By ERIC TABER For GoGriz.com
The Montana Grizzlies hit the road for the first time this season, traveling east of the Mississippi River for only the seventeenth time in program history, and for the sixth time in regular season history to face the Flames of Liberty University (14,500).
The Flames enter the game at 1-1 ranked No. 14 in the FCS Coaches Poll and 15 in the STATS FCS media poll.
Montana is coming off a bye week after two physical games to start the season, and taking to the road for the first time under head coach Bob Stitt. In 2014, Montana went just 2-5 away from the friendly confines of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“We’ve been talking about playing on the road, and playing well, on the road since we got here,” said Coach Stitt.
“This is going to be our first chance to show we mean business as far as being a championship football team. You have to be able to win on the road if you’re going to win championships.”
The nature of the bye week allowed the Grizzlies an extra three days of preparation for the Flames.
“We’ve got a game plan that we’ve had a little more time to work on, an we’re excited to get out and really execute it against Liberty,” added Stitt.
Tyrone Holmes remembers the Flames from his freshman year when Liberty traveled to Missoula and fell to the Griz 34-14. Holmes knows the return trip won’t be as comfortable.
“I know from playing them my freshman year they play hard and they are coached well, so it’s a huge task for us to be able to compete against their athletes and what they have going,” said Holmes
THE GAME: #14 Liberty hosts #7 Montana in a nonconference Kickoff is set for 7:04 p.m. Eastern Time on Sept. 19 at Williams Stadium, a 19,200 seat facility that ranks among the tops in FCS. Tickets to the game are well on their way to being sold out.
Liberty defeated No. 1 ranked Coastal Carolina in the final game of the 2014 regular season; going 9-5 on the year and advancing to the FCS playoffs for the first time. The Flames head into the game against Montana 1-1, coming off a 41-17 loss to FBS West Virginia in Morgantown. The Flames opened their 2015 season with a 32-13 win over Delaware State in Lynchburg.
SERIES/LAST MEETING: Flames quarterback Josh Woodrum made his college start as a freshman in 2012 when Liberty fell to Montana 34-14 in Missoula. That game was the first-ever between the two schools, and Saturday marks the first-ever visit by a Big Sky Conference team to Williams Stadium.
LAST GAME: Two weeks ago, kicker Alex Vega broke Montana hearts, kicking a 49-yard field goal with four seconds to play that gave the previously unranked Cal Poly Mustangs a 20-19 victory at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Montana had taken the lead over the Mustangs with 3:43 remaining when Derek Crittenden sacked Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown in the end zone for a safety to put the Griz up 19-17.
BYE-WEEK: Montana took its first of two bye weeks last week after two physical games to open the season. The Griz put in three extra three days of practice with the Liberty game plan last week, and giving the players time to rest over the weekend. Montana gets the luxury of having two bye weeks this season due to its participation in the ESPN “FCS Kickoff” game against North Dakota State on August 29th, a full week before the rest of college football started around the country. Montana’s next bye week comes the week of October 17.
GRIZ CLIMB THE RANKING: By virtue of Eastern Washington falling to 0-2 on the early season, the Grizzlies have climbed the national rankings to No. 7 in the FCS Coaches’ Poll, but stayed put on the bye week at No. 8 in the SATS FCS media poll.
Montana picked up 450 points in the Coaches’ poll to put them 10 points ahead of South Dakota State. In the STATS FCS media poll, the Griz have 2650 points and are the top-ranked school in the Big Sky Conference. The Big Sky has six different teams in the top 25, tied for the most representatives of any conference with the Missouri Valley Conference.
OFFENSE CLIMBS THE RANKINGS: Two games in to the FCS season, and UM Quarterback Brady Gustafson leads the nation in two different passing categories.
“Gus” is ranked first in the FCS in passing yards per game with 393.5, and total passing yards with 787. Gustafson also ranks second nationally in total offense with 410 yards per game of production.
VAN ACKEREN RANKED: Kendrick Van Ackeren is listed as one of the nations top five tacklers this week as well, with 15 total tackles, tying him for fourth place in the national ranking. Van Ackeren also leads the Big Sky Conference in total tackles (30).
The Griz Breakdown/Keys to the game:
Montana will get the services of Defensive Tackles Caleb Kidder and Zach Peevey back for this weekend’s matchup in Virginia. An intimidating 6-5 presence in the middle of the line, Kidder started against NDSU, tallying seven tackles before sitting out against Cal Poly with a leg injury. Also back from injury is 6-7 295 R-Jr. Offensive Tackle McCauley Todd.
The Griz secondary will need to contain Flames QB Josh Woodrum, the FCS active career passing leader who only needs 38 passing yards to surpass the 8,000 yard mark.
Just as the fans at Washington-Grizzly Stadium act as another player on the field for the Griz, the Montana defense will need to contend with a hostile environment at Williams Stadium. Liberty is 101-45 all-time at home, and 45-10 (.818) since the start of the 2006 season. Liberty head coach Turner Gill is 15-5 when his Flames play at Williams Stadium.
The Griz offensive line will have their work cut out for them in Liberty senior DL Chima Uzowihe is tied for the Big South all-time sack record with 20.5, and needs two sacks to break the Liberty all-time sack record. Liberty ranks No. 12 nationally with 3.5 sacks per game.
Coach Stitt has alluded to cleaning up mental errors on the road this weekend. The Griz have suffered a total of seven turnovers in the first two games of the season.
Montana has six Wide Receivers who are 30 yards or less away from 100 yard seasons. Jamaal Jones (205) and Ellis Henderson (180) have already surpassed the century mark. By design, Gustafson has also spread the love to Nguyen (70), Naccarato (81), Carlson (80), and Josh Horner (75), each of whom could hit the 100 yard mark. Montana will look to the services of as many receivers as possible on Saturday.