13 Dec 2021 | 08:28 | Football
Survive and advance is the mantra in the FCS Playoffs, and the Montana Grizzlies did that and a whole lore more last week, dominating Eastern Washington to book a place in the FCS Quarterfinals for the 14th time in program history.
The path forward doesn’t get any easier for the Grizzlies however, with a trip east to Harrisonburg, Virginia to take on the No. 3 seed James Madison Dukes under the lights at Bridgeforth Stadium (25,000), with kickoff set for 7 p.m. local time, 5 p.m. Mountain.
Winners of six-straight and coming off a pair of momentum boosting wins over Montana State and Eastern Washington, the Grizzlies enter the quarterfinal round with a head of steam Friday.
Likewise, JMU enters the contest on a seven-game win streak after dispatching Southeastern Louisiana 59-20 in the second round of the playoffs – the same SELA Lions the Grizzlies beat 73-28 in the 2019 FCS second round.
At 10-2, the Griz avenged a midseason loss to Eastern Washington, and have their second loss to Sacramento State, who was eliminated from the playoffs last week. The 11-1 Dukes dropped their only loss to Villanova by a single point (27-28) in early October, and have been on a tear since.
In the small amount of history between the two programs, the Griz hold the upper hand in games played at JMU, with a Bobby Hauck-led Griz team traveling to Harrisonburg in the 2008 FCS Semifinal and coming away with a 35-27 win.
It’s a postseason showdown between two of the best teams in FCS football in the 21st century, under the Friday night lights in front of a national audience on ESPN2 – and the hundreds of thousands that tune in look to be in for a treat.
THE MATCHUP: A look at the numbers tells a tale of evenly matched programs heading into this week’s contest, with stiff defenses that rank among the nation’s best and big-play making ability on the offensive side of the ball. Despite, that is, without each having the use of a returning All-America running back this season, with Montana missing Marcus Knight (and Nick Ostmo for that matter), and JMU without the use of preseason CAA player of the year Percy Agyei-Obese.
The Griz and Dukes have two of the top turnover margins in the nation, with JMU leading the FCS at +17, while the Griz enter the game at +8, a top-15 total. Montana has totaled 10 fumble recoveries to JMU’s 13, While Montana’s 18 interceptions while the Dukes have totaled 16.
Montana’s offense found its firepower last week, putting up a 50-burger against EWU thanks to big plays and a dominant run game that totaled 208 yards rushing.
Other than a few big plays against the Eagles, Montana’s defense continued its smothering performance Holding the visitors to two scores in the second and third quarters, and only giving up a single touchdown in the entire month of November.
The Dukes offense has found its stride as well, with QB Cole Johnson leading the fourth-best scoring offense in the country. The JMU defense has also been stifling, only allowing 76 rushing yards by opponents per game this year.
It’s strength on strength under the lights Friday, and fireworks are assured.
IMPLICATIONS: It’s win or go home once again for the Grizzlies as Montana aims to work it’s way through a murderer’s row of an FCS bracket.
The winner of the No. 3 Dukes/No. 6 Griz game will advance to the FCS Semifinal (where the Griz have made 10 appearances) to face the winner of the No. 2 North Dakota State/No. 7 East Tennessee game on December 17/18 at the highest seed’s home stadium.
The winner there will move on to the national championship game in Frisco, Texas, on January 8.
GRIZ TAILGATE: The Grizzly Scholarship Association will be hosting a tailgate at JMU from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday prior to the game. All are welcome to attend. Beverages will be provided and donations are greatly appreciated.
The GSA Griz fan tailgate will be located in a fenced in area on Hillside Field, located northeast of Bridgeforth Stadium.
WATCH: The UM/JMU matchup will be under the national spotlight this week as the only college football game played in America Friday night. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2, available to millions of college football fans on basic cable and satellite packages nationwide. A stream of the game will also be available via the WatchESPN App (ESPN3).
Groundbreaking play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins will be on the call for ESPN. Kirk Morrison, an eight-year NFL vet and former All-Mountain West San Diego State linebacker will serve as analyst, and Lauren Sisler will report from the sidelines.
LISTEN: “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran and long-time analyst Greg Sundberg will bring you the action live from Bridgeforth Stadium Friday night on KGVO Missoula, the flagship station of the Grizzly Sports Radio Network, and its fifteen affiliates around the state.
