They're 0-2 in the Big Sky Conference for the first time since 1992. They were knocked out of the Top 25 poll for the first time since 1998. Clearly, the start of the 2012 season hasn't been ideal for the Montana Grizzlies.
Last week's shocking defeat at Eastern Washington, where they blew a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, begs a question: What's wrong with Montana? This is a program known for closing teams out. Not letting them up off the mat.
The fact is, a lot is wrong -- or at least not right -- at the present moment. These Grizzlies haven't performed like a typical UM team. A 2-3 record five weeks into the season is not what anybody foresaw. Especially after such a promising start in their Week 1 victory over South Dakota.
Here are a few things I (and others) have noticed through five weeks -- especially the last two losses to Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington:
- Montana's offense is so up-tempo it nearly makes you dizzy. When Robin Pflugrad was hired as head coach in 2010, he promised a fast offense, and it hasn't disappointed now under first-year coach Mick Delaney and new coordinator Timm Rosenbach. So far, the Griz are averaging nearly 80 offensive snaps and 100 total plays per game. It's a torrid rate. And it undoubtedly wears on an opposing defense. That's the point. But there is a downside to this style of play, too. Not only can it wear down your offensive line, which needs to be fresh in the fourth quarter, but it can also tire your defense and give the opposing offense more shots at the end zone. I'm not saying the Griz aren't well-conditioned, but more snaps and more scoring makes the game a lot longer, and it looks at times like they've been a bit gassed late.
- Running a fast-tempo offense also means there is a heightened risk for turnovers. This isn't exactly a grind-it-out, ball-control style the Grizzlies are using (remember Bobby Hauck?) and the turnover bug is killing them. Montana is minus-9 in turnover margin through the first five weeks of the season, which ranks dead last in the 13-team Big Sky Conference and 116th out of 121 teams in the Football Championship Subdivision. Montana had eight giveaways combined in the last two weeks, which contributed directly to those losses. I don't know if any team could survive that. Bottom line: You've got to protect and secure the football.
- Where are the adjustments? Making tweaks and changes at halftime and on the fly in the second half is such a huge part of coaching. It wins games. But the Griz don't seem to be doing a whole lot of anything when their backs are against the wall on defense. Montana gave up 204 yards in the fourth quarter (in the fourth quarter!) to Eastern Washington. The week prior, NAU running back Zach Bauman had 171 of his 253 rushing yards in the second half as the Lumberjacks kept pounding the left side of the Grizzlies' defensive line. Perhaps the best example was Brandon Kaufman's 30-yard TD for EWU with 2:19 remaining on Saturday. Two plays earlier, QB Vernon Adams tried to hit Kaufman in the end zone but he couldn't come up with the catch. After a short completion on the following snap, Adams and Kaufman connected for a TD on what looked like a similar play. Why were the Griz still vulnerable after dodging a bullet the first time? You can't just go into a shell late in games.
- In all, the Grizzlies are being outscored 50-26 in the fourth quarter and 84-58 in the second half. What's more, UM ranks 10th in the Big Sky in red zone offense, and has coughed the ball up three times inside the 20-yard line. On 3rd down, the Griz are moving the chains a pedestrian 39 percent of the time. Montana's rushing attack is one of the most elusive in the nation, but at times it seems the team is pretty hesitant to loosen the reins on freshman QB Trent McKinney. Isn't this the guy who completed better than 80 percent of his throws in his first-ever start five weeks ago? There just isn't a whole lot of offensive balance right now.
I don't know. Those are just a few musings of what I see from UM's camp. Most of these issues are fixable, and you can bet Delaney and the coaching staff are working tirelessly to figure it out.
Looking at the remaining schedule, Montana has a chance to get on a little run and get hot like it did last year. Of their remaining six games, only two (at North Dakota and at home vs. Montana State) look like they're loseable. That means the Griz still have a chance be in pretty decent shape W/L-wise at the end of the year. But they need to get their issues squared away, beginning this week at Northern Colorado.