to Montana though.
INTANGIBLES: Montana is on the road for the first time this season and Western Illinois is at home at Hanson Field for the first time. But the Leathernecks averaged just 3,477 in home attendance last year — less than 25 percent of stadium capacity. Grizzly fans might gobble up those tickets, but the game is pretty far away. Western Illinois gets the edge, but only for it being the Leathernecks first home game of the year.
Notes: The third 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.