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Linebacker Jordan Tripp has 82 tackles this season, which ranks second on Montana's defense. Tripp and the Grizzlies host rival Montana State on Saturday in Missoula.

Jordan Tripp sat hunched over on the Washington-Grizzly Stadium turf, recoiling in pain.

The same way he’d done a million times before, Tripp made a tackle on Eastern Washington running back Jordan Talley during the third quarter of Montana’s win over the Eagles last September.

But this time something was really wrong.

Tripp peeled himself off the ground, staggered to the sideline and never returned. Tripp had suffered a serious shoulder injury, which required surgery and knocked him out for the remainder of the season.

Tripp was forced to watch from the sideline as the Grizzlies made a run all the way to the semifinal round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

He was derailed physically, but it made him much stronger mentally.

“It was a blessing in disguise, to tell you the truth,” Tripp said. “I was able to sit back and watch how (former UM linebacker) Caleb McSurdy and those guys prepared for games. I put that in the back of my mind and I’ve used those techniques.

“The injury helped me mature mentally. It helped me slow the game down so I could play faster.”

And play faster he has.

Healthy again, Tripp is in the midst of an outstanding season. A perfect combination of speed and power, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound product of Big Sky High School in Missoula is again a major force at middle linebacker -- which is exactly what everyone expected upon his return.

Heading into Saturday’s annual rivalry game with Montana State, Tripp leads the Grizzlies and ranks fourth in the Big Sky Conference with 13 tackles for loss. His 82 tackles rank second on UM’s defense behind Brock Coyle.

Tripp also has 5½ sacks, an interception, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He is currently on the Buck Buchanan Award watch list as one of the top defensive players in the nation.

Big plays are his forte.

Tripp made the most important play in a Week 3 win over Liberty, picking off a pass and rumbling 58 yards to the 6-yard line to set up a Trent McKinney touchdown run that put the game out of reach.

And in a blowout win over Idaho State three weeks ago — the first victory of UM’s current two-game winning streak — Tripp picked up a fumble and took it back 80 yards for a touchdown.

Tripp has more than lived up to the hype of wearing the Grizzlies’ esteemed No. 37 jersey, an honor bestowed on him during the offseason.

The tradition of No. 37 began with Kraig Paulson in the 1980s, and has been passed down to the Montana-born defensive player deemed by his predecessor most worthy to assume the mantle of leadership and performance.

Griz stalwarts like safety Tim Hauck, linebacker Jason Crebo and defensive end Andy Petek wore the jersey in the past and Tripp is enhancing the legacy.

“It’s awesome just because of the guys that wore it before me,” Tripp said. “To be able to carry on what they’ve done has been an honor.

“You don’t really think about the number you wear after it’s given to you. But with No. 37, you have a responsibility to do the best you can to make yourself and your teammates better so you can win on Saturdays.”

Despite Tripp’s production, the 2012 campaign hasn’t turned out the way the Grizzlies had planned. After a turbulent offseason, Montana is just 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the Big Sky Conference under first-year coach Mick Delaney.

The perennial playoff-contending Griz are trying to avoid their first losing season since 1985. They’re out of contention for the postseason this year, but they’re determined to end on a high note.

To do it, they have to beat a Montana State team ranked No. 2 in the country and playing its best football at the end of the season.

What will it take?

“Preparation,” Tripp said. “Mind, body and spirit. That’s what it’s all about.

“They are good at what they do. That’s why they’re ranked where they are. We’ve just got to be sound in what we do and play a mistake-free football game. It’ll be a lot of fun.”

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