First off, let's get this out of the way: Jordan Johnson says he's fine. Montana's junior quaterback didn't play in the second half of last week's 42-6 victory over Weber State because he felt sick, but Johnson said it wasn't a result of a hit he took during the game. He said wasn't feeling 100 percent before the game to begin with. So he's good to go for Saturday in Bozeman.
In talking to Johnson on Tuesday, you can tell he's focused and geared up. This will be Johnson's second go-round in this rivalry. He had a solid game in leading the Grizzlies to a surprising 36-10 victory over then-No. 1 MSU in Bozeman in 2011, throwing for 164 yards and a pair of TDs, including a 79-yard bomb to Jabin Sambrano in the third quarter that gave UM a two-score lead.
Obviously, Johnson didn't play last year because of an off-the-field saga, with the Bobcats won 16-7 in Missoula. So he's chomping at the bit for this one. Here are some of Johnson's thoughts:
“Two years ago it was awesome. To go in there, they were ranked No. 1 and to beat them the way we beat them was probably the most fun I’ve had playing football. At any level. Just from that standpoint, that’s the only experience I have in this game and it was a lot of fun for me. I can’t wait to play on Saturday.
“I feel like we’ve played well to this point. We’re 9-2 so you can’t really complain. But I feel like our best football is still out there. We haven’t really put together a complete game on both sides of the ball. If we can do that, I think we could be a really special team.”
On offense, the Grizzlies have stuck to their run-first mentality through thick and thin. It's not tricky: Montana lines up and comes right at you with a downhill attack, and they haven't wavered from that philosophy even when they've struggled to move the ball at times.
The Grizzlies will obviously have the same mentality against Montana State's defense, which has been good against the run for most of the season. Said Johnson:
“We always say we’re just going to do what we do. As long as we execute we’ll be alright because our personnel is so good. We have such dynamic backs (Jordan Canada, Travon Van). Not every play is going to be a big play. It’s OK to get 3 and 4 yards and keep drives going.
“They (Montana State) have one of the best defenses we’ve seen, definitely. You turn on the film and they just line up and say, ‘We’re better than you,’ and lots of times they are. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Johnson has had a big year so far. When he does take shots down the field, more often than not they've resulted in big plays, primarily to receiver Ellis Henderson. With more than 2,700 yards, 27 TDs and just four INTs, Johnson's been the best quarterback in the Big Sky Conference this side of Vernon Adams.
An efficient game from Johnson on Saturday will give the Griz a great lift as they try to win their 10th game of the year and earn a seed for the upcoming playoffs.