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2022 Cat-Griz Kickoff: Expectations are sky-high for talented Grizzlies

Montana picked to win the Big Sky, expects deep postseason run

 

Last updated 9/1/2022 at 10:25am

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Montana's Xavier Harris runs the ball during the 2021 Brawl of the Wild last November in Missoula. The Grizzlies start the 2022 season ranked No. 3 in the FCS and contenders for a Big Sky title. They open the season Saturday afternoon in Missoula.

The anticipation for the Montana Grizzlies' 2022 season to begin is so thick, one could cut it with a knife.

That's probably because the Grizzlies haven't been this hyped up in a long, long time. Hyped as in, picked to win the Big Sky Conference, while also starting the season ranked No. 3 in all of the FCS. And that kind of hype is coming off a season in which Montana went to the 2021 quarterfinals, but also graduated a slew of talent on both sides of the ball.

"It's nice to be recognized as a team that's probably got a chance to have a pretty good season," Bobby Hauck said to 406 Sports as the season approached. "Now that we're started, I don't have to talk about that anymore. We've got a game coming up. I'm excited to watch our team get ready for that, and then I'll be excited to keep score here come September."

September is almost here and the Griz will be keeping score.

After going 10-3 last year, including a historic win over rival Montana State, as well as a playoff win over rival Eastern Washington, the Griz lost key All-Americans like Sammy Akem and Jace Lewis, as well as plenty more firepower. But, the cupboard is by no means bare.

On offense, the Griz will welcome the return of former All-American running back Marcus Knight, who missed 2021 with a knee injury after rushing for 1,000 yards and a Griz record for most touchdowns in a season in 2019. Knight leads a stable of running backs including Xavier Harris and Nick Ostmo, who also returns from injury. The running game could also feature a new, dynamic quarterback in Lucas Johnson, who is a graduate transfer from San Diego State. Johnson was last seen leading the Aztecs to a Frisco Bowl win over No. 24 Texas San Antonio with a career-high 333 passing yards and four total TDs, three in the air and one rushing. Speaking of the air, receivers Mitch Roberts and Malik Flowers lead a star-studded group that also includes sensational sophomore Junior Bergen, other young stars and standout tonight end Cole Grossman, among others.

Of course, all that firepower needs a great offensive line in front of it, and Montana hopes it has that. Returning center A.J. Forbes and guard Hunter Mayginnes are the veterans, while youngsters Liam Brown and Brandon Casey are also ready to step up. Nebraska transfer Chris Walker moves into the left tackle spot to anchor a Griz' OL that is key to Montana's success this fall.

On the other side of ball, it's hard to think Montana's nationally-ranked defense from 2021 could be even better this fall, but that might just be the case. The Griz return First-Team All-American and Preseason Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Patrick O'Connell at linebacker. O'Connell was third in the voting for Buchanan Award last season. Joining him is fellow senior linebacker Marcus Wellnel, while the Montana secondary brings back All-Americans Justin Ford at corner and Robby Hauck at safety. Ford had an FCS best nine interceptions last season. Starters Nash Fousch and Garrett Graves also return in the secondary, while UM's defensive line is bolstered by returning starters Alex Gunner and Eli Alford at the tackle positions.

So, with so much returning stardom, it is easy to see why the Griz were picked to win the Big Sky, something they haven't done since 2009. Montana is loaded with talent. But, the schedule, which includes non-conference home games against Northwestern State and Missouri Valley rival South Dakota to start the season, will be daunting.

The Griz open Big Sky play Sept. 24 against Portland State at home, then visit Idaho State Oct. 1 ahead of their bye week. Out of the bye comes a make-or-break stretch for Montana. The Griz host Idaho Oct. 15 in their only home game of the month. Then comes two road games that will likely tell the tale, starting with an ESPN2 night game at defending Big Sky champion Sacramento State Oct. 22, and followed immediately by a road trip to perennial; Big Sky powerhouse Weber State on Oct. 29. Those two games could mean the difference between a Big Sky title and another year without one.

November, however, will also play a key role, as Montana hosts Cal Poly on Nov. 5, before welcoming in Eastern Washington Nov. 12. That home final is the buildup to what could be the biggest Cat-Griz game of them all when Montana travels to Bozeman to face their hated rival Nov. 19. The 121st Brawl of the Wild will likely have Big Sky title, playoff and possibly national championship implications on the line at Bobcat Stadium, because that's how good both teams are.

First, though, the Griz must build that kind of resume with the 10 games leading up to Cat-Griz. And it starts this Saturday with the season-opener against Northwestern State of the Southland Conference. That game kicks off at 1 p.m. inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

"It's supposed to be exciting around here," Hauck told 406 Sports. "That's the way it's supposed to be. If you're involved or a fan of or around Montana football, you ought to be excited."

Montana Grizzlies

2021: 10-3, 6-2, 3rd in Big Sky, lost at James Madison in FCS QF

Head Coach: Bobby Hauck (11th Season)

Stadium: Washington-Grizzly Stadium

2022 Schedule

9/3 vs Northwestern St, 1 p.m. ABC/Fox

9/10 vs South Dakota, 1:30 p.m., ABC/Fox

9/17 at Indiana State, 11 a.m., ESPN+

9/24 vs Portland State, 2 p.m., MTN

10/1 at Idaho State, 1 p.m., MTN

10/15 vs Idaho, 1 p.m., MTN

10/22 at Sacramento St., 9 p.m., ESPN2

10/29 at Weber State, 1 p.m., MTN

11/5 vs Cal Poly, 6 p.m., MTN

11/12 vs E. Washington, 1 p.m., MTN

11/10 at Montana State, 12 p.m., MTN

 

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