FCS Playoff Scouting Report: Montana Grizzlies vs. Northern Iowa Panthers

Publisher’s note: Brint Wahlberg is a dyed-in-the-wool Griz fan. This is an excerpt from his post this week on eGriz.com. He (and we) assume you’ve got the 4-1-1 on our Griz team and players, so this is his scouting report on the Northern Iowa Panthers and what he thinks it’ll take for a Griz victory.  


Now if you’re superstitious, you don’t like the events leading up to this game. In night games at home, the Griz won their first (2004), lost their second (2006), and won their third (2009). That 2006 loss was a Friday night game, as well.

Of course, those stats won’t have a real effect on the outcome of Friday, as the Griz are peaking at the perfect time and now face off against a UNI team that is solid as can be. They could bring the very best top-to-bottom defense to town that the Griz have seen this year. UNI and UM were toss-ups between the 5 and 4 seed. I believe the margin was that when UNI went on the road to play the #1 team in the nation they lost, while the Griz not only won, but won big in the same situation.

Big scouting report to follow. Let’s do this:

UNI record: 10-2

19-20 loss to Iowa St: In a defensive struggle, UNI just about had this game won, but Iowa scored with 40 seconds left in the game to take a one-point lead. Earlier, UNI found themselves down 14-13, but with 4:00 left in the game took the lead on a huge 80-yard TD pass, after which they attempted to go for two but didn’t get it. Iowa State didn’t panic, they had a strong kick return, and put together a solid drive that capped it off with a TD run and then a failed two-point conversion. UNI got it back with 40 seconds but on the second play fumbled the ball away and Iowa State won. ISU was horribly sloppy, with three interceptions and one lost fumble (compared to UNI just that one lost fumble on the second-to-last play). ISU was held to just 330 yards on the game.

34-23 win vs Stephen F. Austin: Then ranked SFA took an early lead but UNI just chipped away. It was 10-3 SFA in the second quarter, but in a battle of field goals, UNI caught up, took the lead, and never gave it back. It was a close game throughout, UNI held an 11-point lead in the fourth, but SFA scored to get it to a four-point game, but UNI on their next possession put together a long drive that opened it right back up. SFA out-gained UNI 407 yards (281 passing) to 362 for UNI (211 rushing). It was another game where UNI capitalized on dumb turnovers: Three INTs and one lost fumble for SFA, no turnovers for UNI.

38-10 win vs Western Illinois: WIU was beaten badly, UNI ran for 275 and passed for another 110, while WIU had just 312 total yards. WIU was held to just 4 of 14 on third downs in a dominant UNI performance.

23-9 win vs Indiana State: It was a close game until the fourth quarter. At that point, UNI held just a 13-9 lead. ISU was doing no favors to themselves either, missing a field goal, then losing a fumble on a long drive. Finally UNI’s O-line took over and they put together a game-sealing TD to go up 20-9 and they tacked on a field goal after ISU failed to convert a fourth down.

31-14 win vs South Dakota St: SDSU kept it close for a half of the game, down 21-14 at the half, but UNI made the right adjustments and forced SDSU to punt on most of their possessions in the third, save one possession where SDSU failed to pick up a fourth down conversion. UNI tacked on a few more scores and won it going away. SDSU did put up big passing numbers on UNI, 354 yards but they were picked off four times, as well.

17-10 win vs Southern Illinois: I presume this game might’ve been a little dull to watch. SIU had 204 yards of offense, UNI had 288. SIU lost one fumble, UNI lost three. SIU when facing a must-win drive went three-and-out on their first attempt in the mid-fourth quarter and then went four-and-out late in the fourth.

19-27 loss to NDSU: It was a matchup of #2 vs #3 at the point and NDSU came out on top. NDSU held a 17-13 lead at the half and then opened it up to a 24-13 lead in the third quarter. In the mid-fourth, UNI scored a TD to make it 24-19. On the ensuing kickoff, UNI was dinged with a personal foul, giving NDSU the ball at mid-field after the return. NDSU got a first down and then kicked a fieldgoal to set the final score. UNI had the ball back but tossed a pick to seal the win for NDSU. What’s interesting from the box is that UNI only had 18 rush attempts and 57 rushing yards, however almost 260 passing yards on 39 attempts (and two INTs). Meanwhile, NDSU ran for 145 and passed for 204. NDSU also controlled the clock in a major way, with almost 37:00 TOP.

