By ERIC TABER For GoGriz.com
THE GAME: Two storied Football Championship Subdivision teams collide in this “FCS Kickoff” season opener, as the Montana Grizzlies (0-0) host the four-time defending national champion North Dakota State Bison (0-0) at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. MDT on Saturday, Aug. 29.
The game provides perhaps the perfect storm of story lines, as the Montana Grizzlies host the four time defending national champion Bison to Washington-Grizzly stadium, a place Montana holds a 180-26 lifetime advantage over visitors. Not to mention the whole thing will be broadcast nation wide on ESPN as the network’s “FCS Kickoff” game for 2015, and will be called by Montana native Brent Musburger.
This will also be the first game for the Griz under new head coach Bob Stitt.
“We’re just excited to finally get out and play against someone other than ourselves,” said Coach Sitt. “NDSU is going to a tough opponent. They run the ball well, they’re very physical. Their QB can throw but he can also run the ball. They’ve got a couple of good receivers, so if you load up the box, they can get you with those guys. They do a little bit of everything.
“We’ve got to make sure we get lined up and we don’t get outnumbered. They’ll do a lot of shifting in different formations, and we have to get lined up right so we’re not down at half. We’ve also got to be aggressive on third down. We’ve got to get off the field and make them punt.”
Fans who are yet to pick up their tickets from the Adams Center would do best to arrive early on Saturday. Will call opens at 10 a.m. with large crowds expected.
SERIES/LAST MEETING: North Dakota State leads the all times series 4-3. The last meeting between the two schools was last season when the Bison defeated the Griz 22-10 in Fargo, N.D. The Griz won the first three meetings between the two teams in 1914, 1921, and 1941.
FIRST YEAR UNDER COACH STITT: Coach Bob Stitt makes his debut as mentor of the Grizzlies after being hired to replace the retiring Coach Mick Delaney in December 2014. Recognized as an offensive innovator, Stitt brings a 108-62 record to Montana after 15 successful years with 13 winnings seasons at NCAA DII Colorado School of Mines. His teams at Mines won three Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference titles in 2004, 2010, and 2014. He is widely known as the innovator of the fly-sweep play.
36 NEWCOMERS ON THE 2015 GRIZ: Coach Stitt has recruited 36 new players to Montana made up of 12 wide receivers, six DBs, five offensive lineman, three quarterbacks, three linebackers, three defensive linemen, two running backs and two kickers. Seven new players are transfers from FBS programs.
23 STARTERS AND 35 LETTERMAN RETURN: The Griz return 23 starters from last season’s 9-5 team that finished second in the Big Sky Conference. 14 letterman return on the offensive side of the ball, with 18 defensive letter winners returning.
SEVEN GRIZ NAMED FCS PRESEASON ALL-AMERICANS: USA College Football named Senior Wide Receiver Jamaal Jones to its second team preseason All-America list.
Former fullback-turned defensive tackle Jamal Wilson, Linebacker Herbert Gamboa, Defensive Back Nate Harris, Linebacker Jeremiah Kose and Punter/Kicker Daniel Sullivan each received Honorable Mention All-American nods.
VAN ACKEREN PICKS UP TWO PRESEASON AWARDS: Montana senior linebacker Kendrick Van Ackeren was named a STATS FCS Preseason All-American. Van Ackeren earned a third-team defensive nod as Montana’s leading returning tackler of 2015.
GRIZ LAND FOUR ON PRESEASON ALL-BIG SKY CONFERENCE TEAM: Wide receivers Jamaal Jones and Ellis Henderson were given All-Big Sky Conference preseason recognition in 2015, while Kendrick Van Ackeren and Jeremiah Kose made the list on the defensive side of the ball.
MONTANA PICKED THIRD IN BIG SKY PRESEASON POLLS: The Montana Grizzlies have been picked to finish third by both the Big Sky Conference media and coaches’ in 2015. Montana earned 121 points and one first place vote in the Coaches’ poll, and 446 points and five first place votes in the media poll.
