MISSOULA — Opponent No. 1 for Bob Stitt and the Montana football team is Valparaiso.
The Crusaders, though they’re an FCS school, field a different type of team than the Griz, as Valparaiso plays in the non-scholarship Pioneer League.
The last time the Griz played a team from that league, they routed San Diego 52-14 in the first round of the 2014 FCS playoffs.
Valparaiso head coach Dave Cecchini knows he and his team have a tall task ahead of them come Saturday. Despite the difference in the talent level, he’s ready for the first game of the year.
“Our players are definitely excited about this game,” Cecchini said in a phone interview with 406mtsports.com on Tuesday. “They're really excited about getting a chance to play in front of 30,000 fans in the type of stadium that Montana has. That's an experience that none of the players on our team (has had) before. We haven't had a single player that's even been to the state of Montana.
“They're eager to get the season started, but they definitely have a chip on their shoulder and they want to show they can play. The level of confidence in our team is pretty high. We're coming off a 4-7 season, but we return so many starters. I feel like we have a veteran group of players. They know what it's like to play these scholarship programs. We're confident in our abilities. It should be a great opportunity on Saturday."
How Valparaiso sees Montana
Montana is without a doubt the toughest team on Valpo’s schedule this season and Cecchini is well aware of that.
"I think they're a very talented team,” he said. “Definitely it's a step up in terms of competition for us. We both play, Montana's in the Big Sky, we're in the Pioneer. The level of football is still a big step up for us opposed to what we'll see in all of our league games. When we put them on film, they look big, they look fast, athletic and without question it's gonna be a big challenge for us."
Offense: The main Griz player that stood out to Cecchini is senior quarterback Reese Phillips.
“He’s certainly been putting up some impressive numbers in the scrimmages that Montana’s having,” Cecchini said. “It seems to me he’s gotten really comfortable as the preseason scrimmages have gone on from a statistical standpoint. That’s really gonna cause us some headaches, no question about it.”
Aside from Phillips, Cecchini said the entire Griz offensive unit is something he worries about.
“We have a lot of respect for the style of offense that Montana runs,” Cecchini said. “We know that they spread you out. We know that they go fast. It's a smart system. Their players are coached very well. I think they do as good of job as anybody in terms of getting you in situations where you have to be a good open field tackling team because they're gonna spread you out.”
Defense: Cecchini named three players on the Griz defense that could be major problems for his offense — linebacker Josh Buss and cornerbacks Markell Sanders and Ryan McKinley.
The first player Cecchini pointed out was Buss, calling him a playmaker who stands out on film.
He followed up by Sanders and McKinley to the corners in his league.
“They’re taller kids, but they’re really athletic,” Cecchini said. “That’s a combination that we’re not normally used to seeing. We have some athletic guys in our conference, but they’re more 5-8 or 5-9. And we’ve got some bigger 6-1 corners in our league, but they’re not as athletic. Those are kind of concerns from looking at Montana’s defense.”
How Valparaiso sees itself
The Crusaders have played one scholarship-level FCS team per season since Cecchini’s been at the helm and this year, it’s Montana. They played Eastern Kentucky two seasons ago and lost 52-10. They played Illinois State last year and lost 50-13. Next season they play Youngstown State.
“We really pride ourselves onto taking on a level of competition,” Cecchini said. “… We're playing some very good competition to start the season and our players really like that. They embrace being the role of underdogs. Not many players on our team were offered scholarships by Division I programs.”
Offense: The Crusaders return every skill player on offense from last season.
Quarterback Jimmy Seewald started as a true freshman last year and Cecchini is confident that his team will rally around his again. He'll primarily target two wide receivers — Frank Catrine and Jean Rene. Both are coming off injuries and Cecchini says they’re at full health.
During the nine games that Catrine played in last year, he was a difference maker. He had 496 yards receiving on 42 receptions with three touchdowns. Rene is more of a slot receiver than Catrine, but he’s put up similar numbers. He had 453 yards receiving last season on 31 catches with five touchdowns.
On the ground, expect Jarrett Morgan to do most of the legwork. He’s undersized for a running back at 5 feet 11 inches and 195 pounds, but he’s an experienced senior. He led the team with nearly half its rushing yards last year with 576 net yards rushing and two touchdowns on 156 carries.
“He is extremely tough,” Cecchini said about Morgan. “He catches the ball out of the backfield. He does a good job of shouldering the load from our run game standpoint. We feel like we have a lot of tools on offense to move the football.”
Defense: Two of the players to watch on Valpo's defense are sixth-year senior safety J.J. Nunes and junior inside linebacker Drew Snouffer.
Nunez was granted a sixth season of eligibility after he tore his ACL in last year’s season opener. Cecchini said he’s 100 percent healthy and is a strong leader in the backfield.
Snouffer was the most productive Crusader last season and he’s shaping up to be that again. He led the team in almost every tangible defensive statistic with 102 total tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 4 sacks for a loss of 27 yards, two interceptions, five pass breakups, five quarterback hurries, two recovered fumbles and one forced fumble.
“He really is an active player,” Cecchini said of Snouffer. “He does a great job stopping the run but he does a great job against the pass. He's a physical player, he's an emotional player, another one of the leaders on our team."