By ERIC TABER
After nearly a month of practice, the Montana Grizzlies got their first taste of live football in the team’s first scrimmage of the spring, producing plenty of highlights on both sides of the ball on a blustery Friday afternoon at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
In a session spanning roughly 80 plays, the Montana offense got on the board twice with a pair of touchdown passes from freshman quarterback Gresch Jensen, and the defense scored on an 11-yard pick-six from junior safety Evan Epperly.
Montana shook off the winter rust with the offense putting up over 230 yards of total offense, and the defense coming up with three turnovers, leaving head coach Bob Stitt pleased with his team’s balanced – if sometimes shaky – performance as he enters his third season at the helm.
“We had a little bit of the good, and a little bit of the bad. I think we had some jitters there offensively. We had some dropped balls and maybe some blocks we could have made, but there were so many good things going on too,” said Stitt.
“You can’t get too high or too low in the first scrimmage, you just put something on tape and go back to work tomorrow and get better.
“Overall I really loved the energy, and we played some good football today.”
It didn’t take long for sophomore wide receiver Jerry Louie-McGee to pick up where he left off last season, thrilling fans by finishing a 15-yard pass from Jensen with a Sports Center-worthy front flip into the end zone.
“I wasn’t really thinking a front flip at the moment. But if I’m being honest with you, I saw J. (Justin) Strong coming – and he’s a big hitter – so I thought I’d rather just take the front flip over Keenan (Curran)” said Louie-McGee with a laugh.
Louie-McGee, Last season’s leading receiver, led the team again in the opening scrimmage, catching four passes for 52 yards and a score.
“It was good to be back, finally getting to go live instead of quick whistle blows. So, it was good to come out and get that real feel of a game flow. It wasn’t perfect out there, we had our ups and downs, but it’s a start, and we’re looking toward being the best we can be.,” Louie-McGee added.
In an effort to help the cream rise to the top, Montana’s three quarterbacks each saw roughly even playing time during the scrimmage, with senior Reese Phillips taking the most reps, leading six different offensive drives and going 10 for 19 in the air with one interception.
Phillips suffered some bad luck on his interception, bouncing a pass right off the hands of Makenna Simis into the waiting arms of sophomore safety Josh Sandry for the first interception of the scrimmage.
Junior transfer Caleb Hill led five drives, connecting on 4 of 15 passes while also giving up an interception, one of two on the day for Epperly.
Jensen led four drives, looking more like a veteran than a freshman as the Auburn, Wash., native completed 11 of 19 passes for a game-high 85 yards, two TDs, and an interception – taken to the house by Epperly.
Jensen opened the scoring in the scrimmage on the second possession for the offense, putting together a sustained drive with four first downs, capped by a six-yard pass to freshman running back Rey Green for the score.
“All three of them did some good things. To grade the quarterback, you’ve got to go back in, watch the tape, see where their eyes are going – you know – are they looking in the right places,” said Stitt. “We’ll definitely get better. These kids will grow from this scrimmage.”
The Montana defense didn’t miss a beat not having the services of its three starting linebackers from last season. In addition to the three interceptions, defensive end and new #37 Tucker Shye came up with a pair of sacks, and sophomore linebacker Vika Fa’atuiese picked up another.
“We had a couple of turnovers, which is big, and played with a lot of energy,” said Stitt about the defensive performance.
“I’ll get in with Coach Semore and visit with him tomorrow after he gets done watching the tape. You want to be good because you executed, not because somebody didn’t do their job across from you. So hopefully we were getting in the right gaps and not busting any coverages, and they feel good about it.”
Montana returns to the practice field on Monday after a weekend spent analyzing film from Friday in preparation for the team’s second scrimmage on April 14, set to kick off at 5 p.m. in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Stitt says now that his team has had the chance to shake off the rust, he and his staff will be looking to tighten down on the details with only three weeks of spring ball remaining.
“Just clean it up. You don’t want to miss those opportunities where you’ve got a ball in your hands, and you don’t catch it,” Stitt added.
“We want to make sure our quarterbacks are running this thing, feeling comfortable, and that’s what we want offensively. Defensively, just keep playing hard, and you just don’t give up a big play. And turnovers are huge. Anytime we can get a turnover it’s a big deal.”
Montana’s spring season culminates with the annual spring game – this season held in Butte’s historic Naranche Stadium. Spring game tickets cost $5 for adults and $3 for children and can be purchased at the Adams Center Box Office, online at GrizTix.com, and at the gate the day of the game on April 22.
TD – Jerry Louie-McGee 15 pass from Jensen (Purdy kick)
Receiving – Samori Toure 6-23, Jerry Louie-McGee 4-52, Jed Nagler 2-19, Justin Calhoun 2-16, Samuel Akem 2-15, Keenan Curran 2-12, Shane Moody 1-17, Kobey Eaton 1-6, Green 1-6, Makena Simis 1-6, Danny Burton 1-4, Lamarriel Taylor 1-3, Favors 1-(-1).
Missed field goals – Semenza 35 yards, Purdy 48.