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UC Davis players signal a touchdown after a 1-yard run by quarterback Jake Maier during the Aggies' win over Montana last season in Missoula. The No. 18 Griz travel to Davis, California, where they'll play the No. 4 Aggies at 2 p.m. MT Saturday in the conference opener for both teams.

MISSOULA — Montana won’t play any quarterback this season better than Oregon’s Justin Herbert, but they’ll face arguably the closest candidate on their schedule this week.

UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier leads the Aggies as a first-team preseason All-American, the Big Sky Conference preseason offensive MVP and a candidate for the Walter Payton award, given to the top FCS offensive player.

Montana coach Bobby Hauck knows his team will be up for a challenge against Maier and the Aggies’ potent offense.

“He’s a guy that doesn’t get rattled,” Hauck said ahead of Montana's Big Sky Conference opener against UC Davis at 2 p.m. MT Saturday in Davis, California, with the game broadcast on Root Sports.

“He just is a playmaker. He can throw the ball from all sorts of angles, and he’s very accurate.”

Maier has several weapons who’ve helped him throw for 308.3 yards per game, third in the league. His main targets are receiver Jared Harrell (6-foot-2, 200 pounds), tight end Wes Preece (6-5, 238), receiver Carson Crawford (5-10, 165) and receiver Kris Vaughn (6-1, 186).

Crawford is ninth in the Big Sky with 79.3 receiving yards per game. He, Preece and Vaughn each have two touchdown grabs. Harrell and Crawford are tied atop the team with 24 catches.

“Harrell, the wide receiver, No. 2, I thought he was a good player a year ago,” Hauck said. “I think he’s even better this year. I don’t see them missing (current Oakland Raiders wide receiver) Keelan Doss at all with him. Preece, No. 87, the tight end, is a big target. He’s a guy they like to throw to down in the red zone, and DBs have a hard time defending him because of his size and his catching ability.”

Then there’s running back Ulonzo Gilliam, second in the league with 88.2 rushing yards per game and third on the team with 18 catches. The Aggies also have an offensive line that returns four players who started 11 or more games in 2018.

“Gilliam, the running back, is as good as anybody in the league certainly,” Hauck said. “I think you couple that with an offensive line that is well coached, they play really hard, most of them are returning starters, that’s just a really complete offense. They have more offense than anybody I’ve ever seen. They do everything. So, they’re a hard prep.”

Montana’s defense isn’t fazed by the upcoming challenge. They’re embracing the opportunity to face another quality offense.

“They’re definitely one of the top teams in the conference,” said sophomore safety Robby Hauck, who’s second on the team with 40 tackles. “It’s always fun to be able to play them and get a chance to compete against one of the great teams in our conference.”

Montana comes into the game ranked 117th out of 124 FCS teams in pass defense, giving up 324.3 yards per game. UC Davis is throwing for 327 yards per game, ninth in the nation.

However, Montana’s defense has locked down when needed despite giving up those yards. They’re 35th in scoring defense (24 points allowed per game) and tied for 32nd in red zone defense (76.5%).

Additionally, Maier has been picked off five times compared to just seven touchdowns while completing 66.9% of his passes. Montana has tallied six interceptions, the most in the Big Sky.

“We play hard, tackle, we run to the ball,” Robby Hauck said. “We make plays on the ball when they come to us. We’re just tough, hard-working, physical guys.

“We just have to play how we play. It’s a tall task with Davis. They’re a great team. We just have to do what we do and play hard and physical and we’ll see who comes out on top.”

The Griz didn’t get too much of a pass rush last week and ended up allowing Monmouth quarterback Kenji Bahar to complete 68% of his passes for 393 yards. They did hold Monmouth running back Pete Guerriero, the nation's No. 2 running back coming into the game, to just 47 yards on 18 carries.

Getting a pass rush could help the secondary in not having to cover one on one for an extended period this week.

“It helps a lot, especially with a quarterback like they have,” Robby Hauck said. “It’s tough for the secondary if he’s sitting back and making throws. When there’s pressure, it makes our job a lot easier when he’s got to get the ball out fast. That’s a huge aspect in a successful secondary is a good D-line.”

Not so offensive

Montana’s offensive line hasn’t been as noticeable as last year — and that’s a good thing.

The maturing group has helped pave the way for 136.5 yards per game on the ground, seventh in the Big Sky. Last week, Montana ran for 221 yards, including 148 from Marcus Knight, who became the first Griz running back since Jordan Canada in 2014 to go over 140 yards.

The pass protection has allowed Sneed to throw for 303.5 yards per game, the 11th most in the country. The line has given up nine sacks, or 2.25 per game, which is nearly identical to the per-game average of 2.27 last season.

“It depends on the standard you set, but yeah, we’re improved,” Hauck said. “All we can hope for at every position is improvement, and those guys are improving.”

The Griz have started three combinations of linemen this year. The changes have come at right guard and right tackle. Junior college transfer Moses Mallory has started the past two games at right guard after Tyler Ganoung started the first two weeks. At right tackle, returning starter Colton Keintz started the first three games before NAIA transfer Dylan Cook got the nod last week.

Hauck said the starting offensive linemen will continue to be rotated each week based on who’s been playing the best recently. They’ll also still sub players in throughout the game.

“The only way to know who plays the best is to play a bunch of them,” Hauck said.

Davis’ defense

Montana displayed its diversity on offense last week when it used its tight ends for the first time as regular pass catchers. Whether it’s them or the deep group of wide receivers stepping up this week in the pass game, they’ll have a challenge going up against UC Davis’ secondary.

“They’re pretty multiple,” Hauck said. “They’re not afraid to man you. In fact, I think that’s their preference. They’ve got good DBs. They have some guys that can get there. So, they don’t have to cover too long. So, again, that’s kind of them. They go after you.”

UC Davis returns seven starters from a defense that seemed to fly under the radar coming into the year given the Aggies’ offensive prowess. The Aggies are 42nd in total defense (374.5 yards per game), 46th in pass defense (208.8) and 61st in run defense (165.8).

“Defensively, we thought they were really good a year ago, and they have a bunch of guys back,” Hauck said. “So, we’ve got a tall order this week against 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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