Griz hope ‘redemption tour’ begins Saturday at Southern Utah

In the midst of the program’s first three-game slide since 1992, the Montana Grizzlies hit the road to redemption this week, looking to put together a complete four-quarter performance against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds.

The Griz (4-4, 2-3 BSC) travel to Cedar City, Utah, for just the second time in school history on Saturday, looking to dethrone the defending Big Sky Champion T-Birds (1-7, 1-4 BSC) and right the ship on a season that has seen championship-caliber flashes but has suffered from inconsistency.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but for the third time this year we took the lead into the fourth quarter and didn’t hold on,” said UM head coach Bobby Hauck in reference to a second-half surge by #6 UC Davis that led the Aggies past the Griz 49-21 last week.

Despite a lopsided overall record, the Thunderbirds enter the game with one of the top rushing attacks in the league and an offense that has averaged over 460 yards and 28 points per game this season.

Led by an All-Big Sky offensive line, the T-Birds rushing attack is centered around running back Jay Green and features a Wildcat look centered around one of three quarterbacks that could each see the field against the Griz.

As 2017 co-conference champions, SUU has also built a culture of winning under third-year head coach Demario Warren. Warren was named AFCA Region 5 Coach of the Year and Big Sky co-Coach of the Year last season after he led the T-Birds to the FCS playoffs with a 9-3 record.

“We’ve got an opponent that’s been really, really good the last few years. They do a lot of things well, they run the ball well to the point where we have to account for a lot of different personnel groups and formations,” said Hauck.

“We’ve got our hands full with them.”

But the Grizzlies are also turning the focus inward this week. Montana has suffered four turnovers in each of the three games while trying to work its way through a slump in the game plan. This week, Hauck is looking to keep the pedal down for four quarters.

“We’ve just got to make plays. We’re not making plays on either side of the ball. Certainly, it’s not an effort deal, so, we just need to play a little better in the fourth quarter,” said Hauck.

THE GAME: Montana embarks on a two-game road stretch seeking a return to the top-25 and the top of the Big Sky table. Both UM and SUU are currently on the outside of the FCS playoffs looking in, with the Griz sitting in a tie for sixth the league standings and the T-Birds at 12th.

With a late-season win streak, the Grizzlies can make a case for post-season play, however, and will get the chance to take down the defending league champs and pick up a pair of consecutive rivalry wins to close the season.

Kickoff at Eccles Coliseum in Cedar City is set for 1 p.m.

WATCH: The Montana/Southern Utah game is the first of three-straight Griz games to be broadcast on the ROOT Sports Network as their Big Sky Game of the Week.

ROOT Sports is available to millions of viewers nationwide on select cable packages, DirecTV (Ch. 687), DirecTV’s Audience Network (Ch. 101), and is now also available on DISH Studio (Ch. 102).

The Audience Network is also part of DirecTV’s streaming service, DirecTV Now (available in limited areas, and compatible equipment necessary). No standard web stream (GoGriz.com, PlutoTV, or WatchBigSky.com) of the game is available for games broadcast on ROOT Sports.

Veteran broadcaster Tom Glasgow will provide the play-by-play call, with Taylor Barton serving as analyst and Jen Mueller reporting from the Sidelines.

LISTEN: “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran and Greg Sundberg will bring you the action live from Cedar City on the Grizzly Sports Radio Network.

Fans from Polson to Plentywood can tune in to hear the live call on one of 15 radio stations statewide. You can also hear a digital stream of the game live worldwide via GoGriz.com/listen or via the TuneIn app on your computer or smartphone.

RANKINGS: Montana remains out of the STATS FCS media top-25 and the AFCA Coaches’ top-25 this week. The Big Sky’s Weber State Wildcats (#4/5), EWU Eagles (#5/4), and UC Davis Aggies (#6/9) dominate the top-10, while North Dakota stays afloat at No. 25 in the Coaches’ poll.

SERIES HISTORY: Montana leads the all-time series against Southern Utah 6-2, and 2-0 since the T-Birds joined the Big Sky in 2013.

The only meeting between the two in Cedar City came in 2014, where running back Jordan Canada rushed for a career-high 211 yards in a 35-15 win for the Griz.

LAST MEETING: Senior quarterback Brady Gustafson passed for four touchdowns, and the Montana offense racked up 600 total yards as the No. 11 Grizzlies trounced a highly-rated SUU team 43-20 in 2016 on homecoming at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

One game removed from his school-record 21 pass receptions at Cal Poly, Jerry Louie-McGee caught nine passes for a game-high 118 yards to lead UM, while Jeremy Calhoun led UM with 90 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. Both return as starters for the Grizzlies this week at SUU.

GRIZ TRACKS: Ball possession will once again be at the forefront of Bobby Hauck‘s mind this week after turnovers continued to plague the Griz against UC Davis.

So far this season the Griz have given the ball away 18 times (7 interceptions, 11 fumbles), with opponents capitalizing for 82 combined points.

Montana is tied with Northern Arizona with a -4 turnover margin, the No. 10 ranked total in the league.

The T-Birds, however, have not fared much better in ball control. SUU enters Saturday’s contest with a -3 turnover margin and 12 total giveaways.

YOUTH MOVEMENT: With a somewhat shuffled two-deep this week, Montana’s young lineup will once again be put to the test as the Grizzlies project to suit up 27 underclassmen.

