Battle in the Big Sky: College Football Preview

By DILLON TABISH for the Flathead Beacon 

READY FOR A FRESH START

With a talented lineup of returning starters, the Grizzlies are ready to defy expectations and restore their elite status. 

In the Grizzlies’ first football practice of fall camp last week, Mick Delaney recognized it right away.

“You can just tell by looking in their eyes that they’re looking forward to right now,” Montana’s second-year head coach said.

“There is a lot more focus and a lot more commitment because of what we’ve been through in the last year and a half,” he added.

Jordan Canada. Todd Goodrich | University of Montana

Montana running back Jordan Canada. – Todd Goodrich | University ofMontana

It’s hard to forget, but the past is indeed behind the University of Montana and its embattled Griz. The investigations and trials have concluded. Penalties are in place. Campus-wide changes have been implemented and the school’s president has declared that the institution and its athletic program are ready to move forward.

Now this team of returning players and newcomers, banded together with a theme of “United,” is hoping to renew a proud tradition.

No better opportunity for revival exists in sports than the dawn of a new season. As it happens, Montana’s opening game also ushers in a new era under the lights.

The Griz host Appalachian State at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 31. It will be the first regular season game played under lights in Washington Grizzly Stadium.

“It will be a great football weekend for the state of Montana,” Delaney said. “Griz Nation is excited and the players are excited.”

Fifty years after joining the Big Sky Conference and rising into one of the nation’s premier programs, Montana will certainly provide a compelling narrative this season while trying to restore its elite status.

To begin with, Jordan Johnson is back on the field after missing all of last year following a rape charge. Johnson was acquitted in March and reinstated to the Griz with two years of eligibility remaining. After showing up ready to go and performing well in spring camp he retook his previous role as starting quarterback.

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But will he be able to pick up where he left off in the 2011 season, when he passed for 2,400 yards and led Montana to the FCS semifinals?

“It’s a little bit unfair to say that he will, but I feel that he will. If he didn’t, it would be because he was away from football for a year,” Delaney said.

“He wants to be better than he was. That’s the type of leader he is … He’s ready to play football. I think you will see him be every bit as good as he was, and maybe even better.”

His teammates named Johnson one of four co-captains.

He takes the reins from Kalispell’s Shay Smithwick-Hann, who was thrown into action last season. Smithwick-Hann played in eight games in 2012 and started in the last three, going 2-1 in that span. He passed for 993 yards and eight touchdowns. Now a redshirt junior quarterback, the former Glacier standout will likely serve as Johnson’s backup this season.

The Griz are coming off a disappointing 5-6 season that ended with a loss at home to rival Montana State. It was the first time in 26 years that Montana finished with a losing record.

The FCS released its nationwide preseason coaches’ poll last week and Montana barely edged into the top 25, ranking 22.

Delaney expects the defense to be stellar, with 10 returning starters including senior linebacker Jordan Tripp, who was named to the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List as one of the top defensive players in the nation.

Jordan Johnson. Todd Goodrich | University of Montana

MOntana Quarterback Joran Johnson. – Todd Goodrich | University ofMontana

“I really, really expect our defense to be outstanding,” Delaney said. “Obviously they haven’t done it on the field as a group yet, but when you look at who we have coming back, plus the younger guys who will provide quality depth, I think our defense could be one of the best in the FCS.”

The offense is undergoing a few scheme changes now that Johnson is back.

“We won’t be standing around,” Delaney said. “We will attack and hopefully punish and wear people down because of our size and physicality and just staying after it.”

Montana has four sturdy offensive linemen returning, including All-American tackle Danny Kistler Jr. Johnson’s top targets will be returning receivers Ellis Henderson and Mitch Saylor as well as a talented transfer from the University of Washington, Jamaal Jones. Montana nabbed two other noteworthy transfers during the offseason: Boise State fullback Jamal Wilson and Marshall University running back Travon Van, who will likely share carries with returning back Jordan Canada.

“Being 5-6 a year ago doesn’t settle well with Griz Nation, it doesn’t settle well with the coaches and it doesn’t settle well with the players,” Delaney said.

DEFENDING THE THRONE

Expectations are high again in Bozeman, where the Bobcats return a team loaded with veteran players.

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Montana State Running Back Cody Kirk. – Kelly Gorham | Montana StateUniversity

Since DeNarius McGhee jumped into the starting lineup as a freshman quarterback in 2010, Montana State has won 30 regular-season games and lost only eight. The team has shared the past three Big Sky Conference titles and, just as significant, toppled its rival in Missoula each year.

Several standouts have helped transform the Bobcats into a Big Sky Conference powerhouse, but likely no other player is more closely tied to the program’s rise than McGhee.

Now it’s time to see what the two-time conference MVP has in store for his closing act.

The Bobcats opened fall camp last week with less than a month before the start of the regular season. MSU kicks off the 2013 campaign at home against Monmouth University (New Jersey) on Thursday, Aug. 29.

The past three regular seasons have seen several school records fall for individual and team accomplishments, but McGhee and the Bobcats have stumbled in the playoffs. Since 2010, MSU is 2-3 in the FCS playoffs and has not advanced past the quarterfinals.

Montana State is picked to win the Big Sky again, and the preseason FCS coaches’ poll tabbed the Bobcats as the second best team in the nation. North Dakota State, the two-time national champions, edged MSU for the top ranking.

MSU vs Stephen F. Austin MSU photos by Kelly Gorham

Montana State Quarterback DeNarius McGhee.- Kelly Gorham | Montana StateUniversity

“We have a considerable number of players with experience, whether or not they’ve started games,” MSU’s seventh-year head coach Rob Ash said after the team’s first practice. “Those guys have been working hard and waiting for their chance, and watching them compete is a fun part of coaching.”

McGhee has been named to essentially every preseason honor that’s available, including Big Sky preseason MVP and the preseason Walter Payton Award watch list, marking him as one of the top players in the nation. The three-time Payton award finalist enters his final season with 9,116 career passing yards and 71 passing touchdowns.

“Personally, I think (preseason polls) are kind of irrelevant,” McGhee said at the Big Sky Football Kickoff in Park City, Utah, last month.

“It’s more about the work the team did the year before. No one has played a game. No one knows what anyone else has done to improve. No one knows what the dynamics of the team will be. But it’s a nice honor.”

Two other talented seniors on offense join in the preseason honors. Running back Cody Kirk and receiver Tanner Bleskin were named to the All-Big Sky team. McGhee, Bleskin and Kirk have combined for over 13,000 yards of offense in their careers.

cats_scheduleOn defense, senior defensive end Brad Daly made the All-Big Sky team and hopes to follow the example set last season by Caleb Schreibeis, who became the first MSU player to win the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the top FCS defensive player in thenation.

MSU returns seven full-time starters on offense, but three others who started at least once are also back. On defense, five full-time starters return, but at least one player at every position has seen considerable action.

Another noteworthy characteristic of MSU’s squad is its homegrown flavor. Eight of the team’s 22 projected starters are from Montana.

Prior to the season, Columbia Falls’ Austin Barth was named the offensive scout player of the year and Kalispell’s Luke Halliburton was named the top defensive scout team member. Other local products listed on MSU’s roster include Bigfork’s Cody Dopps and Dillon Fraley, Polson’s Vince DiGiallonardo, Kalispell’s Joel Horn, Devin Jeffries and Connor Thomas.

“Everyone’s excited and ready,” Ash said. “We just want to get started.”

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