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Cat-Griz Primer: More mature Grizzlies aiming higher

Montana ready to take the next step in a return to dominance

 

August 28, 2019

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Senior quarterback Dalton Sneed and the Montana Grizzlies look to be vastly improved in the second year of Bobby Hauck's return to Missoula. The Grizzlies are also looking to end a four-year FCS playoff drought, and a three-year losing streak in the annual Brawl of the Wild.

There was so much excitement surrounding the return of Bobby Hauck to the University of Montana football program last August. And for much of the season, the Grizzlies' kept the excitement at a fever pitch.

And yet, in one split second, all of it came crashing down, as the Griz fumbled what would have been a game-winning touchdown against arch rival Montana State in the final game of the 2018 season.

The bitter loss ended a roller coaster ride of a season in Hauck's debut, where the Griz went 6-5, 4-4 in the Big Sky, were among the Big Sky's best offensive teams, but also lost three straight home games for the first time in the history of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, and saw a 21-point lead evaporate in a third straight loss to the hated Bobcats.

With all of that, to say the Griz have something to prove in 2019 would be putting it mildly.

Still, as No. 25 Montana prepares to open the season at MVC rival South Dakota, Hauck doesn't quite know what to expect.

"I think the thing that's excites me the most about this team is, usually, going to into a new season, I have a pretty good handle on how it's going to go. Even last year, I had some strong thoughts on the season, and in retrospect, many of them turned out to be accurate. This year, I'm excited most because I have no idea how it's going to go. I have hopes and expectations, just like we all do. So it's going to fun to see where it's all going to go this year."

Despite not quite being sure on how Montana's really tough 12-game schedule, which includes a trip to Pac 12 Oregon, and games against all four Big Sky playoff teams from last season (at UC Davis, vs Eastern Washington, vs Weber State, at Montana State), will play out, Hauck is sure about the commitment and improvement of his team in year two of his second stint with the Grizzlies.

"What I love the most about this football team is, their work ethic and their commitment to our program," Hauck said. "When we came in here last year, we told these guys, and we tell our new guys, things are going to be different. And since day one, all they've done is work and ask for me. We have a bunch of workers on this team, and it's exciting."

Exciting certainly describes the Griz' offensive capabilities this season. Montana was one of the top scoring and passing teams in the Big Sky last season, and with senior quarterback Dalton Sneed back after winning Big Sky Newcomer of the Year last year, as well as the best stable of receivers in the Big Sky (Sammy Akem, Jerry Louie-McGee, Samouri Toure, Gabe Sulser, Mitch Roberts), starting tailback Adam Eastwood, transfer RB Marcus Knight, and so many more weapons, the Griz are certainly poised to light up Big Sky scoreboards this fall.

And yet, it wall come down to improvements on the offensive line. Montana struggled there last season, and, that needs to change. Four starters return, and transfers have been added to address the issue.

"Offensively, we have a lot skill, a lot of guys who can make plays," Hauck said. "But we're gong to go only as far as the offensive line takes us. They've improved. They're working hard to improve. It's an area we felt we needed to be better for sure."

The Griz are also hoping to be better defensively. Statistically, Montana posted good defensive numbers in 2018, but, with so many high-powered offenses on the slate this fall, the Griz will need to be tough and stingy to make a run at their first playoff berth in four years.

The return of senior Preseason Big Sky Player of the Year Dante Olson at LB helps. Olson led the FCS in tackles last season, and is a finalist for the Buchanen Award for the second straight season. The #37 Jesse Sims at DT also helps immensely, while the Griz are loaded at safety with Robby Hauck, Gavin Robertson and veteran Josh Sandry. And in the emergence of Jase Lewis at LB, and key transfers on the defensive line, and, Montana's defense has all the makings of a very good unit.

But again, the Griz will be tested with the schedule. Montana faces some of the top offensive teams in the country this season, and, the Griz will have to try and snap a three-game losing streak to the Bobcats in Bozeman of all places. But, after last year's disappointments, it's left a big chip on the Grizzlies' shoulder, and the attitude Montana brings into the new season is noticeable.

"The goal from the day last season ended was to get better," Hauck said. "And these guys have done that. That's a testament to their character and their commitment to the program and to each other. I know we've improved. Now, we just have to go out and execute each game, as see how much.

"We have a tight-knit brotherhood, a great group of guys in that locker room," Sneed said. "We've pushed each other, we're there for each other. We want to compete for championships, and I know this, I know we'll go out there and do it together."

The Grizzlies face South Dakota on the road this Saturday. Montana opens its home schedule Sept. 7 against North Alabama under the lights of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

UM Grizzlies Schedule

Aug. 31 at South Dakota, 1 p.m., SWX

Sept. 7 vs North Alabama, 7 p.m., SWX

Sept. 14 at Oregon, 8:30 p.m., PAC12

Sept. 21 vs Monmouth, 1 p.m., SWX

Sept. 28 at UC Davis, 2 p.m., ROOT

Oct. 5 vs Idaho State, 1 p.m., ROOT

Oct. 19 at Sacramento St., 7 p.m., SWX

Oct. 26 vs E. Washington, 12 p.m., ROOT

Nov. 2 at Portland State, 3 p.m., SWX

Nov. 9 vs Idaho, 1 p.m., ROOT

Nov. 16 vs Weber State, 1 p.m., ROOT

Nov. 23 at Montana State, 12 p.m., ROOT

 

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