MISSOULA — Don’t put too much stock in Montana’s 48-7 win over Portland State in spring 2021 when projecting how this year’s game will go at 2 p.m. Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
In that spring game, Montana had been practicing in the fall of 2020, got multiple weeks of spring camp and played another opponent before facing the Vikings that April. On the other side, PSU had been together for a limited time during the first year of the pandemic and was missing key players who were either injured or were transferring in for the fall 2021 season.
Also, don’t simply expect a blowout just because PSU is 0-2 and UM is 3-0 with a No. 2 national ranking. The Vikings played two FBS teams and were in position to beat San Jose State in their opener. They may be the toughest opponent the Griz will have faced through their first four games.
Here are five things to watch in the game.
With three new starters, UM’s O-line was the biggest question about the Griz all offseason. They’ve had consistency starting the same five players all three games, and they’ve garnered praise from coaches who’ve faced the Griz. They may be in for their biggest test in the trenches. D-end VJ Malo is an All-Big Sky honoree who ranked second in sacks and fourth in TFLs in the league last year. He and fellow D-end Jake Porter, who has 23 starts and 37 appearances, could challenge UM’s young tackles. The all-senior line includes tackles EJ Ane and Moses Finau.
“It’s a five-man front,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said of PSU’s defense. “I think the movement things up front are probably the hardest thing to get a handle on. Even when you know what they’re doing, sometimes it’s hard to get bodies on bodies up front. Typical of a five-man front, it’s a heavy box to run the ball into.”
UM quarterback Lucas Johnson has shown sound decision making as a savvy seventh-year senior who started in the FBS. He’ll face a unique challenge against PSU’s flex defense, which is designed to stop the run. The flex defense is a rarity in the current day because teams pass so much now at all levels of football. Johnson will need to keep his composure and not get too flustered or confused by the defense, which may regularly present a loaded box. With so much pressure anticipated, quick and correct decision making will be paramount to having success.
“I’ve seen a lot of defenses,” Johnson said when asked specifically if he’s played against a flex defense, “but I’m sure the coaches are going to get us prepared this week and our scout team is going to do a great job. So, just got to go out and attack practice.”
UM’s pass catchers showed they could high point passes, make grabs in tight spaces and hang onto the ball through contact last week as the Griz took deeper shots than earlier in the year. Before that, they got the ball to their pass catches in space and let them show their athleticism to rack up yards after the catch. As PSU loads the box this week, that may leave UM’s WRs and TEs going up against man coverage often. They’ll have to win in those one-on-one situations and do it against an athletic secondary, which includes two-time All-American Anthony Adams.
“I have full confidence in everybody that goes out there,” Johnson said. “We put in a lot of work this summer and in fall camp. Whoever goes out there, I know they’re going to go make a play.”
UM has struggled against passing teams under Hauck, being gashed up the seam against James Madison and Eastern Washington last year. PSU has a deep stable of receivers, may be the most well-rounded group of pass catchers UM has seen this year and could go four-wide or five-wide with an empty backfield. Beau Kelly is an All-Big Sky WR who led the conference in catches, receiving yards and TD grabs in 2021. Nate Bennet was a 2021 All-Big Sky honorable mention. Emmanuel Daigbe, who was a 2019 third-team All-Big Sky WR, missed the 2021 game.
“They have some spread principles,” Hauck said. “They’re a one-back offense. They look like they strive for balance.”
The Vikings present a veteran O-line with four returning starters. Their five linemen have a combined 65 career starts entering this game, with four of the five having made nine or more starts. As the Griz bring their pressure, they may be careful to not over pursue because they’ll be facing a dual-threat quarterback who has displayed the mobility to be PSU’s leading rusher. If QB Dante Chachere, who will be making his third career start, is forced out of the pocket, he must throw accurately on the move while the Griz chase him with their uncommon pursuit.
“I think he’s a good player,” Hauck said of Chachere. “He runs the ball well. Can throw on the move accurately. We only have two games on him. I thought that he played well, in particular against San Jose.”