The start of a Montana Grizzly football season is always a highly-anticipated moment. But perhaps no season-opener in Griz’ history has been more hyped than this one.
On Saturday night, in the first-ever regular season game played at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Montana will open the season against an old friend in FCS rival Appalachian State. But it really isn’t the Mountaineers last-ever trip to Missoula which has Griz Nation excited, anxious and curious.
Montana starts the fall after the most tumultuous 18 months in the program’s storied history. It started with an exciting run to the 2011 Football Championship Subdivision semifinals, a game the Griz narrowly lost at Sam Houston State. From there however, things went from bad, to worse, to really dark. The program endured a plethora of off-field incidents, including a sexual assault scandal involving star quarterback Jordan Johnson, who was ultimately acquitted. The program then fired head coach Robin Pflugrad and Athletic Director Jim O’Day in the spring of 2012, then went on to its first losing season in 25 years a year ago amidst an NCAA investigation that finally ended just a few weeks ago.
Now however, it seems the dark cloud which loomed over Missoula for almost two years has lifted and the Griz are eager, and capable of returning to the form their throngs of fans have grown accustomed to.
Johnson is back after missing the 2012 season, and appears to be better than ever. Montana also returns star linebacker Jordan Tripp, the choice for Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, 10 full-time starters on defense, and a bevy of talent up and down the roster.
Also back is head coach Mick Delaney for a second season. Delaney has guided UM through its most difficult time, and he’s done it with class, dignity and intensity. Now he believes his team can truly get back to focusing on football and just being student-athletes.
“It sure gives us an opportunity to face the challenges now that we know what they are,” Delaney said shortly after UM learned of the NCAA sanctions back in July, sanctions that did not include a feared postseason ban. “The biggest relief is knowing what we’re faced with.
“I think this entire experience has brought our team and our staff closer together,” he added. “And now that this part is over, we can go forward, as a team and a program.”
Going forward is all the Griz want to do at this point, and they certainly have a team capable of quickly turning around what was a disastrous 2012 campaign, one in which Montana had fourth-quarter leads in five of its six losses.
The biggest change from 2012 is the return of Johnson, who in spite of a year of turmoil his own off the field, stuck with the program, and appears to have come back stronger and a better quarterback. Johnson shined as a sophomore in 2011 in Pflugrad’s spread offense, and though Montana has since switched to more of a pro-style offense, Johnson seems to have picked it up quickly, and appears poised to have a football re-birth this season.
“Jordan Johnson is the best we’re going to see all year, bar none. I’ll say that right now,” said Tripp, a returning FCS All-American hoping to lead a improved Griz defense. “That offense and Jordan, nobody is going to throw a nicer ball than that kid right there and nobody is going to be a better leader, so it’s fun to play against the best.”
Tripp, a bona fide NFL prospect, will be the star of the UM defense, but fellow senior linebackers Brock Coyle, UM’s leading tackler in 2012, and John Kanongata’ help make up the best linebacker group in the Big Sky. Add in junior All-American Zack Wagenmann, who led the Big Sky in sacks a year ago, returning tackles Alex Bienemann and Tonga Takai, the emergence of sophomore end Tyrone Holmes, and depth with Caleb Kidder, Derek Crittendon, Trevor Rehm and Ryan Johnson, and Montana’s front seven could be as good as any in the FCS this season.
However, the Griz will have to be better in the secondary for it to matter. In 2012, Montana was one of the worst pass defenses in all of the FCS, and things really came to a head when the Griz allowed North Dakota to throw for over 600 yards in a stunning road loss. In fairness, UM did have injury problems in the secondary, as well as a wealth of inexperience at cornerback. But the numbers were no less devastating. Now the Griz return starting safeties Matt Hermanson and Bo Tully, while four cornerbacks, led by senior Anthony Goodwin will rotate the duties. And young players like Justin Whitted and Herbert Gamboa have been impressing in fall camp.
While the Griz’ defense could be a huge reason for a complete 180 in 2013, the offense is re-vamped too. It starts with Johnson, but a stable of speedy running backs and UM’s traditional massive offensive line could mean a more ground-oriented offense, much like the days of the Bobby Hauck era. Montana lost leading rusher Peter Nyguen, as well as the inspirational Dan Moore, but they return junior standout Jordan Canada, and added Marshall transfer Travon Van. Sophomore Joey Counts could make a splash as well. UM’s line averages 6-5 and 310 across the board and the Griz have depth. It’s led by senior Danny Kistler Jr., who’s touted as one of the top offensive linemen in the FCS and another potential NFL pick.
“Obviously we’re extremely excited about the return of Jordie Johnson to the team,” Delaney said. “He started out in spring ball a little rusty early, but soon got back into a groove, and he just has outstanding overall skills.”
But Johnson needs targets to throw too, and Montana’s receiving group is on the young side. Ellis Henderson is the only true starter returning, but sophomores Taylor Walcott and Chase Nacarato will step up, along with senior Cam Warren. Sean Haynes is hoping to finally break out this season, while UM added Washington transfer Jamal Jones in the summer, and true freshmen speedsters Marq Rodgers and Marquin Russell have been very impressive in camp. The Griz also hope to have senior Mitch Saylor back mid-season, while they hope for big things from tight ends Clay Pierson and Jordan Harper.
Though Montana’s roster seems loaded with skill players, UM needs to be more efficient offensively. In 2012, the Griz piled up yards, but didn’t do well in scoring position. Montana was also in the negative in turnover margin last season, and kicker Chris Lider needs to be much more reliable in his second season as the starter.
Still, the Griz are optimistic. And they have every reason to be. With the NCAA investigation over, with Johnson back, and with so many players no longer having a dark cloud hovering above the program, Montana has returned a team united. That’s the theme this year in Missoula, and though the Griz face a daunting 12-game schedule, which includes a return trip to UND, and a season-ending road game at Montana State, as well as home games against powers like Appalachian State, Cal Poly, Eastern Washington and Weber State, there’s a reason the Big Sky Coaches picked Montana high in the Preseason Coaches Poll. There’s a reason why UM is ranked No. 22 in the Preseason FCS Poll, and there’s a reason why, in spite of a 5-6 2012 season, Montana is still the talk of the Big Sky.
It’s all because good or bad, Montana is the polarizing team in the Big Sky, and now, they are ready to roar back, with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. Perhaps no Montana team has ever had more motivation to play hard and work as hard as the 2013 Griz do.
“As far as team morale and gelling among the team, we’re closer than any team I’ve been on since I’ve been here, and this is my fifth year,” Tripp said. “I’ve been on championship teams before, and they were close, but not as close as us. It has a different feel.”
The Griz’ season begins Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Washington-Grizzly Stadium against Appalachian State. The game can be seen locally on Max Media .