Montana football: Grizzlies face Top-10 challenge Saturday night in Seattle

Washington at Montana – Photo from 1927 Sentinel Yearbook. (GoGriz.com)

The Montana Grizzlies took the training wheels off the bicycle that is the 2017 season last week against Valparaiso, and must now ride the football equivalent of the Tour de France.

THE GAME: The Griz (1-0) travel west on I-90 to Seattle this week to rekindle an old rivalry against the No. 7 ranked, and defending Pac-12 champion Washington Huskies (1-0) in their home opener at Husky Stadium (70,083). Kickoff from the shores of Lake Washington is set for 5:00 p.m. local time (6 p.m. MT), and the game will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Network.

It’s the first FBS game for the Grizzlies since 2014 when UM nearly upset Wyoming in Laramie 17-12. Before that, Montana last played a FBS team in 2011 when UM went to Tennessee and fell 42-16. The last time the Griz played a ranked opponent was in 2006 when they faced the No. 16 Iowa Hawkeyes. At No. 7 in Tuesday’s AP Poll, the Huskies will be the highest ranked team UM has faced in modern history.

With Jake Browning – one of the nation’s top Heisman Trophy candidates – leading the charge at quarterback, the Huskies returned to the upper echelon of college football last season as a national semifinalist and are picked to win the Pac-12 North Division again this year (USC is selected to win the outright Pac-12 Championship).

Head coach Chris Petersen’s squad had its best season since 2000 last year, finishing No. 4 in the national polls after falling to Alabama 24-7 in the College Football Playoff at the Peach Bowl.

But the Grizzlies will start a quarterback who is no stranger to the big stage. Reese Phillips, a transfer from Kentucky who lists time in a win over Tennessee on his SEC resume, vaulted to the top of Big Sky Conference and FCS passing charts on week one with 381 yards in the air.

And like Coach Petersen, the Grizzlies also take the field in Seattle with a mentor known in coaching circles around the nation as an offensive innovator in third-year head coach Bob Stitt.

The contest against the Huskies marks the first time the two former Pacific Coast Conference foes have faced off since 1951 (when, coincidentally, the Huskies were ranked No. 8 in the nation), with the rivalry dating all the way back to 1920. The Griz are 1-16-1 all-time against the Huskies, with UM’s only win coming at UW in 1920.

With their win over Valpo last Saturday, the Griz remain unbeaten in home season openers dating back to 2003. (GoGriz.com)

FIRST AND 10 WITH THE GRIZ:

GRIZ GET STRONG (BACK): Senior safety Justin Strong has returned to the top of this week’s depth chart for the Grizzlies, and as one of only four Grizzlies with experience in Pac-12 games, the timing couldn’t be better.

Strong played against the Huskies in Seattle for Oregon State in 2014, logging six tackles for the Beavers and 1.5 tackles-for-loss. He finished his first season at Montana as the team’s third-leading tackler with 68 takedowns in 10 games and led the team in interceptions with three, one of which he returned for an 86-yard touchdown.

SPEAKING OF THE BEAVS: Defensive tackle Jesse Sims was on the path to becoming an Oregon State Beaver at Corvallis High School as a verbal commit. Luckily for the Griz, Sims changed his commitment and stayed close to home, making seven starts in two seasons at UM.

Also bringing experience against the Huskies for the Griz is running back Alijah Lee, who came to Missoula from Washington State earlier this summer. Lee saw playing time in the Cougars’ 45-17 loss to UW in the 2016 Apple Cup in Pullman but did not record any stats.

Montana junior cornerback Markell Sanders also has Pac-12 experience as a former Washington State squad member, and defensive tackle David Shaw played against the Pac-12’s Stanford Cardinal, logging an assisted tackle in the 2014 Foster Farms Bowl for Maryland.

ALL HE DOES IS SCORE TOUCHDOWNS: Jeremy Calhoun scored a pair of rushing touchdowns against Valparaiso last week to give the junior 20 career TDs over the course of his 21-game career.

With 20 to his name, Calhoun joins some elite company, tied at No. 8 on UM’s career rushing touchdowns list. Also tied at No. 8? Dave Dickenson (1992-95) and Josh Branen (1995-97). Let us repeat that. Jeremy Calhoun is one of the top-eight touchdown scorers on the ground with two seasons left to play.

He has his work cut out for him to reach the top of that list, however. Chase Reynolds is the all-time career rushing TD leader for the Griz with 52 in his illustrious career.

Calhoun is also one of only 24 players in UM history to score three or more rushing TDs in a game, something he’s accomplished twice: once in 2015 against Eastern Washington, and once in 2016 against Mississippi Valley State. Surprisingly, he got his first start for the Griz on Saturday against Valparaiso.

