MISSOULA — The Montana football team will open its season on the road for the first time since 2014 when it travels to South Dakota.
The 25th-ranked Griz are coming off a 6-5 season that ended less than 1 yard away from a potential playoff berth in head coach Bobby Hauck’s first year of his second stint leading the Griz, who struggled to hold onto the ball and onto fourth-quarter leads.
South Dakota finished 4-7 last season under head coach Bob Nielson one year after making it to the second round of the playoffs.
The game, part of the Big Sky-Missouri Valley Challenge Series, will kick off at 1 p.m. MT Saturday in Vermillion, South Dakota. The game can be watched on ABC Montana or streamed on ESPN+ or GoYotes.com.
Here are five things to watch during the game, in addition to Montana focusing on making effective in-game adjustments in a timely and efficient manner against South Dakota’s new-look “position-less defense.”
Can Montana contain quarterback Austin Simmons?
Simmons led the Missouri Valley Football Conference in total yards per game last season, racking up an average of 314.2. He threw for 3,124 yards in 11 games and ran for a team-best 590 yards, which got knocked down to 332 partly because of sack yardage.
While Simmons can run, he also likes to hang in the pocket to wait for plays to develop downfield, throwing for 18 touchdowns with eight interceptions. That makes it key for the Grizzlies’ solid safeties and not-so-deep cornerbacks to stick with their coverage assignments no matter how long the play extends.
Can Montana run through a porous defense?
South Dakota’s defense gave up 210.9 yards per game on the ground last season, which ranked 98th in the country. Their new scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Travis Johansen is meant to slow down the prevalent run-pass option.
Montana has multiple run options, led by quarterback Dalton Sneed, the top returning rusher. At running back, returner Adam Eastwood should split time with junior college transfer Marcus Knight, while true freshman Nick Ostmo and redshirt freshman Drew Turner could see time.
Can Montana’s defensive front exploit a young offensive line?
South Dakota resembles Montana’s offensive line last year, breaking in four new starters, including a converted tight end at left tackle, while having eight underclassmen on its 10-player two-deep. Last year’s more experienced group allowed Simmons to be sacked 35 times in 11 games, 11 more than the next MVFC quarterback.
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Montana’s defensive front seven is projected to have five new starters, so it’ll be interesting to see how they handle maybe the most inexperienced offensive line they’ll see this year. The Griz will need unproven players like redshirt freshman Alex Gubner and transfers Ryder Rice, Joe Babros and Patrick O’Connell to step up alongside Jesse Sims, Dante Olson and Jace Lewis.
Can Montana’s offensive line hold up?
To run the ball well and give Sneed time to find his bevy of receivers, the Griz will need their offensive line to step up after struggling last season. They have back left tackle Conlan Beaver and right tackle Colton Keintz, while left guard Angel Villanueva made 29 starts before that streak ended last year. There are questions with center Cy Sirmon having yet to start at that position in a college game and right guard Kordell Pillans not yet playing at the Division I level.
The Coyotes have reason to hope for improved play in the trenches in their new defense. They have four seniors on the defensive line two-deep, headlined by two-time All-American Darin Greenfield, and five more upperclassmen in the linebacking corps.
Can Montana flip the field with special teams?
Teams would be hard pressed to find a trio of returners like the Griz have in Jerry Louie-McGee, Malik Flowers and Gabe Sulser. Louie-McGee led the Big Sky in yards per punt return last season, while Flowers was tops in the conference in yards per kickoff return.
The trio could see success against a South Dakota team that struggled in covering returns last year. The Coyotes finished 90th in the FCS in punt return defense, allowing 11.4 yards per return. They were 96th in kickoff return defense, giving up 22.6 yards on average.
Five stats to know
3: The Griz have missed the playoffs for three consecutive years, their longest drought since missing in 1990, 1991 and 1992. A win over a Missouri Valley team could go a long way to help the projected playoff bubble team get the nod if they take care of business the rest of the way.
7: Montana has opened its season on the road just seven times since 1999. The Griz are 4-3 in that stretch, but all three of those losses came to FBS teams.
16: South Dakota has won 16 consecutive home openers, tied for the fifth-longest active streak in the FCS. The Coyotes are 35-5 in home openers in the DakotaDome.
30: South Dakota went 11-2 over the past two years when scoring at least 30 points. The Coyotes have averaged 32 points per game in 35 games under Nielson and offensive coordinator Ted Schlafke.
5,500: Due to ongoing construction at the DakotaDome, only 5,500 of the 10,000 seats will be available. All of those will be on the home team’s sideline, meaning there won’t be any fans on the Grizzlies’ sideline.