GREELEY, Colo. — Montana’s offensive line has been one of its most stable units.
The Griz started just two different offensive line groupings through their first eight games. Then Saturday hit, and the Griz were starting only two linemen at their regular positions.
Montana still put up 35 points and 389 yards of offense, in large part because of quarterback Cam Humphrey’s full return from injury. The line did give up a season-high five sacks, something that needs to be cleaned up with the uncertain status of the missing linemen going forward.
“With all the injuries and guys going in and out, we just keep plugging people in, and I’m proud of our guys for being able to do that,” UM coach Bobby Hauck said of his team in general. “We played a good game. We kind of dominated the game in all three phases. I was proud of our team.”
The biggest loss on the offensive line was expected to be senior right tackle Dylan Cook, who went through part of pregame stretches but didn’t play. True freshman Brandon Casey replaced him Saturday and had played the final 15 snaps of the Oct. 30 game in place of Cook.
Whoever started at the tackle spots were supposed to be challenged by defensive end David Hoage, who entered the game leading the FCS in tackles for loss and sitting in eighth in sacks. He put up three tackles for loss and two sacks while facing Casey and senior Conlan Beaver.
“We had a freshman starting right tackle and a lot of the game he was against who I thought was their best player,” Hauck said, meaning Hoage. “I didn’t watch the front much, as I usually tell you, but he must have done something right because we controlled the game pretty well.”
On the interior, senior Moses Mallory slid from right guard to center in place of AJ Forbes, who had started every game but did leave on the first drive of the Oct. 23 game at Idaho. Mallory began the year rotating at right guard with Colton Keintz, who retired after the third game.
Replacing Mallory at right guard was senior Kordell Pillans, who was making his third career start and first since Oct. 26, 2019. Skyler Martin played most of the second half at right guard.
The Griz still averaged four yards per carry and finished with 156 rushing yards — their fourth-best performance in nine games. They had 233 passing yards, the sixth-best outing of the year.
“I thought that we did good in protection,” Hauck said. “I thought the inside run game was pretty solid. I think the stretch game was as good as it needed to be.”
Montana’s defensive line was also hampered at a position where it had avoided injuries. Junior nose tackle Eli Alford went down in the first half, limped off trying to avoid putting too much pressure on his right leg and didn’t return in the game.
Sophomore nose tackle Alex Gubner, who has rotated with Alford all season, forced a fumble and had three tackles, including one tackle for loss. True freshman Noah Kaschmitter saw minutes at nose tackle, collecting one quarterback hurry.
UM held UNC to 72 rushing yards, 2.5 yards per carry, and 173 passing yards. The Griz did fail to record a sack for the first time all season, and their six tackles for loss were the third fewest in nine games.
“The guys up front make it happen, whether it’s offense or defense,” Griz safety Robby Hauck said. “Specifically defense, it’s fun when those guys can get in the backfield and stop guys for losses or short gains because then it really sets the tone in a possession. It’s a lot easier to defend on second-and-long instead of second-and-short. It’s big when the front guys play well.”
UM has gone through injuries at a plethora of other positions. On offense, that’s included quarterback Cam Humphrey, running backs Marcus Knight, Nick Ostmo, Xavier Harris and Isiah Childs, and wide receiver Gabe Sulser. On defense, injury or illness has hit defensive ends Joe Babros, Justin Belknap and DeAri Todd, and safety Gavin Robertson.
UM's defense had been back to full strength since Oct. 23. On Saturday, Humphrey returned for the first time since Oct. 2, Childs for the first time since Oct. 9 and Harris for the first time since Oct. 16, although he did go down in the game Saturday.
“Football is a physical game, so guys get banged up, and guys got to step up and make plays,” Robby Hauck said. “I think we’ve got that with everybody on our team.
Aaron Fontes made a freshman mistake when he fielded a punt in the end zone instead of letting it go for a touchback. He returned the ball just 4 yards, setting up the Griz offense in the shadow of its own end zone with a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.
Fontes had another miscue later that quarter when he muffed a punt, although UM recovered the ball at its own 31-yard line. It was the second straight game he muffed a punt.
On Saturday, Robby Hauck replaced Fontes in the second half. He had fielded some punts in the past handful of games, as had Keelan White. He said catching the ball is the hardest part.
“Ball security is the big factor with everything, any time you have the ball in your hands,” he said. “So, just catching it and then trusting the guys on the punt return unit to make their blocks, which they do, they’re great, one of the best teams in the nation. So, it’s a lot of fun. I love going back there.”
Montana has gone through three punt returners since Sulser got injured Oct. 2. Bobby Hauck said punt return is “the hardest thing to do in football” because a player is trying to catch a ball with 10 players from the other team running down the field “trying to take your head off.”
Montana junior cornerback Justin Ford intercepted a pass for the seventh consecutive game, extending his school record. His seven picks are tied for the fourth most in school history with Tim Hauck in 1989 and Robin Peters in 1971. Karl Stein had 11, which is also a Big Sky record in 1969, Mick Dennehy had 10 in 1972 and Stein had nine in 1970.
On Saturday, Ford intercepted a pass that was deflected by cornerback TraJon Cotton on the opening drive of the game. UM broke up four passes while holding UNC quarterback Dylan McCaffrey to 173 yards on 23-of-40 passing.
“I just thought we tackled really well,” Bobby Hauck said. “I thought we played really good in man coverage, really cleanly, played well in man coverage. I just thought it was kind of a complete deal. It didn’t really matter what we called, we executed it. They gave us some new stuff. It was good by our guys to handle it.”
Senior wide receiver Sammy Akem caught two touchdowns, giving him 27 in his career to put him alone in second place in school history, just two behind Marc Mariani. Akem caught three passes to increase his career total to 177, moving to sixth in UM history. He had 72 receiving yards to give him 2,495 in his career, the eighth most in school history.
Robby Hauck had 10 tackles to increase his career total to 323. He moved into sole possession of eighth place in school history, breaking a tie with Colt Anderson.
Junior linebacker Pat O’Connell had 0.5 TFLs to increase his career total to 26, tying him for 17th in school history with Dante Olson and Tucker Schye. He didn’t have a sack for the first time this season, remaining in a tie for 12th in UM history with 17 in his career.