By ERIC TABER
One of Montana head coach Bob Stitt’s main objectives heading into spring ball was to develop an often under-recognized facet of his team’s offensive attack: the run game.
Consider that objective met.
The UM corps of running backs blew up for 207 yards and three touchdowns in the Griz football squad’s second scrimmage of the 2016 spring season on Saturday.
The potent run game paved the way for the Montana offense to put up 34 points on a formidable Grizzly defense, who themselves got on the board with seven points thanks to an interception return from Evan Epperly.
The postcard morning at Washington-Grizzly Stadium provided the perfect backdrop as the Griz also used the event to host its annual junior day, bringing in potential recruits form across the country.
The action on the field was equally appealing to fans and recruits alike, with the offense putting up a total of 497 yards and scoring five touchdowns against a defense that posted 10 sacks, five tackles for loss, two interceptions (including Epperly’s pick-six), and 80 tackles over the course of the 78-play scrimmage.
“There’s good things going on on both sides of the ball, and I told the guys after the scrimmage, we’ve got to learn from it. We’ve got to get better and grow from it, but from an offensive standpoint, I feel really good,” said Coach Stitt after the scrimmage.
“If you compare our football team to last spring at this time, it’s night and day, especially on the offensive side of the ball. But the discipline on the defense is there that we didn’t have last spring.
“This 2016 team is fun to come out and coach. They’re really coming around. There’s no “O”, there’s no “D”, there’s just Griz now.”
Leading the way offensively was senior quarterback Brady Gustafson, who took the reins on six different series’, passing for 17-22 and 66 yards, while running four times for 19 more yards and a touchdown.
Chad Chalich and Reese Phillips each showed Coach Stitt that they have what it takes to produce solid numbers at the QB position as well. Chalich lead all passers with 114 yards, going 7-11-1, including a 75 yard strike to Kobey Eaton for the second score of the morning.
Phillips passed for a deep touchdown, hitting Jerry Louie-McGee in full stride on the last play of the scrimmage for a 44-yard strike. Phillips ended his second outing in maroon and silver with 110 yards passing on 9-16-1.
A pair of freshmen receivers had big days as well, with Eaton racking up 107 yards and a touchdown, and Louie-McGee leading all receivers with 109 yards on nine receptions, including the 44-yards strike form Phillips.
Louie-McGee was a one-man highlight reel, making multiple defenders miss on nearly every touch of the ball, and showing a lateral quickness that is proving vital in Coach Stitt’s “Z” receiver position.
“Jerry is dynamic,” said Stitt of the redshirt freshman from Coeur d’Alene. “It’s almost laughable at practice what he does to some of our defenders. We’re so excited about him, we’re blessed to have him on this football team and Caleb Lyons is right out of the same mold.”
Lyons also impressed with five catches for 23 yards, and a 31-yard kick return on the first play of the scrimmage.
But the improved running game was the most evident piece of improvement this spring in the overall offensive puzzle.
Senior John Nguyen rushed for 70 yards on seven attempts to lead all rushers. Junior Treshawn Favors was not far off with 67 yards on seven attempts, including a 35-yard scamper for a touchdown late in the scrimmage. Sophomore Jeremy Calhoun also ran for 47 yards and a touchdown on eight attempts.
One of the biggest reasons for the running game’s improvement comes from a bigger, stronger offensive line that paved the way for the Griz running backs all day.
“Our offensive line is really coming along,” says Stitt. “Coach Germer is doing a great job with those guys, and we’re going to continue to get better. They’re bigger, they’re stronger and they’re more confident, that’s the biggest thing.
“The mind is a powerful thing. When you start getting some swagger up front on the offensive line, some things will really be good. Our running backs now are sticking their foot in the ground and getting up the field and not trying to run sideways, and they’re stronger and more powerful this spring.”
While the offense had a good day at the office, it was not at the expense of a passive defense.
The Griz “D” flew around and made plays all over the place, including putting up a whopping 10 sacks and five tackles for loss in the scrimmage.
Markell Sanders and Caleb Kidder each led the defense with seven tackles each, two of those tackles from Kidder were sacks as well. Also picking up a pair of sacks was defensive end Ryan Johnson, who finished with four total tackles.
Sophomore safety Evan Epperly intercepted Phillips and returned it 28 yards for the defense’s only touchdown of the day. Zach Peevey appeared to put the “D” on the board again later in the scrimmage after scooping up a stripped ball that Alex Thomas pried away from Phillips and returning it to the house, but the officials ruled the ball dead on a sack instead.
Sophomore Josh Buss led the young, but talented linebacker corps in tackles with six, and Thomas added four, while freshman Vika Fa’atuiese added four take-downs as well.
The Griz will wrap up spring drills next week in Washington-Grizzly Stadium in the annual Spring Game.
The 2016 University of Montana Grizzly Football Spring Game sponsored by Steve and Roxane Bryant, will take place on Saturday, April 23 at 2 p.m. inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Tickets for the scrimmage are $5 per person and are on sale now. Several events will take place on Saturday, April 23. A noon tailgate party hosted by the Grizzly Scholarship Association (GSA) will take place in Memorial Grove, located just north of Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The tailgate will include music, food, and drinks.
The proceeds from the game will benefit the Grizzly Scholarship Association.
Ticket outlets for the game are at the Adams Center Box Office, GSA Office, Press Box, Red’s Bar, and Stockman’s Bar. For more information call 406-243-6481