MISSOULA — Montana and Idaho head into Saturday night's showdown looking to revive their seasons in a battle of teams that are 1-2 in Big Sky Conference play.
The 11th-ranked Griz are 4-2 overall but have dropped two of their past three games after a 3-0 start to the season. The Vandals are 2-4 overall, 1-2 against FCS teams, nearly upset ranked UC Davis and are coming off a 50-point blowout loss at No. 2 Eastern Washington, 71-21.
UM coach Bobby Hauck is 3-0 against Idaho across his two stints in Missoula. The Griz have won six in a row in the series and 10 of the past 12. However, the Vandals are the only current Big Sky team the Griz have a losing record against, 29-55-2 in the series that dates back to 1903.
“It’s our second-oldest one,” Hauck said, meaning the rivalry, in which the teams play for the Little Brown Stein.
“There’s a lot of Grizzly fans that care a lot about this game, especially, you know, guys that are my age or a little bit older, they think this is a really important game. For us, it is. We are familiar with them. We see them in recruiting and everything else. It’s been a hard-fought game in the history of it, and that’s kind of what we expect this weekend.”
Here are five things to watch in the game at kicks off at 5:30 p.m. MT Saturday at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho.
Control line of scrimmage
Idaho’s front seven is a big reason the Vandals are averaging 5.8 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks per game. They’re led by Big Sky preseason defensive MVP Tre Walker, a junior linebacker who earned five All-America honors in the spring. The Griz offensive line will need to provide pocket protection for QB Kris Brown, but he’ll have to trust them and have pocket awareness. The line will also need to get a push and create running lanes after the Griz were held to a season-low 84 rushing yards last week. Idaho’s rush defense is still below average, ranking 74th in the FCS by surrendering 164 yards per game. The Vandals are allowing 38.5 points per game, 112th in the country, giving UM’s 37th-ranked scoring offense (29 points) a chance to get back on track.
Stop the run
It’ll be strength vs. strength when Idaho’s ground game goes up against a UM front seven trying to reclaim its swagger after being limited to one sack and four TFLs last week, both season lows. Idaho is 27th in the FCS in rushing offense (189.8) and could give a heavy dose of mobile QB Zach Borisch, who’s 10th in the Big Sky averaging 52.8 rushing yards per game, while also going to its deep stable of RBs. The Griz counter with the country’s No. 7 rush defense (76.2), but they gave up a season-high 154 rushing yards last week while facing a mobile QB for the first time. Like last week, the Vandals will present a different offense if they go to a passing QB. Idaho has converted its yards into 27.5 points per game, while UM is allowing 16.2 points, 11th in the FCS.
Pass the test
UM’s passing offense has struggled often, but at least it gets to face an Idaho pass defense that is even worse and was missing its top four cornerbacks last week. The Griz are 59th in the FCS averaging 207.5 passing yards per game, while the Vandals are 113th in allowing 282.2 passing yards per game. Hitting even one or two explosive plays may be possible if Idaho’s front seven brings the house, leaving pockets open over the middle of the field and putting the secondary in one-on-one coverage. If the Griz passing game doesn’t show up or there’s no confidence in it, would they dare turn to a QB option rushing attack like they did against Idaho in 2003, when Hauck’s Griz ran for 344 yards in a win in Missoula? Brown has shown he’s somewhat mobile.
Cash in on opportunities
UM should have a chance to improve on its 66th-ranked third-down conversion percentage (36.5%) against Idaho, which is 116th in third-down defense (48.8%). Idaho’s offense is one spot lower at 67th (36.4%), and the Griz will need to get off the field on third downs after allowing Sacramento State to convert 60% last week, bumping up UM’s average to 33%, still 27th in the FCS. The Griz will also need to convert turnovers into points; their offense has a net of plus-1 points off 14 turnovers this season. They may have chances as Idaho has a turnover margin of minus-1.17 per game. The Griz will also need to not only score in the red zone but score TDs. At 73.1%, they’re 90th in red zone offense, while Idaho is 84th in red zone defense (85.2%).
Error-free special teams
Without starting punt returner Gabe Sulser in the past two games, Keelan White had a 67-yard punt return touchdown wiped out by a penalty, Robby Hauck had what looked to be a punt return score erased when he got tripped up by a teammate and White had a potential punt return score dialed up before he tripped over his own feet. UM should have opportunities to flip the field if it can avoid errors on special teams because Idaho is 112th in the FCS in punt return defense, allowing 15.2 yards on average. On the other side, Idaho’s Mekhi Stevenson is seventh in the FCS with 15.3 yards per punt return, while Nick Romano is 27th in the FCS with 23.2 yards per kickoff return. UM brings the No. 15 punt defense and No. 22 kickoff defense.