By DUSTIN ASKIM, for the Montana Kaimin Newspaper
The Montana Grizzlies still have a chance to finish the season with more wins than losses. They will still face off with with the Bobcats on Nov. 17. Exhale, Griz Nation. Earth is still rotating.The struggling 3-5 Griz will try to avoid their third home loss of the season when they clash with the 1-6 Idaho State Bengals Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The last time Montana lost two home games was 2005, when they went 5-2 at home. And unless the Grizzlies win all three remaining games, it’ll be their first season with an overall losing record since 1985, a year when bacon was $1.65 a pound and Eddie Murphy was still funny.
Last weekend, North Dakota defeated the Griz 40-34 on a touchdown throw from Braden Hanson to Greg Hardin with 12 seconds remaining. Hanson finished with a Big Sky Conference record 660 passing yards, while Hardin’s 333 receiving yards also topped the conference’s 50-year history. The formula for the preposterous passing performance had two vital components: the Grizzlies’ youth at the safety and cornerback positions and UND’s explosive offense, which features a brutal offensive line and speedy receivers. As the performance evidenced, UM is cellar-dwelling in the pass defense department — holding down last place in passing yardage and completions allowed.
“It just continues to be heartbreaking, frustrating for our players, because they deserve to win,” Delaney said of this season’s close losses. “You know, they’re playing hard, and they’re doing all the things you need to do to be successful, but we’ve let (games) get away three or four times.”
In the homecoming game, Northern Arizona outscored UM 27-7 in the second half. The following weekend against No. 1 Eastern Washington, the Grizzlies blew a nine-point lead and lost 32-26. The Eagles were successful on an onside kick attempt and scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes.
So now, after a 30-20 home loss to Southern Utah in mid-October and last week’s loss in Grand Forks, N.D., Montana finds itself in uncharted territory. All five losses were games up for grabs, but the ball hasn’t bounced their way, Delaney said. The first-year head coach has repeatedly highlighted that the inability to close games out has been the main culprit for the nail-biting losses, but as the green Grizzlies cut their teeth, Delaney said he’s seen more positive things happening than negative.
“We’re seeing some adversity,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference. “We’re going to be a real, real good football team in the future, and this team is going to finish up and play like they have the whole season, and we’re going to get over that hump starting Saturday.”
Thankfully for the struggling Griz, last-place Idaho State limps into Missoula with a defense that allows an average of more than 550 yards and 52 points a game. Look for UM quarterback Shay Smithwick-Hann, who threw for 306 yards in three quarters of action Saturday to anchor the Grizzlies’ passing attack, though Delaney hasn’t announced whether the Kalispell native or Trent McKinney will start.
“I was a little nervous, excited at the same time,” Smithwick-Hann said of his first real game action. “The adrenaline is going. It was neat.”
Flip the coin, and you have the Bengals’ passing offense, anchored by Kevin Yost, a senior who has thrown for a staggering 2,459 yards this year. Expect Yost to throw at least 55 times Saturday, testing the waters of Montana’s sinking secondary.
Sophomore defensive end Zack Wagenmann, who leads the conference with nine sacks, said playing a team with a pass-first mentality changes the mindset of a defense because they don’t have to worry about stopping the run on the first and second down.
“We get to pin our ears back, go full speed, so it’s fun to get to chase after the quarterback,” he said.
The Bengals will be without their head coach Mike Kramer, who this week was suspended one game for allegedly throwing a player to the ground in practice. Delaney said whoever is pacing the opposing sideline has no effect on his team and the game plan. The 70-year-old Delaney, regardless of the outcome of football games, remains calm and rational week after week.
“The players have made a resolve that they’re going to play every down as hard as they can,” he said. “And I believe that will happen.”