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Jabin Sambrano

Montana’s Jabin Sambrano (16) catches a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Andrew Selle during the Grizzlies’ 24-17 semifinal playoff victory over Appalachian State in Missoula on Dec. 12, 2009.

First-year Montana coach Mick Delaney said he was brought to tears after the Grizzlies beat South Dakota 35-24 last Saturday in Missoula.

And it wasn’t the final score or the all-around performance that had him welling up.

“It was a good situation for everybody to get out on the field for our first game,” Delaney said. “After everything that went on here for the past six or seven months, we were past due to get out and play a football game.

“It was very humbling for me, thinking that at this point in my career I’d be standing at Washington-Grizzly Stadium as the head coach of the Grizzlies. It brought tears to my eyes, because this is such a great group of young men.”

If last week served as a poignant opener for the 70-year-old Delaney, this week’s game at No. 11 Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., is the first true challenge. And Delaney has described it as a “measuring stick” for No. 12-ranked Montana.

The game pits the two winningest programs in the FCS in the last 12 or so years. Since 2000, the programs have combined for 257 victories, 16 conference titles and eight trips to the NCAA Division I Football championship game.

Since 2005, Appalachian State and Montana have won 79 and 78 games, respectively. The Mountaineers, of course, won three consecutive national championships from 2005-07.

The programs have played twice in the semifinal round of the playoffs, but never in the regular season. And both games came down to the wire, with the Griz winning on a Drew Miller-to-Jimmy Farris touchdown pass in overtime in 2000 and again on a late fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Andrew Selle to Jabin Sambrano in 2009.

Delaney was UM’s assistant head coach in ’09, and he has vivid memories of beating the Mountaineers and All-America quarterback Armanti Edwards.

“I made my way down to the field after the game and walked through the tunnel,” Delaney remembered. “By the time I got there the celebration was amazing. I just walked out to the middle of the field.

“It was one of the great all-time games in FCS football.”

Delaney and the Griz hope for a similar outcome Saturday.

* * * *

Fourth-ranked Montana State heads to Des Moines, Iowa, to play Drake on Saturday. It marks a special homecoming for Bobcats coach Rob Ash.

Before he was hired at MSU in June of 2007, Ash spent 18 seasons as the head coach at Drake, where he won a school-record 125 games. The 61-year-old Ash was born in Des Moines, so the game carries a little more meaning.

“Iowa is where my roots are,” said Ash, who spent Friday night with close friends at the team hotel in Des Moines. “There are a lot of folks that I know.

“Drake has the same athletic director (Sandy Hatfield Clubb), the same university president (Dr. David Maxwell) and a lot of the same faculty. I’ve had emails and outreach from people know, which has been nice. There are a lot of people driving over from the Midwest coming to the game.”

Still, Ash knows he must block out whatever distractions might crop up. Drake, Ash says, is a formidable opponent despite its non-scholarship status in the Pioneer Football League, which the Bulldogs won last year.

“They’re very, very sound fundamentally,” Ash said. “On offense, (quarterback) Mike Piatkowski is very efficient. He knows exactly what to do with coverages, and he gets rid of the ball quickly and with accuracy.

“Defensively they have a very good line; a very big rush. I think they’re building on the championship they had last year. They’ve got good players and are very sound on both sides.”

Ash did say the Bobcats will have the services of junior linebacker Aleksei Grosulak, who had yet to be cleared to play last week following offseason shoulder surgery. Grosulak, a former standout at Billings Central, has since been cleared and will see his first live action against Drake.

* * * *

With a victory, Ash will pass Mike Kramer and tie Cliff Hysell for second place on Montana State’s all-time wins list.

Ash is 40-20 in five-plus seasons with the Bobcats. He is only eight wins shy of passing coaching legend Sonny Holland to become the Bobcats’ all-time winningest coach.

MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee, meanwhile, has thrown 51 career touchdown passes, the fourth-most in school history. With four TD throws in the Bobcats’ 33-6 win over Chadron State, McGhee extended his touchdown-pass streak to 26 games.

McGhee’s career record as the Bobcats’ starting quarterback is now 20-6, a .769 winning percentage.

* * * *

The Grizzlies boast a huge home-field advantage at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, but for a landmark win on the road they’ll have to bust through Appalachian State’s run of dominance at Kidd Brewer Stadium.

The Mountaineers are 60-19-2 (.753) all time in home openers, including a 20-3 mark under longtime coach Jerry Moore. ASU is 10-1 in home openers in the last 11 seasons.

Additionally, ASU is opening its home schedule against a nationally ranked opponent for the eighth time in the last 14 years. So the Mountaineers are no stranger to big early-season contests.

The Mountaineers own a 17-game regular-season winning streak at Kidd Brewer Stadium. They have not lost a regular-season home game since a 40-35 loss to McNeese State in their 2009 home opener.

* * * *

Six Big Sky Conference teams play “up” this week, including three that will go head-to-head with squads from the Pac-12: No. 9 Eastern Washington at Washington State, Southern Utah at Cal and Sacramento State at Colorado.

Also, Weber State travels to play Brigham Young, UC Davis faces San Jose State and Northern Arizona faces UNLV.

The NAU-UNLV matchup pairs two former Montana coaches against one another — the Lumberjacks’ Jerome Souers and the Rebels’ Bobby Hauck.

Hauck was the coach at UM from 2003-09, a span in which he posted an 80-17 record. Souers was an assistant with the Grizzlies for several years, and played a big role in UM's rise to prominence as its defense coordinator in the late 1980s and into the '90s.

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