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MISSOULA — Fresh off a season-opening road win over South Dakota, Montana returns home to face an up-and-coming FCS team.

The Griz will kick off their home slate against North Alabama (1-0), a Division II powerhouse that’s turned into an FCS upstart, at 7 p.m. Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

“We’ve got to get back to work this week and improve,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said at his Monday news conference, two days after the Griz beat the Coyotes 31-17.

“There’s a laundry list of things we need to fix that we didn’t do well enough. It’s a big week for us in terms of improvement and trying to correct all the different things we need to fix.”

Following the season-opening win, Montana moved up three spots to No. 22 in the STATS FCS Top 25. They’re one of five Big Sky Conference teams ranked, behind No. 4 Eastern Washington, No. 5 UC Davis, No. 7 Weber State and No. 13 Montana State. The Griz broke into the coaches poll at No. 23.

Montana’s game against North Alabama will be its first since ending last season with three consecutive home losses, something that had never happened since Washington-Grizzly Stadium opened in 1986.

Asked how excited he is to play at home again, quarterback Dalton Sneed said “extremely.”

“I know the whole team’s fired up to come back here to Missoula and play in front of our home fans,” Sneed continued.

The Griz will head into their home opener with a 1-0 record for the first time since 2008, when they opened the year with a road win over Cal Poly. They’ve started away from home just two times since then before this year, and they lost both of those road games to FBS teams.

North rising

North Alabama kicked off its second season in the FCS and its first as a Big South team with an 26-17 upset win against Western Illinois of the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Lions went into the game as an 18.5-point underdog.

“It’s not lost on us that we have to play a team that just beat Western Illinois, who got us last year,” Hauck said.

The Leathernecks, at least to start the season, are far from the team that beat Montana 31-27 last year. They lost eight of their nine all-conference players including their quarterback, return just five starters on offense and four on defense, brought in 16 transfers and were picked eighth in the preseason league poll, two spots lower than South Dakota.

North Alabama is no stranger to success, having been a powerhouse team at the Division II level. The Lions made the playoffs 21 times from 1980-2017 and won three national titles, most recently reaching the championship game in 2016. North Alabama isn’t eligible to play in the FCS playoffs until 2022 because of NCAA transition rules.

Lions head coach Chris Willis has been a constant during the team’s recent success. He was an assistant coach from 2002-11 and the defensive coordinator from 2012-16 before being promoted to head coach in 2017.

“They’re athletic, as is the case it seems with all the teams from Alabama that we’ve encountered over the years of coaching,” Hauck said. “I’m impressed with their win last weekend.”

In 2018, North Alabama moved up to Division I and played a partial FCS schedule before facing a full FCS schedule this year. The Lions went 7-3 overall and 3-2 against FCS teams last year, beating Southern Utah, Alabama A&M and Jackson State, and losing to Campbell and eventual national champion North Dakota State.

In the 2019 season-opening win over Western Illinois, the Lions were aided by a pair of explosive plays in Terence Humphrey’s 62-yard touchdown run and a 75-yard touchdown pass from Christian Lopez to Cortez Hall. Defensively, they pressured the Leathernecks with six tackles for loss and four sacks.

Humphrey was the Big South offensive player of the week, and punter/kicker Joe Gurley was the league’s special teams player of the week.

“They’re big and fast. That’s what they are,” Hauck said of North Alabama. “I thought Western Illinois a year ago was a pretty big, physical team, and they got shoved around a little bit last weekend by these guys.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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