MISSOULA — Montana will play its premier home game of the regular season when it hosts Weber State in a showdown between top-five teams Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Griz will be playing to keep alive their hopes to win their first Big Sky Conference title since 2009, as well as a potential seed and first-round bye in the playoffs.
Montana coach Bobby Hauck feels the Griz are a year ahead of where he thought they’d be at this point when he took over in December 2017. Now the Griz will have an opportunity to measure themselves against a proven program that’s made three consecutive playoff appearances and advanced to the quarterfinals each of the past two years.
“I think they’re a really complete football team,” Hauck said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “They’re good on offense. They’re good on defense. They’re good in the special teams area. A lot of that comes from the fact that they’re a veteran team and they also have a very experienced and veteran coaching staff.
“I think they’re physically mature. They look big and strong on film. I think that we’ve got our hands full with a real veteran outfit.”
The Griz moved up one spot to No. 5 in the STATS FCS Top 25 on Monday following their 42-17 win over rival Idaho, which improved them to 8-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Sky. The ranking matches their highest of the season, which they last held before a loss at Sacramento State on Oct. 19.
Montana has won three games since that loss, when quarterback Dalton Sneed went down with an apparent right ankle injury. Backup Cam Humphrey guided two wins before Sneed returned in the second quarter Saturday to help lead the comeback victory that kept its title hopes in its own hands.
“I thought it was a good team effort, maybe a great team effort,” Hauck said. “I’m really proud of our team’s ability to face adversity and fight back from it. I think that’s a big deal in terms of development as a football team and as individuals collectively.
“I like how our guys take adjustments within the game. They have a nice understanding of what we’re trying to do, and because of that, we can change things, and they handle it pretty well.”
Sneed left the game Saturday after taking a hard hit in the fourth quarter. His availability will be evaluated throughout the week.
“Same as last week,” Hauck said about the plan with Sneed. “We’ll have to see how sore he is. Go from there.”
Weber State is one of the few teams that hasn’t lost to an FCS opponent, going 8-0. The third-ranked Wildcats are 8-2 overall and 6-0 in the Big Sky. Their two losses were to FBS San Diego State, 6-0, and FBS Nevada, 19-13.
The Wildcats hold wins over current No. 4 Northern Iowa and current No. 6 Sacramento State, a team that beat Montana, 49-22, in October. They’re 3-0 on the road against FCS teams, while Montana is 5-0 at home. The Griz last went undefeated at home in 2014.
“I think it’s always an advantage to play at home,” Hauck said. “Probably depends on how well the road team handles it. We know that when teams come here it’s a huge game for them because it’s the best atmosphere most of these kids get to play in all year long, so it’s a big deal, so we get everybody’s best effort here at home. So, it’s got a double edge to it.”
Weber State, coached by Jay Hill, brings in a stout defense that’s first in the Big Sky in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense. The Wildcats are third in the league in sacks and fifth in pass defense.
"The scheme’s good. Very solid, very sound in everything they do," Hauck said. "They play hard. They tackle well. That usually lends itself to good defense."
Offensively, the Wildcats are a run-heavy team led by Josh Davis, who ranks fourth in the Big Sky in rushing yards per game and third in all-purpose yards per game. He left the most recent game, a 30-27 win over North Dakota, with what was believed to be a concussion and didn't return.
Weber State ranks fourth in the league in rushing offense and has a capable backup in Kevin Smith, who has 120 carries to Davis’ 134. Then there’s third-stringer Kris Jackson, who’s run the ball 80 times.
“How to stop them? A lot of that starts in the weight room in the wintertime, and some of that’s ongoing right now as we game plan ‘em,” Hauck said. “Got to have a good week of preparation.”
He added: "They’re all a little bit different. They’ve got their starter, though; he’s the best one. He’s a great player."
The game will be Montana’s first of two against ranked teams to close the regular season. The Griz are 1-1 against teams currently in the Top 25, beating Monmouth and losing to Sacramento State.
They also hold an early season win over then-No. 4 UC Davis, a playoff quarterfinalist last year, and then-unranked Eastern Washington, the 2018 national runner-up. Both of them are 5-5 and not ranked in the most recent Top 25.
An upset win over Weber State would be the signature win of the regular season for Montana in the postseason discussion. It could also potentially start to signal the Grizzlies’ return to the national stage.
“I don’t even really pay much attention to it,” Hauck said about the game being between two top-five teams. “We watch the film, and we try to get ready. That’s the best way to approach this thing.
“All the ancillary stuff doesn’t really have any bearing on it. Both teams will game plan. Both teams will get ready. And we’ll go play.”