Big Sky Notebook: Johnson, Henderson step up for Grizzlies in crunch time

No. 4 Bobcats travel to No. 3 EWU for immense conference matchup
2013-11-04T23:30:00Z 2013-11-06T16:11:13Z Big Sky Notebook: Johnson, Henderson step up for Grizzlies in crunch timeBy GREG RACHAC grachac@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Garrett Safron had a game for the ages Saturday against Montana. But Jordan Johnson again showed why he is one of the best clutch players in the Big Sky Conference.

Johnson threw two late touchdown passes, including a 25-yarder to Ellis Henderson on UM’s first snap in overtime, to offset Safron’s superhuman performance for a 51-48 victory over Sacramento State.

Though he took several huge hits and even had to leave the game for a bit in the third quarter, Safron torched the Grizzlies’ defense to the tune of 505 yards of offense and six touchdowns. He threw for 412 yards and four TDs and rushed for 93 yards and two scores.

Naturally, Safron was the no-brainer pick for the Big Sky Conference’s offensive player of the week award Monday, his second of the season and the fourth of his career.

Montana’s Ty Gregorak-coordinated defense has given up 12 touchdowns in its past two games. In a 42-37 loss to Eastern Washington on Oct. 26, Vernon Adams accounted for 473 yards and threw six touchdowns.

Combined, Adams and Safron put up 978 yards of total offense against the Griz.

But Johnson, UM’s unflappable junior quarterback, rose to the occasion in each game, and pulled out the win over Sac State with a perfect strike to Henderson.

Henderson is “a great player and you want to give him the ball as much as we can,” Johnson told reporters. “They went one-on-one and he’s really tough to guard one-on-one. He made a really good play and I just had to put it on him.”

A week prior, Johnson nearly rallied his team to an unthinkable comeback against EWU with three fourth-quarter TD passes, all to Henderson. The week before that, Johnson hit Henderson for a 23-yard touchdown in overtime to complete a comeback win over Cal Poly.

Johnson forced OT in that game with a fourth-and-goal TD pass to tight end Clay Pierson with 12 seconds left, which capped a 15-play, 88-yard drive.

Forget Johnson’s sparkling 165.3 efficiency rating and his absurd 24-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio for a moment. In the past three games, his statistics when broken down in the fourth quarter and overtime are remarkable: 32 for 57 for 443 yards (an average of 13.8 yards per completion) and six touchdown passes without an interception.

Clearly, Henderson has become Johnson’s favorite target. The sophomore transfer from Hawaii has 30 catches for 690 yards and 12 TDs. Henderson averages 23.0 yards per catch.

But in the fourth quarter and overtime in the past three games, Henderson has made eight catches for 189 yards and five TDs, while averaging 23.6 yards per reception.

Earlier in the season the Griz thrived on first-half production. But with Johnson now lighting it up late in games, UM is more dangerous on offense.

Stage is set

You like big games? Try Saturday’s Montana State-Eastern Washington tilt on for size.

The No. 4-ranked Bobcats (7-2, 5-0 Big Sky) travel to Cheney, Wash., to play No. 3 EWU (7-2, 5-0) at 1 p.m. Mountain time. It will be televised on Root Sports.

MSU is coming off a 35-28 victory at Northern Colorado. Eastern is fresh off a 55-34 win at Idaho State. The Bobcats and Eagles are the last remaining unbeaten teams in the Big Sky, and whoever wins will get a huge boost in the race for the conference title.

It’s just the second time since 1994 that two Big Sky teams ranked in the top five will play.

“It’s definitely a huge game,” said Eastern coach Beau Baldwin. “We’re both undefeated coming into it so it makes it that much bigger.”

Montana State must come ready to run and tackle on defense; Eastern Washington has proven to be the most explosive team in the league. Adams has thrown 35 touchdown passes in nine games, four fewer than FCS leader Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois.

Adams, a sophomore, ranks third in the nation in average total offense at 385.8 yards per game. He has thrown 11 TDs in the past two weeks. In the victory over Idaho State, Adams commanded an offense that put up 743 yards of offense. Wow.

Still, the Bobcats own the second-ranked scoring defense and total defense in the league, and have allowed a conference-low nine passing touchdowns.

One key for the Bobcats will be the ability of Brad Daly and the defensive line to collapse the pocket. Adams can run, but he prefers to hang in and throw down the field if he can.

Daly has been the premier pass rusher in the nation with 12 sacks and 17½ tackles for loss, both of which lead the FCS.

The Eagles protect their home field. Eastern Washington has a 20-3 all-time record atop its red artificial turf. Montana State and Portland State are the only Big Sky teams to win on “The Inferno.”

Kupp overflowing

Against Montana, EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp had 11 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns.

Against Idaho State, the freshman from Yakima, Wash., made eight catches for a career high 205 yards and two more TDs. Kupp has caught 30 passes for 555 yards and five touchdowns in EWU's past three games.

Kupp has caught at least one TD in every game this season. He now has 52 catches for 982 yards and 13 touchdowns, making him a bona fide first-team all-conference contender as well as a candidate for the Jerry Rice Award, which is given at the end of the season to the top freshman in the FCS.

Kupp is on pace to eclipse a few national freshman records. Marshall's Randy Moss holds the FCS mark for most TD catches by a freshman (19), and Appalachian State's Sean Price holds the freshman records for catches (81) and yards (1,196). Moss also shares the mark for consecutive games with a TD catch (11) with Cal Poly’s Ramses Barden and EWU’s Brandon Kaufman.

The Johnson factor

Shawn Johnson gives the Bobcats one of the most dangerous return games in the Big Sky. Johnson returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown last week, which proved crucial in the win over UNC.

It also earned Johnson the league’s special teams player of the week award.

It was Johnson’s second kickoff return for a TD this season. He returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in a victory over Northern Arizona a few weeks back.

Against Northern Colorado, Johnson finished with 175 total yards on four kick returns and 15 yards on one punt return. He ended with 254 yards of total offense, and added a 13-yard touchdown run.

Johnson ranks first in the league and fourth in the nation with an average of 33.4 yards per kickoff return.

Poll position

Montana State slid ahead in the latest Top 25 poll, and so did Montana.

The Grizzlies (7-2, 4-2 Big Sky) moved up two spots to No. 10. Northern Arizona (7-2, 5-1) remained at No. 14 after a 48-27 victory over North Dakota. Eastern Washington didn't move.

There wasn’t a whole lot of shuffling in the Top 10, save for McNeese State’s plummet from No. 4 to No. 11. The Cowboys (7-2) were throttled 41-7 by No. 25 Southeast Louisiana (7-2), which then jumped nine spots to No. 16.

North Dakota State and Eastern Illinois remained at Nos. 1 and 2. NDSU (8-0) had a bye, while EIU (8-1) thumped Tennessee Tech 56-21.

Around the league

Cal Poly CB Bijon Samoodi earned the Big Sky’s defensive player of the week award. Samoodi made six tackles and had an interception and a fumble recovery in a 34-16 victory over UC Davis. … UND WR Kenny Golladay caught 17 passes for 134 yards and four touchdowns in the loss to Northern Arizona. It was a school record for single-game catches, and tied the school mark for the most TDs in a game. … Weber State P Tony Epperson has punted 78 times this season, 10 shy of the league record set by Idaho’s Ron Davis in 1970. … UC Davis RB Gabe Manzanarez has rushed for at least 100 yards in three straight games and in five of his last six. Manzanarez has 1,031 rushing yards, making him the first Aggie to eclipse 1,000 yards since 2002.

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