QUARTERBACK POSITION SOLIDIFIED: Junior quarterback Brady Gustafson (6’ 7”, 235lbs – Billings West, HS) has earned the starting QB spot following a solid spring and fall camp performance. Junior signal caller Chad Chalich and sophomore Makena Simis complete the depth chart behind Gustafson, with Hawaii transfer Eric Prater sitting in fourth.
JONES PRIMED TO CLIMB CAREER RECEIVING LIST: Senior wide receiver Jamaal Jones currently sits 18th on Montana’s all time career receiving yard list with 1,804 heading into the 2015 season. If the receiver puts up another 1,000 yard season like he did last year, he could move into 2nd place behind Marc Mariani who is Montana all time leading receiver with 3,018. Matt Wells currently sits in second with 2,733 career receiving yards.
SMOKEY SKIES: Smokey skies around western Montana are being monitored daily by the Montana Athletic Training staff, who follow protocols developed in consultation with the Director of Curry Health Center, Dr. Carla Fritz, the Missoula City-County Health Department, and UM athletic directors Kent Haslam and Jean Gee. At this stage, the game will be played as scheduled unless drastic changes occur for the worse, according to the UM Athletic Training Staff.
MEDIA COVERAGE / GAME SPONSOR:
ESPN: Live coverage of this “FCS Kickoff” game begins at 1:30 p.m. MDT on the ESPN flagship channel. Montana native and legendary sports broadcaster Brent Musburger will call the play-by-play, with Jesse Palmer serving as color analyst and Maria Taylor sideline reporting. ESPN will activate its SEC Game of the Week production staff for the game. This is the only college football game being played in America this week.
GRIZ RADIO: Veteran play-by-play man Mick Holien takes the mike for his 23rd season as “Voice of the Griz”. Greg Sundberg moves into the booth this season along side Holien after four seasons as Sideline Reporter. Live broadcast can be heard statewide on the Montana Grizzly Radio Network, and worldwide on gogriz.com.
GAME SPONSOR: The season opener is presented by NorthWestern Energy.
The Griz return a rock solid corps of seniors to a defensive unit that was one of the tops in FCS last season, holding the eventual national champion Bision to only 22 points in Fargo a year ago. Tyrone Holmes and Derek Crittenden provide explosiveness and mobility at defensive end, while Caleb Kidder and Jamal Wilson will provide stopping power in the middle.
The linebackers are another group that is loaded with senior talent for the Griz in 2015. Kendrick Van Ackeren returns as the team’s leading tackler last season with 122 take downs, and Jeremiah Kose returns as the teams’ second leading returning tackler. Connor Lebsock will get his chance at the starting position, filling in for the suspended Herbert Gamboa against NDSU. Coach Gregorak is also alluding to fans to keep an eye on Josh Buss as a youngster who could make big things happen.
Another group that returns a core group of seniors is the Grizzly secondary. Led by Nate Harris and Justin Whitted, younger talent like JR Nelson has stepped forward to earn a spot, and Arizona transfer Yamen Sanders is physical enough to play almost anywhere in the backfield.
Since the end of spring ball, Coach Stitt has said that the starting QB job is Brady Gustafson’s job to lose. Judging by his work at fall camp, he hasn’t come close to losing that job.
If any position is deep for the Griz, it’s the 20-plus-member wide receiver group that Coach Stitt has assembled to operate his up-tempo passing game. Jamaal Jones and Ellis Henderson are known quantities, but impressing at fall camp are some perhaps unfamiliar names like Ben Roberts and Reese Carlson who will get plenty of opportunities to pull in passes.
At running back, John Nguyen received the starting nod after two years of solid back up performances for the Griz. Hoping to work his way back to health for this game is Joey Counts, a bruising ball runner who will provide UM some muscle in the red zone.
One of the question marks heading into fall camp was the offensive line. Despite an injury to Ben Weyer, this group has looked strong in their pass protection at fall camp. Coach Germer will rely on John Schmaing, who makes his way back from injury, and Devon Dietrich to lead a young group.
Dan Sullivan and Chris Lider have both duked it out for kicking duties throughout fall camp. While some inconsistency has slipped in, both have shown glimpses of greatness with the foot.
Check back on Make It Missoula after the game for a photo gallery by Mark Mesenko.