Your “Grizzly Gameday” starts two hours before kickoff on Friday with the official pregame radio show featuring Denny Bedard and Scott Gurnsey who then throw to Corcoran and Sundberg 30 minutes to kickoff. Bedard and Gurnsey will also wrap up the day’s action with the official post-game show.
New in 2021, Griz fans have a better than ever way to stream all of Montana’s radio broadcasts on their mobile device LIVE and FREE of charge with the Varsity Network App, powered by Learfield and Sidearm Sports. Live audio web streams can also be found at GoGriz.com/Listen.
Fans can download the app for iPhone or Android use for instant access to free gameday audio streams plus the Coach Hauck Radio Show, and receive push notifications to remind them of games starting or upcoming audio broadcasts as well.
COACHES SHOW: The Bobby Hauck radio show returns this week with a special Quarterfinal edition this week with a new start time of 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 8.
The Grizzly Coaches’ Show is broadcast live across the state from the banks of the Clark Fork River at the show’s new home of FINN in the DoubleTree Hotel in Missoula. Admission to watch the live broadcast at FINN is free, with a special coaches’ show menu available.
SERIES HISTORY: However brief, the series history between Montana and James Madison has been filled with epic moments and high stakes results.
In the 2004 National Championship game, JMU running back Maurice Fenner battled sloppy condition in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to rush for 164 yards and a pair of TDs to help JMU to a 31-21 win. Grizzly QB Craig Ochs went 29-38-1 passing for 371 yards and three touchdowns to Levander Segars, Jefferson Heidelberger, and Willie Walden.
Fast forward to 2008 when the Grizzlies traveled to Harrisonburg in the FCS Semifinal and came away with a memorable 35-27 win over the No. 1 Dukes at Bridgeforth Stadium.
Cole Bergquist threw three touchdown passes and Montana knocked player of the year contender Rodney Landers out before halftime and beat JMU on a Friday night to advance to the national title game. Chase Reynolds also added a pair of touchdowns on 26 carries for 123 yards to lead the Griz to a win.
Bergquist, Reynolds, and Colt Anderson joined Coach Hauck in the spring of 2020 to re-live the 2008 semifinal on an episode of Griz Classics Chalk Talk, breaking down the film from the game for fans to enjoy.
LAST TIME OUT: Montana left no doubt last week in a decisive 57-41 win over Eastern Washington that saw the Griz go on a 41-7 run in the second and third quarter to out-shoot the high-flying Eagle offense.
UM started fast with a 75-yard touchdown run by Malik Flowers on a sweep around the end, a play that is the longest rush from scrimmage for the Griz this season. The Griz then fell behind 21-10 early in the second quarter before stepping on the gas and never looking back in a win that was not as close as the final score indicates.
Montana took a 50-28 lead early in the fourth quarter with a 30-yard touchdown pass from Cam Humphrey to Samuel Akem, and Justin Ford put the exclamation point on with a pick-six from 55 yards out to seal the win.
Despite EWU passing 81 times for over 500 yards, it was Montana’s control of the ground game and its 208 rushing yards that were a deciding factor. That, and the UM defense causing EWU to either punt, fumble, or turn it over on downs in eight of nine-straight drives. Not to mention a dominant special teams performance featuring 207 return yards and a punter that averaged over 45 yards per attempt.
GRIZ NATION IS THE BEST: Montana posted its second-highest playoff attendance figure in school history against Eastern Washington, with 24,065 rowdy fans packing Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The crowd was the biggest in the FCS playoffs so far this season by nearly 10,000 fans, and nearly quadrupling the No. 10-highest attended game. Montana state had the second-largest crowd in the second round at 15,327, with NDSU hosting 12,557 fans. JMU’s week two attendance was 11,743, East Tennessee had 8,453, Sam Houston 6,722, and Villanova rounded out the top-10 with 5,109.
HAUCK MILESTONES – Now with 108 wins as Montana head coach following the EWU game, Bobby Hauck passed former Portland State and Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh to become the third winningest coach in Big Sky history.
He now needs just four more wins to pass College Football Hall of Famer Chris Ault’s career total of 111 at Nevada to move into second place, and is chasing former Grizzly assistant and NAU head coach Jerome Souers’ career total of 123 wins.
