Sunday, August 9, 2009

Looking Ahead No. 10: Montana

One of the more common questions I hear as I travel around the Big Sky Conference is, "Why has Montana become so dominant in football?" Here's my theory: the Grizzlies were just another competitive program until Nevada, Boise State and Idaho, the three best programs in the league, all moved up to Division-I (now FBS). Montana was the best positioned program to take advantage of their departures, and they have done so with gusto.

The Griz, as anyone who has followed the Big Sky for any length of time knows, have won or tied for 11 straight BSC titles. They've been in the FCS playoffs for 16 consecutive seasons, and they've had a winning record 23 straight seasons. But the Montana dominance really began in 1996, the year after BSU and Idaho left the league, and three years after Nevada departed. The numbers tell a pretty simple story:

Until last season, Nevada (71 percent), Boise State (65 percent) and Idaho (63 percent) had the all-time winningest records in Big Sky Conference football competition. Montana edged past the Vandals last season, on the basis of a 7-1 record, which gave the Griz a 64 percent winning percentage all-time in league play. Before 1996, when BSU and Idaho left the league, Montana had just a 52 percent winning percentage. Since 1996, Montana has gone 86-13 -- 87 percent.

Montana already had a number of advantages in place when that triumverate left the league -- a new stadium, an excellent coach in Don Read with an exciting system, a good recruiting platform and an emerging fan base. When the opportunity to dominate the league arrived, then, the Griz were more than poised to pounce.

Even though the Griz have had some of the best offensive teams in Big Sky history during that run, it's always been my contention that their dominance has been based on solid defense more than anything. In a league where there are always two or three teams that put a lot of points on the board, consistent defense has been a discriminator for Montana. Again, that distinction has been much more pointed in the post-1996 period. To wit: In the first 32 years of Big Sky play, the Grizzlies led the league in scoring defense five times. Not bad, but certainly not distinctive. Since 1996, however, UM has led the BSC in scoring defense nine out of 13 seasons. No other school has held that honor more than once.

So in a year when Weber State, the other defending co-champion, returns a ton of offensive weapons, the Griz will once again rely on their five returning all-league defenders -- and the home field advantage when the Cats and Montana meet on Halloween in Missoula -- as the difference-makers.

That's not to say Montana doesn't have some offensive playmakers of their own. Running back Chase Reynolds (above) emerged last year to rush for 1,583 yards and a school record 22 touchdowns as just a sophomore. Wide receiver-kick returner Marc Mariani, meanwhile, caught 69 passes for 1,308 yards and 15 touchdowns, and also returned two punts (including a back-breaker against Idaho State) for scores. Reynolds and Mariani are poster boys for home-grown, small-town Montana talent. Reynolds is from the tiny town of Drummond (population 318), and got only a partial scholarship when he first signed with the Griz; Mariani, from Havre (pop. 9,621) walked on initially.

To make best use of those playmakers, however, the Griz are going to have to identify a new starting quarterback and shore up an offensive line that gave up a whopping 55 sacks in 16 games last year. The Griz return three offensive linemen who earned at least honorable mention all-league notice last year, and tackle Levi Horn is a pre-season all-Big Sky selection this year. But it seems like some of the Grizzlies' honor winners may have been riding the coattails of the program's success. Even Idaho State, which had trouble generating any kind of pass rush all season, sacked Grizzly quarterback Cole Berquist four times in Montana's 29-10 win in Missoula last year.

Replacing Berquist is not going to be an any easy job. Even though he played poorly against ISU last year, he was exceedingly efficient throughout most of the season, completing almost 61 percent of his passes and throwing 28 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. In fact, when you look at Montana's 2008 season, when they finished second to Richmond for the national championship, "efficiency" is the word that really stands out. The Griz were second in the league in scoring, first in scoring defense, first in net punting, second in pass efficiency, second in pass defense efficiency, and second in total defense. And in the stat that literally defines efficiency, the Griz were first in turnover margin, with a plus-16 mark -- more than doubling No. 2-ranked Weber State (plus 7).

Finding a new quarterback who can match Berquist's execution, then, becomes the top priority for UM Coach Bobby Hauck. Andrew Selle, who played in seven games last year, emerged from spring ball as the heir apparent, but the Griz took a flyer on Oregon transfer Justin Roper this summer, which tells you they may not be entirely sold on Selle. Neither Selle nor Roper's limited experiences so far indicate they are ready to operate at the same high level as Berquist did last year. Selle completed only 51 percent of his throws last year, with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Roper, meanwhile, has completed only 53 percent of his tosses in 11 games at Oregon, with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. Those aren't bad numbers against PAC-10 competition, but I don't think anybody in Missoula is ready to cede the starting job to Roper just yet.

As I noted above, the Griz return five all-league players on the defensive side of the ball, including end Jace Palmer, who led the team with 8.5 sacks; second-leading tackler Shane Schillinger, who had four picks from his safety position; linebackers Shawn Lebsock and Brandon Fisher; and cornerback Trumaine Johnson, who earned all-league recognition as a freshman. The Griz will have to find a secondary pass rusher or two, having lost second-leading sack man Mike Stadnyk to graduation. The Griz really did not excel at pressuring the quarterback last year, registering only 32 sacks in 16 games.

Last year's loss in Missoula was the coming out party for Bengal quarterback Kyle Blum, who thew for 246 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions in his first starting assignment. He showed good mobility and a penchant for making plays against the Griz, but his decision-making also demonstrated his inexperience. Now that Idaho State head coach John Zamberlin has named Blum as his starter going into the season, the ISU-Montana game scheduled for Nov. 7 in Holt Arena should provide a good benchmark on how much Blum's grown in a year's time in that position.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

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