21-17 win vs Youngstown State: In an almost post-big game letdown, UNI had to rally to get the win. They were down 17-14 to YSU at the half, and that carried forward all through the third and most of the fourth. UNI was being stopped steadily, punt after punt. Finally with 7:30 left, UNI put together a drive that ended with them scoring a TD on fourth and goal from the one-yard line with just 1:30 left in the game. YSU’s next possession ended quickly with an interception and UNI won it. UNI only ran for 30 yards and passed for 238, they were able to grab two picks from YSU and held Youngstown to just 293 yards on offense. Looking at the box score, except for turnovers, UNI looks like they should’ve lost this game. Lost bad in TOP, just 4 of 14 on third down, but they had the one good long drive in the end.

34-21 win vs Southern Utah: SUU was up 21-7 and it looked they were going to roll, but UNI went nuts from the second quarter on and dominated SUU. UNI ran for 284, passed for 126, and took advantage of an SUU red zone turnover, as well as another missed field goal.

23-20 win vs Illinois St: A double-OT win, it was just 0-6 at the half for ISU. Then UNI went up 10-6, ISU answered and with 2:57 left in the game scored a TD after diving into the endzone on fourth and goal to go up 13-10. UNI had little time but started off with a nice kick return, and then got into ISU territory, kicking the game-tying fieldgoal with just four seconds left. In OT, UNI got the ball first and scored pretty quickly. ISU’s possession featured 15 plays with two fourth down conversions, the second resulting in a TD to tie it up again. In the second overtime, ISU got to the UNI 10 but then moved backwards on penalties and wound up missing a field goal. UNI ran a few run plays and kicked the game winner. The box score to this game is odd: UNI had just 191 total yards, ISU had 401. ISU had just one turnover, UNI had none. ISU went 6 of 7 on fourth down (wow). ISU did miss one field goal, and their one turnover on downs and single fumble were just outside the UNI red zone.

28-21 win vs Wofford: A widely-reported game, Wofford out-gained UNI but lost fumbles and had that one really dumb kickoff return fumble (the player didn’t kneel the ball down and it was slapped out of his hands and UNI recovered). Lots of Griz fans posted that the better team lost this game, and that Wofford’s one dumb moment killed them and allowed UNI to win. Wofford ran for 457 yards but had two fumbles, in addition to the third lost on that kickoff. There was a combined 88 passing yards in this game.


UNI players to watch:

#10 Tirrell Rennie, QB: Rennie is the team’s leading rusher (834 yards) and an efficient QB with a near 60% completion and 13 TDs to just two INTs. Rennie also has nine rushing TDs this season. He’s 6 feet tall and 201 pounds. Originally from Florida, Rennie averages 75 rushing yards per game and 155 passing yards per game.

#7 David Johnson, RB: A big, tough running back, Johnson is 6′ 3″, 214 pounds. He’s got 754 rushing yards and nine TDs this season, he’s also tied for first on the team in receptions and the third leading receiver on the team with 411 yards and three TDs.

#5 Jarred Herring, WR: A smaller WR at 5′ 9″, he’s their leading receiver with 475 yards and five TDs, he’s tied with Johnson in receptions (31). Herring is also a dangerous kick returner, no TDs this year but a near 26-yard-per-return average.

#2 Terrell Sinkfield, WR: At 6′ 1″, he’s got the most receiving TDs this season with six, and he’s also got 458 receiving yards.

#1 Carlos Anderson, RB: A shorter running back at 5′ 8″, he’s got 381 rushing yards this year and has really come on lately. He had more rushing attempts than Johnson in the Wofford game. Not much of a pass-catching threat though.

#24 LJ Fort, LB: A starter since 2009, get used to hearing that name being called a lot on Friday. Fort has 167 tackles this year (yep), 8.5 TFL, and whopping six forced fumbles. He’s 6′ 1″, 232 pounds, he’s on the Buck Buchanan finalist list, and is listed as the 94th best outside linebacker going into the 2012 NFL draft per NFL draft scout.

#46 Jordan Smith, LB: Another big-time producing linebacker Smith has 123 tackles, four interceptions, and one fumble recovery. He’s 6′ 2″, 223 pounds.

#32 James Conely, LB: Rounding out their LB corps, Conely is third on the team with 98 tackles, 5.5 TFL, one interception, and three forced fumbles.

#42 Ben Boothby, DL: I believe he’s a defensive tackle (listed as D-line). He started the season the Buchanan watch list. He’s 6′ 0″ and 280 pounds, this year he’s got 75 tackles, 16 TFL, 7.5 sacks, and six QB hits.

#15 Garret Scott, S: At 6′ 0″, Scott has the most tackles of the UNI DBs with 93, he’s also got four INTs, and a team-leading eight pass breakups.

#4 Varmah Sonie, CB: Probably their best corner, at least statistically. 68 tackles, three INTs, six pass breakups.

#28 JJ Swain, CB: Another ball-hawking DB, 68 tackles and three interceptions.


General stats:

– UNI’s offense runs for an average of 169 yards, passes for an average of 172 yards per game. Compare that to the UM defense that allows 115 yards per game and 204 pass yards per game.

