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Big Big Sky games await Griz, Cats

 

September 27, 2019

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Star linebacker Dante Olson, left, and the Montana defense will face its biggest test yet when the Grizzlies play at fourth-ranked UC Davis to open Big Sky Conference play Saturday. The Bobcats are home to host Northern Arizona in their Big Sky opener.

In their weekly press conference, both Montana State head coach Jeff Choate and Montana head coach Bobby Hauck were blunt. In fact, Choate went so far as to say he didn't care at all about the last four weeks, and wasn't interested in discussing it.

The reason both coaches were fired up?

Big Sky Conference play is here.

The Bobcats (3-1), now ranked seventh in the FCS, have a home date with a potent Northern Arizona squad Saturday to begin league play, while the No. 19 Grizzlies (3-1) travel to UC Davis for a huge showdown with not only the top team in the Big Sky, but also one of the top teams in the entire country.

"We're excited about the conference schedule kicking off," Hauck said. "Certainly we're aware of UC Davis and what their team has and what they bring to the table. I've had a couple days to watch them. They're deserving of every bit of their national ranking. "I think they're a really, really terrific football team who absolutely handled us last year. Then you couple that with the fact that they have most of their team back. It's a tall order to prepare this week and try to go find a way to get a win down there."

Finding a way to beat the fourth-ranked Aggies (2-2) won't be easy. Montana was thumped by Davis a season ago, and as Hauck mentioned, the Aggies return almost their entire team, including NFL prospect Jake Maier at quarterback, and running back Ulonzo Gillam, among many others.

And if Hauck and Co. needed any more proof of how good Davis is on both sides of the ball, they need look no further than their close losses to FBS, nationally-ranked Cal and last week at the FCS' top dog, North Dakota State.

So, there's no denying, the Griz, who put away Monmouth last week to close out non-conference play, will have their hands full in California Saturday.

Montana ranks just 11th in the Big Sky in pass defense, which is certainly Davis' strength, with Maier at the helm. That means defensive linemen like Jesse Sims, Alex Gubner and Ryder Rice, as well as star linebacker Dante Olson, will need to get pressure up front, or Maier will methodically pick the Griz apart.

On the other side of the ball, the Griz will need to score, and score as much as they can. That hasn't been a problem in Montana's three wins this season, with Dalton Sneed among the top quarterbacks in the FCS, and the emergence of Marcus Knight at running back. But Maier and Davis' high-powered offense is complimented by a veteran, stingy defense.

Of course, the Grizzlies won't be the only team facing a scary-good quarterback Saturday.

The Bobcats, who thrashed Norfolk State a week ago, get to stay home, but, NAU (2-2) brings sixth-year senior Case Cookus to town, and all he's done so far is average nearly 350 yards passing per game, as well as throw for 13 touchdowns. The oft-injured Cookus, who has been a legitimate Walter Payton Award candidate in the past, is complimented by a strong running game, led by senior tailback Joe Logan.

Of course, the Bobcats are very, very good at running back, and they'll counter NAU's fast-paced offense, with a heavy dose of running the ball. Last week, the Cats had three 100-yard rushers, and none of them were named Isiaah Ifanse or Troy Andersen, so that just goes to show how deep and talented MSU is in the backfield.

The Cats have also made a quarterback change, with Casey Bauman being replaced by sophomore Tucker Rovig, who certainly sparked the MSU offense last Saturday.

Now Rovig gets his turn to be the starter, and with such a stout running game, if Rovig can play relatively mistake-free football, MSU's offense becomes very hard to prepare let along stop, and with a Bobcat defense that is among the league leaders in almost every statistical category ahead of the start of conference play, MSU could be poised for a big run in the Big Sky.

But, by the way Choate was speaking at his weekly press conference, making it clear he's not looking back, he also made it clear he's not looking ahead either. The only thing he's looking at is Northern Arizona.

"We're 0-0 right now, I'm not even talking about what happened in non-conference play," Choate said. "I could care less about what just happened over the last four weeks. This is all about Northern Arizona (University) on Saturday at 1 o'clock."

Saturday's Big Sky game between the Bobcats and Lumberjacks will kick off at 1 p.m. inside Bobcat Stadium. The game will be televised on all SWX Montana affiates. The game between the Grizzlies and UC Davis will begin at 2 p.m. in Davis, California and will be televised nationally on Root Sports.

 

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