SEASONED STARTERS: Receiver Samuel Akem picked up his 30th career start against EWU and made the most of it with a pair of touchdowns. He’s got the third-most starts on the team on the team behind Conlan Beaver (37) and Robby Hauck (39). Hauck is set to make his 40th career start at JMU, and he’s only a junior.
SPEAKING OF BEAV: It will be a homecoming of sorts for senior tackle and team captain Conlan Beaver, who hails from Fredericksburg, Virginia – just two hours down the road from JMU.
The fishing in the Harrisonburg is no match for Missoula, however, with that and a UM degree in parks, tourism, and recreation management drawing him out west to Montana (that, and competitive football).
RECORD WATCH: Samuel Akem needs just one more touchdown catch in his illustrious career to become Montana’s all-time leader in scoring grabs with 29 to his name to date.
He enters the quarterfinal game at JMU tied with the great Marc Mariani in all-time touchdown catches following a two-TD performance against EWU in the second round of the playoffs. It was his second two-touchdown game of his senior season, bringing his career total to seven games where the rangy receiver has had a pair of TD grabs.
He also enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 4 in Montana history in total receiving yards with 2,676 and No. 3 in total pass receptions. He needs just two more catches to pass Raul Pacheco’s old school record of 192 catches, but would need 41 more grabs to pass his former teammate Jerry Louie-McGee’s record of 230 catches.
He’s the only Grizzly in UM history to finish his career in the top-five in the three premiere receiving categories of total catches, yards, and touchdown catches.
Robby Hauck expanded on his unbelievable career tackle total with 11 stops against EWU last week to bring his season total to 118 tackles. 118 stops makes him the second-leading tackler in the Big Sky this season and needing just eight more stops to pass league leader Matt Shotwell of Cal Poly.
2021 is now the second-straight (full) season Hauck has passed the 100-tackle total after racking up 129 stops as a sophomore in 2019.
Still with a year to play, the junior has 354 career tackles to his name and needs just 11 more stops to pass that 2019 total, three more to pass Tyler Joyce on the UM all-time leader list at 356, and 44 more to become Montana’s all-time leading tackler. A feat he’s on-track to break early next season.
Jace Lewis passed Tim Hauck and Kyle Ryan last week to move into the top-10 all-time tacklers at Montana with nine stops against EWU. The senior now has 312 career tackles, and is also top-10 in career tackles for loss with 36.5, and top-25 in career sacks with 12.
OUTSTANDING O’CONNELL: Junior linebacker Patrick O’Connell is already one of the top-15 all-time leaders in sacks and TFLs at Montana in the midst of a monster season where he led the Big Sky and currently ranks eighth nationally in sacks with 19.5 this season. He also ranks third in the league in TFLs and eighth nationally as well with 21.
He’s been instrumental this season in helping lead Montana’s defense, which has allowed one touchdown or less in six games this season and ranks first nationally in six defensive TDs.
BUILT FORD TOUGH: Justin Ford’s dream season continued Saturday with a pick-six that put the nail in the EWU coffin in the fourth quarter. With an astounding nine interceptions on the year, Ford not only leads D-1 football (FCS and FBS), but now has the most interceptions of any football player in the country, at any level.
Lasting from Sept. 25 to Nov. 13, the junior cornerback went on an unprecedented streak of collecting an INT in eight-straight games, and with the pick against EWU has now had one in nine of the last 10 games. He may not have had a pick against MSU, but he returned a fumble for a touchdown.
He’s also scored three touchdowns this season – tied for the sixth most on the team – with two interception returns and the fumble return against Montana State.
Ford is now tied with Grizzly Sports Hall of Famer Karl Stein for the third-most interceptions in a season at UM, and has picked off the most passes of anyone in the Big Sky Conference since 1996. Only safeties Mick Dennehy (10), and Stein (11 in 1969) have had more INTs, meaning Ford has the most of any cornerback in UM history.
ALL-BIG SKY: Ford earned one of the league’s marquee individual awards and six Grizzlies earned first-team All-Big Sky honors, as the conference rolled out its end of year awards Tuesday.
Ford was named the Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year while a total of 14 Grizzlies earned All-Big Sky honors, including six first-team selections – tied for the most in the league, and the most for the Grizzlies in one