Inching Closer to the Money

By Mick Holien

If this is going to be a Montana team that reaches the heights of teams before them in recent years, and obtains goals set by a new coaching staff, there are plenty of things to improve on.

But there’s an encouraging side to grinding out three straight wins after losing two in a row for the first time in eons. The Grizzlies have not even approached playing at the level they are capable of – on either side of the football – for a sustained period of time.

Even so, the Griz have rebounded from the bottom of the Big Sky Conference and are again in contention for league supremacy.

We realize that all teams are different. Some blast out of the gate, maybe improve slightly each time out, make a few mistakes, and annihilate their opponents.

That has not been the case with the 2010 edition of the Grizzly football team. But, they still stand solidly in the national rankings, probably inching a bit closer to climbing back into the top 10 this week. They’re currently just a single loss out of the league lead occupied by Montana State.

And, they’re doing it with a bevy of injuries at key positions – some that fans don’t even realize until someone like Alex Shaw doesn’t play on Saturday.  Retooling special teams allowed walk-on Ethan Pateman to surface like he did Saturday.  A retooled defense is plowing forward without its emotional and physical leader Tyler Hobbs participating because of a high ankle sprain. And, they’re without fifth-year senior quarterback Andrew Selle, a Payton Award nominee out for the season with injury.

Add to this, new coaching – except for Mike Hudson and Mick Delaney, there’s a completely new coaching staff with entirely different ways of doing things.

Now these are just a couple of quick observations about what’s been different this year and possibly contributed to a slow 1-2 start which now seems far in the past.

With five games – four of them league games – to go, there’s no doubt a wealth of improvement to be gained.

The Grizzlies cut down on penalties Saturday but continue to be one of the league’s highest penalized teams. That, coupled with the fact that their opponents are the least flagged, is obviously a concern. In some penalty cases, it’s a matter of discipline. Lacking that, there’s little argument that those penalties can lose football games.

Turnovers continue to be worrisome. Were in not for the fact that the Grizzlies also cause a bunch of turnovers on their opponents as well, another game or two could potentially be in the loss column.

Montana has fumbled the ball 19 times, losing 11, while recovering seven of its opponents’ 15 fumbles. Makes one wonder if manufacturers changed the texture of the pigskin, doesn’t it?

While Montana has given up nine interceptions, the opportunistic defense with Tru Johnson and Eric Stoll leading the way, have picked off 12 themselves.

Although the Grizzlies have been money in the red zone, it has not resulted in enough touchdowns. They are 21 of 23 in the zone but seven times Montana has come away with just a field goal. On the defensive side, six opponents have netted just six TDs in 16 visits to the red zone. Also money!

While averaging just 24.3 net yards per punt the kicking game has vastly improved with the emergence of Brody McKnight and is another of those areas that seems to be less of a liability.

But while the Grizzlies ran 91 plays Saturday against an outmanned Idaho State, the defense has still been on the field far too long and opponents have had the ball an average of six more minutes a game.

Pretty simple – usually more time, more plays, more points.

But make no mistake, this Griz team is coming.  No, they haven’t turned a proverbial corner or even came close to playing their best football. They failed to put an exclamation point on Saturday’s victory. Even so, they’re edging a bit closer all the time to again surfacing as a FCS force.

Every day, in every way, we get a little bit better.