MISSOULA — Montana will host Idaho for the first time since 2003 in the battle for the Little Brown Stein when the teams kick off at 1 p.m. MT Saturday in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

The sixth-ranked Griz are 7-2 overall and 4-1 in conference play after winning back-to-back games. They have the requisite number of wins to qualify for the playoffs and can solidify a berth into the postseason by continuing to win. They're also still alive to win at least a share of the Big Sky Conference crown.

The unranked Vandals are coming off their first two-game winning streak of the season but check in at just 4-5 overall and 2-3 in league play. With playoffs out of the picture, they'll be trying to spoil Montana's title hopes and try to get revenge from their blowout loss to the Griz last year in Idaho.

"I think they do a good job of trying to make you beat them left-handed," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said about Idaho's defense.

Here are five things to watch in the game, which will be shown on Root Sports, broadcast on KGVO Radio, and streamed on Pluto TV and WatchBigSky.com.

Can Montana slow down the run?

Idaho’s ground game is the focal point of its offense, averaging 174.1 yards to rank sixth in the Big Sky. Bruising back Aundre Carter is averaging 79.6 rush yards, seventh best in the league, while speedy Nick Romano adds 37.7 yards. The Vandals are 3-1 when going over 200 yards.

Montana’s rush defense has been stout, limiting teams to 116.6 yards per game, the 19th-best mark in the FCS. The Griz are coming off their best outing, limiting PSU to 43 rush yards, their fourth time holding an opponent under 100 yards. They’re 5-0 when outrushing the opponent.

Can Montana establish the run?

Montana can aid its quarterback by establishing a ground game, whether that’s Cam Humphrey for the third straight game or Dalton Sneed returning from injury. The Griz are averaging 169.6 rush yards, seventh in the league, highlighted by Marcus Knight with 82.8 yards, sixth in the BSC.

Idaho’s rush defense has struggled compared to its pass defense, giving up 175 yards per game on the ground, eighth out of 13 Big Sky teams. The Vandals are 0-5 when allowing the opposing team to run for 150-plus yards. They’re allowing 226.6 rushing yards per game in the five losses.

Can Montana replicate success in the air?

Montana has won two differing games with Humphrey, a rush-heavy one and a pass-heavy one. Should he start again, the plan for success could be somewhere in between those. The Vandals, whose strength is their linebackers, are last in the conference with just five passes intercepted.

Idaho is second in the BSC in pass defense, allowing 222.8 yards per game, with a league-best completion percentage of 54.2%. The low passing number is partly because teams have run 362 times compared to 277 passes against Idaho. Montana is balanced at 348 passing, 344 rushing.

Can Montana contain Idaho’s receivers?

Idaho’s pass offense revolves around Jeff Cotton and Cutrell Haywood, who have 66.7% of the team’s catches and nine of 11 touchdown grabs. There’s not much outside of them, with the Vandals throwing for just 206.7 yards. Getting pressure could be key with Idaho allowing 25 sacks, third most in the BSC.

Idaho doesn’t take many deep shots with quarterback Mason Petrino, who has seven picks compared to nine touchdowns. Only one player has a catch longer than 38 yards. For Montana, taking good routes and being sound tacklers, especially in space, will prevent short plays from turning into chunk plays.

Can Montana neutralize Idaho’s special teams?

Idaho is strong in the special teams return game. The Vandals rank second in the FCS with 26.6 yards per return on 21 kickoffs and are one of four BSC teams with a kick return score, by Nick Romano. They’re third in the BSC in punt return average with a mark of 9.3 yards on 13 returns.

Montana is similarly solid in terms of limiting its opponents’ production on special teams. The Griz lead the league and rank third in the FCS with 2 yards allowed per punt return. They’re also first in the conference in kickoff return defense, giving up just 17.76 yards per kickoff return.

Five numbers to know

4: This will be Montana’s fourth game this season as a team ranked in the single digits of the STATS FCS Top 25. The Griz played two such games in four seasons from 2015-18 going back to the start of the Bob Stitt era.

5: Montana has won five consecutive games in the battle for the Little Brown Stein, its longest streak in the series, which dates back to 1903. The Griz are going for their sixth straight win, which would be the longest streak by either team since Idaho won six in a row from 1982-87.

6: Six Idaho coaches have a connection to the state of Montana. Head coach Paul Petrino is a Butte native, Helena Capital grad, and former Carroll College QB and coach. Offensive coordinator Kris Cinkovich played and coached at Carroll College. Defensive coordinator Mike Breske had two coaching stints at Montana, including on the 2001 title team. Tight ends coach Steve Oliver briefly coached at MSU-Northern. Cornerbacks coach Vernon Smith played at Montana from 2000-04. Wide receivers coach Tony Spencer played and coached at Carroll College.

8: Montana is trying to start 5-1 in Big Sky play for the first time in eight years. The last time the Griz started 5-1 or better through six games was 2011, when they started 5-1 and finished 7-1. A win would also give them eight overall, their most since going 8-5 in 2015.

10: Idaho has lost 10 consecutive road games since the start of the 2018 season, when the Vandals dropped down from the FBS to the FCS.

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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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