SEMO team photo No. 2 of 2022

SEMO team photo

MISSOULA – Saturday will make history as the first time that the Montana Grizzlies and the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks will have met each other on the football field.

What’s more is that in Griz head coach Bobby Hauck’s long-tenured career with stops at many different levels of college football, he has never met any of the SEMO coaches.

“This is a little bit rare in that regard,” Hauck said.

Needless to say, a long week of preparation lays ahead for Montana as it prepares for its first-round playoff game on ESPN2.

Out of the Ohio Valley Conference, SEMO was never challenged by a Big Sky caliber program. However, against lesser-renowned competition, the Redhawks fared well by going 9-2. They boasted a powerful offense all year long that carried the defense through the season.

It was engineered by quarterback Paxton DeLaurent, but that could look different this postseason.

One of their biggest weapons, he’s missed the past two games with a foot injury and has recently been seen in a walking boot. They’ve inserted freshman quarterback Patrick Heitert into the starting role and he’s gone 2-0, but Washington-Grizzly could be a tall task to handle.

Southeast Missouri State beat writer Tom Davis, who works at semoball.com, spoke with 406mtsports.com to give an insider’s perspective of the Redhawks.

He touches on the aforementioned quarterback situation, SEMO’s strengths and weaknesses and how he thinks it’ll fair in Missoula.

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q: The two programs will be new to one another, meaning new to the Griz fan base, too, so what should they know are some of SEMO’s strengths ahead of Saturday?

A: The offense has been their strength. They are loaded at every position, and I mean loaded. Their starting quarterback, Paxton DeLaurent, was phenomenal but he injured his foot two weeks ago and has not played since. He’s been called a “game-time decision” every week, but he was in a boot this past Saturday. Without him, their offense is not nearly as overwhelming as it could be. They’ve gone to a freshman, Patrick Heitert, in his absence and he’s serviceable. He’s done a nice job. But he is in no way comparable to Paxton DeLaurent. When you lose a great quarterback, it makes everything else not nearly as dangerous. So I’ll say offense has been their strength, with an asterisk.

Q: How much does it change their offense with Heitert then taking over?

A: He can throw somewhat, and he’s mobile somewhat, but he’s nowhere near as talented, experienced or skilled as Paxton DeLaurent. They have two wide receivers, one who will play in the NFL and another that will be in an NFL training camp, but they are negated without DeLaurent. They are uncoverable with DeLaurent under center. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention running back Geno Hess. Eddie George, once a great NFL running back and the head coach at Tennessee State, said Hess is the best running back in the FCS. He’ll likely win Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year. So with Heitert in, they’ll rely heavily on the run game.

Q: How do you think that game script would change the course of the game?

A: Well obviously Montana will load up the box and force the freshman quarterback to make plays with his arm. But I haven’t seen anyone stop Geno Hess yet. However, that was with Paxton DeLaurent playing quarterback which makes the running back job much easier. Montana is really good. I don’t care what happened Saturday. They’ll contain Hess. They won’t hold him to 37 yards or something, it just won’t happen, but he won’t go for 200. It will be a matter of if Heitert can make plays. Head coach Tom Matukewicz has said the biggest difference playing against Big Sky teams is always the offensive line and that generally the defensive line overwhelms them. If they can give Heitert time, he’ll be OK. If he’s under duress, SEMO will have a really long night.

Q: What have been some of SEMO’s weaknesses this season?

A: Well obviously its experience at quarterback. But also, their secondary has been injury-riddled for most of the season. They’ve had to plug in inexperienced guys there. I don’t want to paint a picture like their defense is a weakness, that wouldn’t be accurate. But if Montana has a good pass attack, it’s something to watch for.

Q: What are some keys for SEMO to have success Saturday?

A: Paxton DeLaurent needs to play, although I’d be shocked if he does. The offensive line needs to give anyone playing time to throw. If they can go 50-50 in the run and passing game, they have a good chance. When this offense is full strength, I’m telling you, it’s something to behold.

Q: What is your prediction for the game?

A: I think Montana will end up winning for several factors. They will stop the run game to a degree and force the freshman quarterback to make plays. Montana is really, really good. They are getting looked at different after Saturday’s debacle but they are close to being a one-loss team that played a great schedule. I think they’ll win by at least two scores.

Lucas Semb is the Griz football beat writer for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @Lucas_Semb or email him at lucas.semb@406mtsports.com.

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