MISSOULA — Montana football coach Bobby Hauck doesn’t need anyone to remind him the Griz struggled in short-yardage situations last year.
“Well, we can’t be any worse, first,” Hauck plainly stated after a recent fall camp practice. “You have to be able to get short-yardage situations. You can’t be any good in third down if you aren’t converting on third-and-shorts because the other distances are harder.
“We need to be able to do that. It was an Achilles’ heel for us last year, certainly. We’ve worked hard at that. We’ll get a chance to see soon.”
Short-yardage plays, for purposes of a Missoulian play-by-play analysis, are third- and fourth-down plays with 1 or 2 yards to go, and plays within 2 yards of the opposing team’s end zone. Snaps that resulted in a “no play” because of penalties are excluded.
On the qualifying plays, the Griz converted 24 of 54 times, or 44.4%, as they went 6-5. By comparison, the 2017 team under Bob Stitt that went 7-4 converted 42 of 61 (68.9%) of the plays.
Hauck’s worst team in terms of its record during his previous stint at Montana, the 2005 team that went 8-4, converted 16 of 25 (64%) of the plays, although online play-by-play data is available for only eight of the 12 games. There was no season in Hauck’s previous stint in which online play-by-play data is available for every game.
In 2018, the Griz were 15 of 29 (51.7%) with 1 yard to go; that fell to 36% (9 of 25) with 2 yards needed.
In the run game, Montana converted 41.2% (7 of 17) of the time with 2 yards to go but only slightly increased that to 42.9% (9 of 21) with 1 yard to pick up.
Through the air, the Griz got the necessary yards 8 of 16 times. They were 6 of 8 with 1 yard to go, but when that increased to 2 yards, they fell to 2 of 8.
Hauck said the offensive line is key to winning in short-yardage situations. No wonder last year’s team struggled; the offensive linemen came into the season having combined for 22 starts at the position, all of which belonged to Angel Villanueva.
This year, returners Villanueva, Colton Keintz, Conlan Beaver, Cy Sirmon, Skyler Martin and Dylan Eickmeyer have a combined 67 starts. Then there’s two junior college transfers in Kordell Pillans and Moses Mallory.
“You got to win at the line of scrimmage,” Hauck said. “That’s what it is. When you throw it, hopefully you hit them big if they’re cheating it too much on the defensive side.”
In short-yardage situations, Hauck acknowledged that “we didn’t do it very well last year” and said the team has been practicing the plays the same amount as they have in past camps.
So what do the offensive linemen think it takes to win the line-of-scrimmage battle on short-yardage plays?
“We got to be unified, we got to play as one, we got to be on the same page and we got to communicate out there,” Villanueva said. “We got to be low, we got to be fast and we got to be mean.”
Keintz echoed Villanueva’s thought about the line playing and moving as one.
“This is the man’s work,” Keintz said. “This is where boys become men. We just strap the pads on. This is what they’re for. This is where we bend over and just hit people. Obviously, we have to know our assignment. There’s a lot of communication that needs to take place for us to be successful. But it’s a very physical job that all 11 guys need to be doing their work to win a rep like that.”
Sirmon, who moved from right guard to center in the spring, said attitude is just as important as execution.
“An indomitable will is what short yardage takes,” Sirmon said. “Just crucial situations in general — fourth down, fourth quarter, third and long — when the chips are stacked against you, you got to be tough and you got to have grit.
“Obviously, execution is paramount. On top of that, if you’re just a team that does it right but doesn’t want it more than the guy across from you, it doesn’t really matter because that’s just brute force clashing together. You got be tough. You got to want it. Communication, execution. I think the want-to is just as important as anything else.”
Montana’s short-yardage woes in 2018 seemed amplified because the failures came at times when clutch performances were needed.
Running back Adam Eastwood’s fumble on a third-and-goal from the Montana State 1-yard line was Montana’s final offensive play of the season and took away any chance of a potential playoff berth. Eastwood finished the season converting nine of his 16 short-yardage runs. He was better with 2 yards to go (4 of 6) than with 1 yard to gain (5 of 10).
Running back Alijah Lee was 1 of 5 on runs. He fumbled on a third-and-2 against Portland State, and the Vikings scored on the next possession to go up 19-14 on their way to a 22-20 upset. When Lee failed to convert a fourth-and-1 against UC Davis, the Aggies scored on the ensuing possession as they started a 43-0 run to close the game for a 49-21 win.
Tight end Colin Bingham fumbled the only short-yardage run he attempted, which came with Montana on North Dakota’s 1-yard line after going down 14-0 in the opening four minutes. North Dakota turned the recovered fumble into a score and a 21-0 lead in a 41-14 Griz loss.
Former Griz Jeremy Calhoun was the Grizzlies’ most effective short-yardage runner, converting on four of five carries.
Quarterback Dalton Sneed, for all his scrambling ability, was just 2 of 11 trying to pick up the short-yardage plays.
Sneed and the Griz did make some key conversions in the passing game.
Wide receiver Samori Toure was Sneed’s favorite target, catching three of four passes for the needed yardage. They connected to convert a crucial third-and-1 against Northern Iowa that allowed the Griz to take a knee and run out the clock in a 26-23 upset win after nearly blowing a 26-0 lead.
Tight end Matt Rensvold was the only other player with multiple catches, getting the needed yardage on both receptions. One of them was a 1-yard touchdown grab on fourth-and-1 to break a 31-31 tie against Sacramento State with 3:50 to play in a 41-34 win.