MISSOULA — Nobody had to remind Montana coach Bobby Hauck and senior quarterback Dalton Sneed on Monday about the second-half collapse against UC Davis last season.
The 18th-ranked Griz will get their first crack at UC Davis since that game when they open Big Sky Conference play with a highly anticipated matchup against the fourth-ranked Aggies at 2 p.m. MT Saturday in Davis, California.
“We’re excited about the conference schedule kicking off,” Hauck said to start his weekly press conference. “Certainly we’re aware of UC Davis and what their team has and what they bring to the table. I’ve had a couple days to watch them. They’re deserving of every bit of their national ranking.
“I think they’re a really, really terrific football team who absolutely handled us last year. Then you couple that with the fact that they have most of their team back. It’s a tall order to prepare this week and try to go find a way to get a win down there.”
The Griz closed out non-conference play with a 3-1 record, including a 3-0 mark against FCS teams. They earned a 31-17 win at South Dakota, a 61-17 win over North Alabama and a 47-27 win against Monmouth. The lone loss came at FBS No. 15 Oregon, 35-3.
Montana moved up one spot to No. 18 in the STATS FCS Top 25 poll that came out Monday. UC Davis remained in the same spot at No. 4 after a 27-16 road loss to No. 1 North Dakota State.
“I think the guys are happy where we’re at, but we’re still extremely hungry,” Sneed said, before referencing last year’s game unprompted. “This game obviously was looming for us for a year now, and we’ve been sitting on it. Weren’t happy with the result last year. So, we’re just looking forward to get out there and show what we can do.”
On Monday, Sneed was named the Big Sky offensive player of the week and Malik Flowers was chosen as the special teams player of the week, making it the first time since 2013 Montana had two winners in the same week. Sneed has completed 69.4% of his passes for 303.5 yards per game with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
In last year’s loss to UC Davis, he was picked off three times, and the Griz lost one fumble and turned the ball over on downs once. The Aggies scored 21 points off turnovers.
After the win over Monmouth, Hauck referenced turnovers as something the Griz need to clean up going forward. They have a turnover margin of plus-1, tied for sixth out of 13 in the Big Sky.
“The moral of the story there is to take care of the football,” Sneed said of last year's loss to UC Davis. “When you take care of the football, you win games and put yourself in a good position. That’s the number one thing on my list and the offense as a whole is take care of the football.”
In the loss last year, the Griz blew a 21-3 halftime lead, getting outscored 46-0 in the second half of a 49-21 loss, their second of three consecutive home losses to close the season. Through four games this year, Montana has allowed just 34 total points in the second half and is outscoring its opponents 88-34 in the final two quarters.
The Aggies will be the Grizzlies’ first ranked opponent this season, and the outcome could factor into the race for the conference title and a playoff berth. Last year, UC Davis won a share of the league title and made the national quarterfinals while Montana missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
“It’s our first conference game, so it’s huge,” Hauck said. “Beyond that, we’ve got a whole bunch more coming up. So, it’s this week’s game. Our philosophy is it’s the biggest game in the country because it’s the one we’re playing in.”
UC Davis comes into league play with a 2-2 record and 2-1 mark against FCS teams, with that lone blemish coming against the team that’s won seven of the past eight national titles. The Aggies were also competitive in a 27-13 loss to FBS California, which is off to a 4-0 start, but needed a late forced fumble to survive a scare by non-scholarship San Diego.
UC Davis is led by quarterback Jake Maier, a STATS FCS preseason first-team All-American, the Big Sky Conference preseason offensive MVP and a candidate for the Walter Payton award, given to the offensive player of the year in the FCS.
When the Aggies aren’t throwing the ball, they feature sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam, who finished ninth in voting for the Jerry Rice award, given to the FCS freshman of the year.
It’s the fifth week in a row the Griz will be playing a senior quarterback. Maier’s offensive line returns four players who started at least 11 games last year, and the Aggies bring back 16 returning starters overall.
“It doesn’t do any good to complain about it, but every week this year so far, we’ve had a veteran quarterback, veteran offensive line,” Hauck said. “That’s hard. They’re good. That’s why they’re still in there. They’ve got experience and there’s only one way to get good at playing football, and that’s to play it.
“When you’re playing guys that have played a lot of ball, in particular at the quarterback position, they’re hard to stop. Certainly with UC Davis that’s the case.”