Griz host pass-happy New Hampshire
By Peter Bulger Montana Kaimin
Missoula, MT (U-WIRE) -- Montanans often complain about people from out-of-state moving in on their land, but they don't seem to mind visitors to Missoula on Saturdays. That's because the Montana football team is 110-16 all-time in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Grizzlies, who are 10-2 on the season, are 8-0 as the home team this year. After defeating Northwestern State in a first-round playoff game at home last week, Montana's all-time playoff record at Washington-Grizzly is 18-3. So Montana fans did a collective fist-pump when fourth-seeded Georgia Southern lost to New Hampshire last week, allowing the Grizzlies to bid for a second-round home game. As expected, Montana outbid the Wildcats of UNH and will host them Saturday in a nationally televised game at 2 p.m. Let the hospitality begin.
"I would hate to play on an opposing team (in Washington-Grizzly)," said Jon Talmage, a junior receiver for the Grizzlies. "Having to travel across the country, then face the crowd and the weather, it's pretty much like a 12th man on the field for us."
But if any team's up for the challenge, it's UNH. The Wildcats, also 10-2 on the season, are 8-0 on the road. They've beat good teams, such as defending-champion Delaware, I-A Rutgers and playoff-regular GSU, in front of crowds numbering near or greater than the average Washington-Grizzly turnout. Still, the game will present a monumental task for the Wildcats said head coach Sean McDonnell.
"The advantage obviously goes to Montana at their place," McDonnell said.
An advantage increased in two ways by UNH's no-huddle, pass-heavy style of offense. First, since the Wildcats don't huddle, they call their plays at the line of scrimmage. Crowd noise, of which there's plenty in Washington-Grizzly, will make play calling difficult for UNH freshman quarterback Ricky Santos. The other factor hurting the Wildcats is an injury to their best receiver, sophomore David Ball.
Ball, who has accounted for nearly 30 percent of UNH's offense, broke his ankle early in last week's game and will not play Saturday. Even without Ball, the Wildcats' offense can produce. UNH came back from a 21-6 deficit last week to win 27-23, dealing GSU its only first-round playoff loss ever. Santos, a fourth-stringer before the season, took over midway through UNH's first game and put together an excellent season. He was one of 16 finalists for the Walter Payton Award, along with Grizzly senior quarterback Craig Ochs. Santos averages 247.6 yards per game with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Senior wide receiver Shaun Diner had six catches for 55 yards for the Wildcats last week. That was the most by any UNH receiver in Ball's absence. The Wildcats' passing game is their strength, but they also average a respectable 143.33 rushing yards per game. Running backs R.J. Harvey and John McCoy, a senior and junior respectively, gained 107.5 yards per game and have scored 14 touchdowns combined.
"(Pass defense is) definitely something we're going to stress this week," said Shane MacIntyre, a junior linebacker for the Grizzlies. "They've got a good quarterback, so we're going to have to try and get pressure on him. Everyone on the defense is going to have to do their job so we can try and prevent a big air attack."
Everyone on the Grizzly defense did their job last week, allowing fewer yards than in any other game this year. The difference, though, is Montana had to shut down an excellent running team last week, not a passing team. Its weakness this year has been pass defense, but it did hold NSU to 102 passing yards last game. Montana's young defense rotates frequently, and 27 players made tackles last week. Junior tackle Alan Saenz had the team's only sack along with three tackles. Cornerbacks Kevin Edwards and Jimmy Wilson, a junior and freshman respectively, each had interceptions for the Grizzlies.
"They do a great job stopping the run," McDonnell said about the Montana defense. "They get to the ball quickly, they play hard and they tackle well. Going into the game, moving the ball against them is going to be a major challenge for us."
Moving the ball won't likely be the problem for Montana's offense. The Grizzlies are coming off a 500-yard outing against the nation's best defense and they benefit from an improved running game to compliment their season-long success throwing. Lex Hilliard, a Montana sophomore running back, rushed for 171 yards on just 14 carries and scored a school record-tying four touchdowns last week. He led a 268-yard rushing performance by Montana, which averaged 141.8 yards on the ground before the game. However, the main concern for UNH may be Ochs, who McDonnell calls "a great trigger-puller." His numbers on the season are similar to Santos', with Ochs throwing for fewer touchdowns and interceptions but more yards.
He has no shortage of targets, as eight Grizzlies had multiple catches last week. Senior receiver Levander Segars led the team with five catches for 55 yards and two touchdowns. Montana's offense will face a UNH defense that plays by a bend-but-don't-break philosophy, McDonnell said. They allow nearly 400 yards per game, but McDonnell said their strength is playing in the red zone. They've allowed 24.3 points per game this year. Last week, UNH allowed only six points in the second half. The Wildcats made two stands on fourth down late in the game to seal the victory. It was just a matter of getting used to GSU's offense, McDonnell said.
Senior end George Peterson, a first-team all-conference selection, anchors the UNH defense with 74 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Senior free safety Aaron Thomas's 116 tackles are tops among the Wildcats and he also has two interceptions and a sack. The team leader in interceptions is sophomore defensive back Corey Graham, who has four along with 103 tackles. "Their defense plays hard, fast and physical," Talmage said of UNH. "They match up well with us. Their defensive line is playing well right now but so is our offensive line. It looks like a good match up." Graham also boasts the nation's second-best kick return average of 31.47 yards. He had two big returns against GSU, of 99 and 44 yards, to aid UNH's comeback. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
It will be the Grizzlies' first national television appearance this year, while UNH played on ESPN2 last week. The 2 p.m. kickoff time was set to accommodate ESPN and temporary lights have been installed in the stadium because it's likely to get dark by the end of the game. The winner of the game plays the winner of Saturday's contest between Sam Houston State and Eastern Washington in a semi-final.
Eastern Washington hosts Sam Houston at 4:30 p.m. (PST) at Woodward Stadium in Cheney. The location and date of the semi-final game will be determined by bidding.
(C) 2004 Montana Kaimin via U-WIRE