Griz vs. Monmouth- Flowers return

Montana's Malik Flowers (19) runs a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown during the Grizzlies' win over Monmouth at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Saturday.

MISSOULA — It's like a city kid trying to figure out a farm report on AM radio.

Pork bellies, spring corn, winter wheat ... it's all just vagaries. Hard for a suburbanite to put any weight on it — if you'll pardon the feeder pig lingo.

Likewise, it's hard for the average fan to get keyed up about an NCAA Division I football coach talking special teams. Almost all of them do it in their press conferences, selling us on how they're one-third of the total package along with offense and defense.

It has all the appeal of a brown banana, unless you're a Montana fan. Then you know it to be true.

I mean really, how many FCS teams have you ever seen that inflict as much damage on kick and punt returns as Bobby Hauck's troops?

Longtime Griz-backers can tell you about Marc Mariani from Hauck's first stint in Missoula. How he dazzled with winding punt returns and parlayed his skill set into an All-Pro season with the Tennessee Titans.

Now it's speedy Jerry Louie-McGee and Malik Flowers doing the return damage in Maroon & Silver. Now it's their turn to make competent cover teams look like they're wearing Bozo The Clown shoes.

On Saturday, Flowers returned a kickoff 100 yards for a second-quarter touchdown, flipping the momentum in a 47-27 home win over Monmouth. The play was the longest by a Grizzly since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.

"It was one of the key points of the game," Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan lamented. "... We had just scored and then we kick off and they go right down the field with that and go up 14-7. I think that was a huge play for them."

That's just the half of it. The obvious part.

Did anyone else notice how hard Monmouth was trying to punt the ball away from Louie-McGee's electric feet? Or how the Hawks kept on squib-ing and pooching their kickoffs after the Flowers TD?

It was as if Monmouth would rather shave 25 yards off its kick/punt distance than risk another returner breaking free.

"We adjusted and didn’t want to kick it deep anymore," Callahan said of his kickoff strategy. "The result of that was that we were giving them positive field position by not kicking it deep. I think that kind of gave them a jolt."

Chants of "Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!" rang loud and clear at Washington-Grizzly Stadium Saturday. So impressive that a large group of UM students could all be on the same page with their cheering. Also a little concerning that so many are in tune with a trashy TV standard (The Jerry Springer Show) that was canceled last year.

Ah, who am I kidding. I've watched Springer myself. Who among us can resist a spirited talk show about a man marrying a horse or a good clean round of naked peek-a-boo?

Seriously though, Montana's football team is still a work in progress. Hauck is the first to admit it.  

The pass defense is suspect at times. Quarterback Dalton Sneed doesn't always make the wisest decisions when it comes to sticking his nose in traffic. And the first-quarter penalties the Griz got away with against Monmouth won't wash next Saturday at fourth-ranked UC Davis.

Still, it's worth noting: Montana is 3-0 against FCS competition. Saturday's non-conference tilt could have been a trap game with a critical Big Sky Conference opener looming next weekend. Instead, Montana showed a lot more positives than negatives.

Mitch Roberts, a sophomore wideout and the pride of Missoula Sentinel High, enjoyed a breakout afternoon with 80 receiving yards on five catches. Senior linebacker Dante Olson continued with his string of jaw-dropping performances, collecting a team-high 13 tackles.

And perhaps most impressive of all was the fleet-footed front seven of Montana's defense. Monmouth was held to just 81 yards rushing — 47 fewer than FBS Western Michigan allowed the Hawks on opening day and roughly half of what the Hawks averaged in their first three outings.

All of which will mean nothing when the slate is wiped clean next week and Big Sky play begins for the Griz. We'll find out just how good Montana is Saturday in Davis, California.

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Bill Speltz is in his 13th year as Missoulian Sports Columnist. He also guides the sports dept., scheduling day-to-day coverage. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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