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Jackrabbits could test Griz

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The last time Montana played host to South Dakota State, Bobby Hauck was in Cedar City, Utah, because his Northern Arizona Lumberjacks were visiting Southern Utah.

"I remember calling the press box and getting scores, sitting with Bart Andrus," said UM's third-year coach. (Andrus, a former Griz player, was coaching at SUU at the time.)

That would be a lot of phone calls - the score changed eight times and the lead switched hands five times in the fourth quarter alone.

If the principals in Saturday's game don't recall that 1993 contest, this year's band of Jackrabbits could provide a reminder. They're big, physical, and talented. And 2-0.

"They've certainly caught our attention," said Hauck. "They've outscored their opponents 55-9. We know the history of them coming into our stadium. The last time they came here it took the biggest comeback in I-AA history, and the biggest comeback in school history, to get a win."

Not that the Jackrabbits themselves put much stock in that 52-48 loss in 1993. The current players were in grade school at the time. They also don't take much encouragement from North Dakota State's 25-24 upset on the Grizzlies' home turf in 2003.

"I might if it wasn't the Bison," offered SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier. "That's our rival now. That's a right-up-the-road sort of deal. We haven't talked about that, nor will we."

Instead, this version will come into hostile territory with your run of the mill, Great West Football Conference team. Which is to say, a pretty tough one.

"Their whole offense is pretty impressive," Hauck said. "Their offensive line is physical, they've got attitude, which I like - not necessarily in an opponent, but in an offensive line I like it.

"People in their league have beaten people in our league, as recently as last weekend."

Cal Poly's 37-13 win over Sacramento State was the Great West's ninth victory in 17 matchups with the Big Sky Conference, going back through the 2004 season. South Dakota State was at the bottom of the Great West standings last year, but has lit up two overmatched opponents by a total score of 111-19.

The teams have talented junior running backs - Lex Hilliard for UM and Anthony Watson for SDSU - running behind seasoned lines, and Stiegelmeier has been plain about his intentions.

"If I had my way, we'd run the football every play," he said. "I'm fine with passing, but there's the clock, there's the physical part of football, and there's the mental part.

"If you can run the football, if you can beat people up, I think it not only takes care of the clock, it can wear the other team down mentally."

But both teams appear to be balanced, SDSU's early returns - 337 rushing yards a game - notwithstanding.

"I don't know if he's just saying that or not," Hauck said. "They throw the ball pretty well. The quarterback (Andy Kardoes) escapes well, and he's fast. He's one of the faster players on their offense."

Kardoes, like UM's Jason Washington, is a junior in his first year as a starter. They've put up comparable statistics, although Kardoes hasn't had to throw much.

Watson, who has 297 rushing yards in two games, looks like the key.

"It starts with him, for sure," Hauck said. "But it's not like if you stop him you'll stop their offense."

Both defenses will be tested. Stiegelmeier watched film of Hilliard and said: "We've not seen anybody as good as him. He's a tailback that can run with power. Watson doesn't run that hard downhill."

But SDSU's defense has been stingy, allowing just 1.1 yards per carry. The Jacks have a leader at each level of their defense: cornerback Hank McCall, defensive end Gabe Koenigsfeld, and linebacker Marty Kranz, who leads the team in tackles despite hamstring problems.

"That's hard on a throwing game when you have good corners and a good pass-rusher," Hauck said. "We've had a hard time figuring out how we're going to attack them. They don't look soft at any position."

The Jackrabbits don't come in as a favorite, however. They've had one playoff appearance, and that was in 1979; the Griz have made a record 12 straight I-AA postseasons, and have the TV exposure to prove it.

"I knew about them when I was in high school," said Watson, a 220-pounder averaging 12.9 yards a carry. "They've got a pretty good tradition. Always Top 10, and always in the playoffs. I remember thinking, 'Yeah, it'd be nice to play in an atmosphere like that, with the support like that.' We've got a really tough challenge ahead of us."

"The goal is to have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter," Stiegelmeier said. "The games where we go in, and on paper we're the underdog, that's our message: The real tough ones, let's have a chance to win in the fourth quarter."

Which the Jackrabbits certainly had in 1993.

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