– UNI’s defense allows an average of 149 rushing yards per game and 195 passing yards per game. Compare that to the Griz offense that puts up 215 rushing yards per game and 205 passing yards per game.

– UNI’s defense does give up more yards per game than the Griz however they have allowed fewer points. Opposing teams score an average of 16.6 points per game against UNI. The Griz offense is scoring 33.2 points per game.

– On the other side of the ball UNI scores 27.4 points per game, the Grizzly defense allows 19.8 points per game, however in the last four games alone the Griz D has allowed just 10 points per game.

– UNI’s defense is full of ball hawks: 18 interceptions this year.

– UNI’s turnover margin is +15, while the Griz are currently +8.

– Despite being more of a run-first offense, UNI does not control the clock like you’d expect. They average just 28:00 TOP per game, the Griz are practically at 30:00 per game.

– UNI both converts third downs at 40% and allows third down conversions at 40%. UM converts third downs at 41% and allows them at just 31%.

– Much like the Griz, UNI has a stout red zone defense. They allow TDs on 44% of the time, and allow scores 68% of the time. The Grizzly offense when it’s in the red zone scores TDs 61% of the time and scores in general 88% of the time.

– On the other side of it, UNI scores TDs on offense 69% of the time and comes away with some sort of points 95% of the time in the red zone. The Grizzly defense allows TDs just 48% of the time and scores 70% of the time.

– I should have listed UNI’s kicker in the players to watch, as he hasn’t missed from inside the 40 and is 17-19 on the season. If this guy lines up to kick one, chances are it’s going to be good. Up until a miss against Wofford, he had made 13 in a row.

– UNI’s offense shows a fairly slow start out of the gate, but then puts up a good number of points in the second quarter, as well as the third and fourth.

– UNI’s defense, in terms of points allowed, had one number that really stood out: 13 points allowed this whole season in the third quarter. That’s bracketed with 77 allowed in the second and 54 allowed in the fourth.


Keys to a Griz victory:

– Don’t let UNI’s RZ defense eat the team up. When the Griz get into the red zone, they need to come away with points, and preferably touchdowns. UNI’s defense buckles down in there, if the Griz can come away with three or four TDs from RZ visits, they’ll be in good shape.

– Win the turnover battle. Easier said than done for this one. Jordan Johnson has to probably play his best game of the season, especially when passing. This UNI team has DBs and LBs that love to pick the ball and if the Griz get turnover-happy, that falls right into UNI’s trap. To win this turnover battle though, it’ll be forcing fumbles, UNI’s passing game is safe and efficient, don’t expect a lot of chances for picks.

– Run it. UNI’s defense has shown weakness against both the pass and run in individual games. Overall, their rush D gives up more than they’d probably like. The Griz should be able to wear down UNI and keep the ground game going. A healthy mix of our three-headed monster rushing attack and some DOLA will go a long way.

– Keep the field position battle in our favor. UNI’s offense is not very stellar, but they rely on a defense that can tip the field position in a hurry. Holding UNI to three-and-outs or short drives is good, but they aren’t fazed by that. If the Griz can get the ball, and even pick up a few first downs, and keep UNI pinned deep if they cannot get a score, that will help in a big way.

– Score early. Just like against UCA and Weber, early scores could cause panic and adjustments. UNI loves close games and their ability to eat offenses up in the third quarter is scary. If the Griz can force them to pass more than they want by putting up some early points, which UNI has showed a tendency to allow, that could force them to change what’s worked well for them.

– Win in the fourth quarter. If this is a low-scoring game going into the fourth, UNI has to be confident they’re going to win it. The Grizzly defense will need to be prepared to stop attempted clock-chewing drives late in the game, which is what has worked most of the season when UNI is in a close game.

– Contain that O-line. People have commented on the size of the Panther’s Offensive Line. Our front seven are going to get a big test. They’ll need to keep that running game in check as best they can.

– Don’t get beat deep. There’ll probably be three or four “home run” play-fake passes coming from UNI, if not more. Our safeties had better be prepared.

– Do your 1/11. As I’ve heard multiple staffs say, our defense (and offense) needs to just do their own part. UNI, with a mobile QB and a spread-system, will look to confuse our defense a bit and will be looking for our players to move out of position. We’ve got to avoid that.


Overall, this game should be a close one. UNI has not been blown out at all this season even though they’ve been decidedly out-gained in many games. This comes down to the better defense. UM’s gives up less yards, UNI’s gives up fewer points. In a close and lower-scoring game, I’m seeing a Griz win at home, under the lights: 24-17.



Brint Wahlberg is a Missoula native, a life-long Griz, and a realtor with Windermere Realty. He’s a regular contributor on all things Griz at egriz.com.