MISSOULA — Things didn’t turn out so pretty for Montana when warm-weather Coastal Carolina came to Missoula for the FCS playoffs in 2013.
The Chanticleers pulled off a 42-35 upset on on Dec. 7, 2013, at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. It’s a memory that’s sure to swirl in the heads of some Griz faithful with Southeastern Louisiana coming to town this weekend.
Despite Coastal Carolina’s shocking win six years ago, warm-weather teams haven’t fared well historically in Missoula in the postseason. Warm-weather teams — defined by the Missoulian as those playing in cities where the average low temperature in each of the winter months (December, January and February) is above freezing — are just 3-15 in the playoffs in Missoula, with all those games coming in Wa-Griz.
Few teams have fared well in Missoula. Montana is 29-7 (.806) at home overall in the playoffs and 15-3 (0.833) against warm-weather teams.
“It won’t be warm here, that’s for sure,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “At this time of year, any advantage that you can get would help. I don’t know if it’ll be an advantage or not. But it’ll be cold, certainly.”
The weather forecast for Saturday’s game, as of Tuesday night, predicted temperatures in the mid-to-high 30s with the potential for a rain/snow mix. When Hauck was told there might be snow, he said: “That would be great.”
The three warm-weather teams that beat Montana at home in the playoffs were Cal Poly in 2005 on a 36-degree day, Wofford on a 13-degree day in 2007 and Coastal Carolina on a minus-5-degree day in 2013. In the loss to the Chanticleers, some Montana players braved the weather by not wearing long sleeves.
This year's Griz have been smartly wearing sleeves for weeks and not trying to play mind games by displaying some form of toughness.
"They're on their own with all that stuff," Hauck said in November when asked if players need permission to wear sleeves. "We know we've got them where we want them when we have to encourage them to (wear sleeves) on certain days."
All three losses were against run-heavy opponents, a style suited for the cold weather. Cal Poly out-rushed Montana, 293-94, Wofford had a 333-114 edge and Coastal Carolina ran for 274 yards to UM’s 169.
Southeastern Louisiana has been a pass-happy team, fitting the mold of the Southland Conference. The Lions have thrown the ball 507 times compared to 418 rushes. They’ve gained 4,140 yards through the air and just 1,674 on the ground.
The weather could play a factor in determining the winner. But it won’t be the deciding factor that automatically means a win for the Griz.
The coldest game the Lions have played in this season was 59 degrees.
“I think the momentum and the energy keeps you going OK up until about halftime,” said former Montana athletic director Jim O’Day, who was at UM during the 2005 and 2007 losses. “Then at halftime, if you’re not used to it and then you go inside and get warm and then you come back out, you become very cold. If you’re ahead, you’re OK. If you’re behind, it’s almost like you’re ready to pack up and get back on the plane and go home.
“It’s just the way it’s been over the years. Saturday, I don’t expect that. If it’s 39, 40, 41 degrees, I don’t think that’s going to bother Southeastern Louisiana. If it’s not snowing or anything like that, the field conditions are going to be good. For a football player, 40 degrees is not bad weather to be playing in. I don’t think that’s going to be the factor, not this weekend.”
Experience with Virgil
Montana has never played Southeastern Louisiana, but Hauck has previous experience against Lions senior quarterback Chason Virgil in the Mountain West Conference. He was coaching at San Diego State when Virgil was the Fresno State quarterback.
They only met up once, on Oct. 14, 2016, a 17-3 win for San Diego State. Hauck’s Aztecs held Virgil to 16-of-26 passing for 139 yards with two interceptions. They sacked him twice and gave up 44 yards on nine runs.
“He’s better now than he was at Fresno,” Hauck said. “So, he certainly gets some coaching and, you know, if (SELA) coach (Frank) Scelfo’s the guy that’s coaching him, whoever’s doing it has done a nice job.”
In 23 games at Southeastern Louisiana, Virgil has thrown for 6,389 yards with 38 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. He’s run 111 times for just 82 yards.
Last week, Virgil threw for 474 yards and three touchdowns in a comeback win over Villanova in the opening round of the playoffs. He ran four times for 5 yards.
“That game last weekend, he was on the money,” Hauck said. “He runs it pretty well, but he’s a good thrower. He’s a veteran player. He knows what the heck he’s doing.”
Montana senior Dalton Sneed also played against Virgil, although they weren’t on the field at the same time since they’re both quarterbacks. In Sneed's first career start at UNLV, he outdueled Virgil in a 45-20 win on Oct. 1, 2016.
The current Grizzly completed eight of 16 passes for 129 yards with one touchdown and ran 15 times for 147 yards and one score. Virgil was just 16-of-45 passing for 296 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, while running eight times for minus-5 yards.
“I didn’t recall that, but someone mentioned it to me,” Sneed said. “I know what he’s done this year. I watched the game they played on Saturday. He’s a tremendous player. He’s a competitor. So, looking forward to going against him.”
Virgil isn’t the only FBS transfer on Southeastern Louisiana. In fact, the Lions have 15 former FBS players on their roster, 12 of whom are on the two-deep.
Their six former FBS players on the offensive two-deep are Virgil and fellow quarterback Cole Kelley (Arkansas), running back Devonte Williams (Indiana), wide receiver Lorenzo Nunez (South Carolina), left tackle Pat Allen (Georgia) and right guard Wyatt Richthofen (Southern Mississippi).
Their defensive two-deep also has six former FBS players in linebacker Trae Davis (Alabama), defensive end Dwaine Thomas (Texas A&M), defensive tackle Steven Wright (Virginia), defensive back Xavier Lewis (LSU), and safeties Derek Turner II (Louisiana Tech) and Patrick Johnson (Wisconsin.)
The Lions have 34 total transfers on their roster counting those from junior college or other FCS teams.
“They’ve got 20 transfer players on their two-deep, which is interesting,” Hauck said. “They’ve done a great job of blending that group with their team, including 12 FBS players. A lot of good-looking athletes on their film.”