OTHER GRIZ IN THE RECORD BOOKS: After last week’s 159-yard career-high, sophomore Jerry Louie-McGee is already dangerously close to breaking into the top-30 career receiving yards list with 810 yards in his nine game career. To make the top-30 list, Louie-McGee needs to surpass Justin Olsen’s 1,296 career receiving yards.

Louie McGee currently has two games listed among the top-30 single game performances in UM history in total receptions. His 21-catch school record set last year at Cal Poly tops the list, while his 10-catch day at Eastern Washington makes him one of only 15 players to catch 10 balls in a game.

Punter Eric Williams has moved into the record books as well after a Player of the Week-worthy performance against Valparaiso. Williams currently holds the fourth-best average yards-per-punt (minimum 50 attempts) in Grizzly history with a career average of 41.70 over 54 punts.

Only three Griz have better punt averages, Mike Rice (1985-86: 42.56 YPP), Tyson Johnson (2003-05: 42.13 YPP) and NFL veteran Dan Carpenter (2004-06: 41.70 YPP).

AROUND THE SKY: Montana’s game at Washington is one of four games this week in the Big Sky Conference that feature an FCS/FBS challenge.

Idaho State takes on Utah State in Logan on Thursday this week in a Big Sky/Mountain West showdown.

Weber State is also playing a Pac-12 team this week, traveling to Berkeley to face the Cal Bears. Cal’s offense will be familiar with the Wildcats defense, as former Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin faces a former Big Sky opponent for the first time as Cal’s Offensive Coordinator.

Northern Colorado plays their first of two FBS teams in consecutive weeks as the Bears travel to the Swamp to face the Florida Gators, who are led by former Colorado State coach (and Missoula native) Jim McElwain. UNC returns to the Front Range next week to face the defending Pac-12 South Champion Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder.

GRIZ QUICK HITS:

Senior linebacker James Banks posted a game-high 12 tackles against Valparaiso, a new career-high for the transfer from Alabama-Birmingham.

Senior offensive guard Robert Luke made his first start against Valpo since his sophomore year when he started each of UM’s 13 games as injury cover at center.

Sophomore linebacker Vika Fa’atuiese make his first career start and set a pair of career highs against the Crusaders. His four tackles and one tackle-for-loss are both career highs. Fa’atuiese was bumped into the starting rotation to fill for Connor Strahm during his two-game suspension.

Senior cornerback Ryan McKinley set a pair of career highs against Valpo as well with nine tackles and two pass breakups. His two PBUs tie him at the top of the Big Sky Conference for passes defended on week one.

Junior safety Evan Epperly picked up three new career highs filling in for the injured Justin Strongagainst Valpo. “Epps” set new personal bests with six tackles, an interception, and a pass breakup.

After week one action, quarterback Reese Phillips and receiver Jerry Louie-McGee lead the Big Sky Conference in passing yards (381) and receiving yards (159), respectively. Bank’s 12 tackles were the second-most in the Big Sky on week one, and Eric Williams‘ 53.2-yard punt average is the best in the league as well.

GRIZ IN THE POLLS: Montana continues to knock on the door of the weekly top-25 national polls. The Griz are two places out of the top-25 in the FCS Coaches’ Poll at No. 27 with 48 points. UM is three places out of the STATS FCS Media Poll at No. 28 with 237 points.

James Madison kept its lock on the No. 1 spot with a win over FBS East Carolina last week. Eastern Washington is the highest-ranked Big Sky team at No. 7/6. North Dakota (No. 11) and Weber State (No. 25/20) round out the league’s representatives.

FOUR DOWNS WITH THE HUSKIES:

Led by Browning – the last year’s Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, the Huskies broke a school record for most touchdowns scored in 2016, shattering the old mark of 64 set in 2013 with 77 TDs en route to the national semifinal.

UW’s defense was also one of the best in program history last season, with four defenders selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, three of which went in the second round. Overall the Huskies had five players taken in the draft last year, with wide receiver John Ross taken as the ninth pick overall by the Cincinnati Bengals. Last year, the Husky defense was first in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing just 248 points.

The Huskies are 92-28-5 in all home openers in Seattle. UW has won its last seven home openers in a row, dating back to a loss against No. 11 LSU in 2009. That list also includes a near-miss for the Huskies in 2013, when the Big Sky’s Eastern Washington, led by quarterback Vernon Adams’ career-high 475 passing yards, went to Seattle and nearly ruined the home team’s party, falling 59-52 in a shootout.

Last week UW’s Dante Pettis tied the Pac-12 record with his sixth career punt return for a touchdown in the Huskies’ 30-14 win at Rutgers – a 61-yard score. Pettis tied Cal alum and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer DeSean Jackson on the list.

UP NEXT: Montana returns home to face Savannah State in the final nonconference matchup of the season before hosting an important league game against Eastern Washington a week later on Sept. 23 in Missoula