The offensive side of the ball is especially young, with 14 underclassmen filling one of 22 possible slots on the two-deep, with nine of those 14 listed as freshmen.

The defense features a similarly young 13 underclassmen (6 freshmen) on its 22-man two-deep.

TRENDING UP

DANTE’S INFERNO: Your weekly Dante Olson update sees the junior linebacker rise to 119 tackles this season. At an average of 14.9 per-game, Olson leads not only FCS football in tackles but FBS and D-II as well.

The Buchanan Award candidate currently has 119 total tackles on the season and needs just 12 more this year to become UM’s all-time leading single-season tacker, surpassing legends like Colt Anderson, Tim Hauck, and Kendrick Van Ackeren.

Olson also ranks second in the Big Sky in sacks and third in TFLs.

BUSS’ STOPS: UM’s other Buchanan Award candidate and preseason Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Josh Buss will make his 30th career start at Southern Utah this week.

The Boise native passed former Buchanan Award Finalist Trey Young this week on UM’s all-time tackle list, and with 253 career takedowns, needs just five more to pass current Griz assistant Shann Shillinger.

In his three remaining regular-season games as a Grizzly, Buss needs just two more tackles for loss to move to No. 4 on UM’s all-time TFL leader list. He currently sits at 43.5 career TFLs behind Andy Petek’s 44, Mike Murphy (44.5) and Kroy Biermann (45). Zack Wagenmann is the Grizzlies’ all-time TFL leader with 53.

Buss also needs just three more sacks this season to become one of UM’s top-10 sack leaders as well.

Punter Eric Williams is also slated to make his 30th career start for the Griz this week.

TWIN TOWERS: Twin brothers and Grizzly freshmen Bryson and Braydon Deming each made a big impact for the Griz against UC Davis. Tight end Bryson Deming set a new career-high with 60 receiving yards thanks to a big 45-yard reception in the second quarter that put UM in scoring position.

Braydon also had a new career day with six tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry.

BACK IN ACTION: Running back Jeremy Calhoun scored his first touchdown of the season against UC Davis, diving into the end zone after a 15-yard end-around in the second quarter.

With 73 yards rushing against the Aggies, Calhoun moved up to NO. 12 on UM’s all-time rushing yards list with 1,727. He passed Griz greats Jody Farmer (1,719) and JR Waller (1,726) on the list and needs just 58 yards this season to surpass his position coach Justin Green‘s career total of 1,784.

The senior remains at No. 5 on UM’s all-time rushing touchdown list with 26 on his career. Jordan Canada sits above him at No. 4 with 40 TDs.

TOUCHDOWN SAM: Sophomore receiver Samuel Akem was once again Dalton Sneed’s favorite target against the Aggies.

“Sammy” caught two touchdown passes for the second-straight game and for the third time this season against UC Davis, bringing his season total to eight receiving TDs.

The Broken Arrow, Okla., native is UM’s leading receiver this year and ranks No. 6 in the Big Sky in receptions per game, averaging 5.2. At an average of 64.1 yards per game, he ranks No. 10 in the league and No. 7 in scoring by TD with a total of 48 points this season.

SCOUTING THE T-BIRDS: It’s no surprise to see the T-Birds at 1-7 on the season after taking a glance at their schedule, undoubtedly one of the toughest in the Big Sky Conference this year.

SUU opened the season with an upset loss against a talented North Alabama team that is in its first year of FCS football after moving up after decades as a D-II powerhouse.

The Lions stunned the T-Birds on opening weekend, and have since gone on to build a 5-3 record, with one of the losses coming at North Dakota State (38-7), holding the Bison to their fourth-lowest scoring total of the season.

SUU then went on the road for a four-game stretch that saw them drop games at the Pac-12’s Oregon State & Arizona, followed by an always-dangerous trip to Northern Arizona, and a trip to Cheney to take on the nationally ranked EWU Eagles.

DECORATED RETURNERS: The T-Birds return four Big Sky all-conference players from a year ago and feature five preseason all-conference picks as well.

Center Zach Larsen (6-1, 305) leads an experienced offensive line as a first-team All-Big Sky pick and was named to the STATS FCS Preseason All-America team in the leadup to his junior year.

Guard PJ Nu’usa (5-11, 304) and tackle Marquez Tucker (6-4, 291) are also returning All-Big Sky picks that pave the way for a T-Bird rushing attack that is averaging over 211 yards per game – the fourth-best ground game in the Big Sky.

Inside linebacker Chinedu Ahanonu already holds the Big Sky record for most tackles in a single game (28) and leads the team in tackles again in 2018 (65) as a second team all-conference performer in 2017 and a preseason All-Big Sky pick this season. The LDS missionary played two years at SUU in 2013 and 2014 before traveling overseas and returning for the 2017 season.

But Ahanonu’s experience hasn’t led to solid defensive numbers for the T-Birds, with SUU coming in dead last in scoring defense, allowing opponents to score an average of 41.2 points and rack up over 546 yards per game.

UP NEXT: The Griz remain on the road for a rivalry clash with the Idaho Vandals in Moscow, who return to the Big Sky this season for the first time since 1995. The Little Brown Stein will be up for grabs, a trophy the Griz have held since 2003 when the two teams last met – a 41-28 win for the Griz.