When its backs are to the wall, that’s when Montana’s defense rises up.
There aren’t any real tricks to solid red zone defense. When the opposing offense breaches your 20-yard line there’s one mentality — to bear down, push back, and get off the field with as little damage done as possible.
“Your mentality has to be to not to give up points,” said Grizzlies coach Mick Delaney. “And if you do, let’s limit it to three. Every defense wants to keep people out of the end zone. There’s a huge pride factor.”
It’s not just pride that’s on the line. Defensive success in the red zone translates to winning. Coming into Saturday’s home game against Big Sky Conference rival Cal Poly, No. 10 Montana (5-1, 2-1 Big Sky) has the best red zone defense in the league.
Opponents have entered UM’s 20 yard line just 16 times this season, and have come away with points on nine of those occasions (six touchdowns, three field goals). That means the Grizzlies allow teams to score just 56 percent of the time inside the 20, which leads the Big Sky by a big margin and ranks second in the FCS behind only Yale.
The Griz have forced three red-zone turnovers, and have stopped teams on fourth down two other times. Against Portland State two weeks ago, Zack Wagenmann forced a fumble by quarterback Kieran McDonagh on the goal line, and Jordan Tripp recovered in the end zone for a huge first-quarter takeaway.
“For us, if you track what we’ve done, everybody’s made plays in the red zone,” Delaney said. “It’s a combination.
“When you stop somebody inside the 20 it’s like a turnover. We’ve done that a couple times in the last few weeks. If you hold them to a field goal, that’s important. It takes a lot of energy out of an offense.”
Cal Poly comes into Washington-Grizzly Stadium with the fourth-best red zone offense in the Big Sky (88.2 percent). The Mustangs’ triple option ground game, led by quarterback and Air Force transfer Dano Graves and running back Kristaan Ivory, will pose a challenge to UM’s defense this week.
“We’re going to put our big boy pads on and come down and make some tackles, but also play assignment football,” said Griz cornerback Josh Dennard. “Definitely with the triple-option, we’re going to have to know our assignments.
“We’ve got to be great on first downs. They’re not the greatest on third-and-long when they have to pass. So that’s where we want to get them. As long as we’re great on first downs and hold them to third and long, we’ll play a good game.”
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Delaney has preached discipline (both on and off the field) since he took over as coach in the spring of 2012. It came to fruition in a big way last week in a 42-7 win over UC Davis, when the Griz finished the game with zero penalties.
“It’s the first time since I started in football in 1950 or ’49,” said the 70-year-old Delaney. “That’s a long time ago — 60-some years. And to never have been on the side of a game where there wasn’t a penalty called on the team I was associated with, that’s a tribute to the coaches and to the players.
“You’re going to get a few penalties here and there. But what you always try to eliminate are the foolish penalties. Pushing guys in the back, holding because you’re being lazy and not moving your feet … If you can eliminate personal fouls and dumb penalties, you really put yourself in position to do some good things.”
Through six games, UM has been flagged for just 27 penalties, the fewest in the Big Sky.