A Kicking Chance

Blog by “Voice of the Griz” Mick Holien.

Wanted for open tryouts: Someone who can drop a football on his foot and kick it about 40 yards after it has been thrown to you from between another player’s legs.

Oh and by the way, there could be as many as nine behemoths running and screaming at you to fail and ready to envelop your effort if you take more than four seconds to succeed.

Those are the perils of being a punter in college football, and after last Saturday’s punting challenges during which four punts traveled an average of 20.5 yards, it’s open season to find a punter on the UM campus.

Now that’s not to say that 6-foot 6-inch Purdue transfer Sean Wren will not be punting in the Big Sky Conference opener at Roos Field in Cheney against Eastern Washington University. But, after what was described as a poor week in practice last week and an equally dismal effort against Cal Poly under the lights in San Luis Obispo (in his home state of California no less) the junior kicker’s job is definitely on the line.

Placekicker Brody McKnight is listed behind Wren on the start-of-the-week depth chart, and Wren’s Saturday performance was bad enough that Robin Pflugrad even gave Bryce Carver a punting opportunity Saturday, even though the sophomore receiver hadn’t kicked the ball since his days at Beaverhead County High School in Dillon.

The dean of UM football coaches, Don Read, used to tell me in the ’80s that he didn’t believe in using a scholarship on someone who was just a kicker because there were 10 students on campus who could drop their books long enough to successfully boot a football.

And Papa Bear stuck to that philosophy. 1995 National Championship kicker Andy Larson was long in the tooth of his Griz career before earning a scholarship.

The kicking game didn’t lose last week’s game, but the lack of special team containment on returns and the punting game continually handed Cal Poly a short field and never allowed the Grizzlies to flip the field position in their favor.

There are, of course, a couple of ways this can go – Wren can buckle up and respond, stop thinking about that swinging lever that is his right leg and start pounding the air out of the pigskin, or succumb to the pressure of losing his job and fail to compete.

From this half-glass full corner, I think he’ll be up to the task.

So, just who was it that said you learn more from a loss than a win?

Me, I’d rather learn a lot about myself and my team and still put the result in the left hand column, but now with a 1-1 mark there’s little doubt that, while far from a must-win, Saturday’s league opener in Cheney is a highly important matchup.

The nemesis Eagles will be soaring with the dedication of their new red turf. The last two times the Grizzlies visited Cheney, the outcome was determined by a total of eight points.

Eagles running back Taiwan Jones, on the Walter Payton Watch List with Chase Reynolds and Andrew Selle, is arguably the league’s best player right now. Besides rushing for an average of 9 yards per carry, Jones leads the FCS in all-purpose offense.

Junior transfer quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell didn’t just play at SMU, he was the starter. Linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who went to high school with Pflugrad’s kids at Pullman and actually took his daughter to the prom, led the nation in tackles last year. He’s averaging 14 a game and is a huge presence on defense.

This is the ninth time in the last 15 years the two teams have been ranked when they met and, ironically, Eastern Washington has won at Washington Grizzly Stadium four times since 1990 – something no other team has approximated – while they have defeated Montana just once on their home field (1991) and once in Spokane (2002).

The Griz are admittedly a work in progress, but have not lost a league game since 2008 when Weber State did the trick, a string of 15 straight. They’ve won 31 of 32 league contests dating back to the start of the 2006 season.

Three of the next five games are on the road, and Saturday’s game will do a lot to define just how far along this Grizzly team is in defending a legacy of 12 straight league titles.

I’ll take the Griz by six in a barnburner – fitting for the location of the Eastern Washington campus.