MISSOULA — A lot can change in 14 days, and it certainly did for Montana.
The Griz were heading into an Oct. 2 showdown at Eastern Washington giving fans visions of a January trip to Frisco, Texas, the site of the national championship game. Even five of the 50 FCS voters in the Stats FCS Top 25 had the Griz ranked No. 1 in their polls at one point earlier this year.
The Griz gave people reason for hope when they became just the sixth FCS team since 1983 to upset a ranked FBS team by beating Washington in their season opener. UM then tacked on two more wins and a stretch of nearly 165 minutes without the defense allowing any points.
A win over EWU might’ve led the Griz to a No. 2 ranking in the FCS, the spot the Eagles jumped to last Monday. Instead, they lost not only that game but quarterback Cam Humphrey to injury and then lost for the second time in three games against Sacramento State on Saturday.
“We’re disappointed with not getting the win on Saturday and certainly a bit frustrated with that loss,” Griz coach Bobby Hauck said Monday. “So, we need to move forward against Idaho, who’s our second-oldest rival. I think they’re a well-coached, tough football team.”
A few hours before that statement, Montana tumbled six spots to No. 11, its lowest ranking of the year after being No. 9 in the preseason poll. The Griz are fourth among the five ranked Big Sky teams, but they’re tied for seventh in the 13-team conference standings.
Now comes a crucial stretch as the Griz go on the road for three of their next four games before closing the regular season by hosting No. 8 Montana State on Nov. 20. They’ll need to win three of their final five games to get to seven wins, the typical minimum for playoff qualification.
The Griz start with a trip to Idaho, host Southern Utah and go on road swings to Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona. Those teams are a combined 8-18 overall and 4-10 in the Big Sky. Surprisingly, NAU and Portland State are both above UM in the Big Sky standings.
Whether Humphrey returns is still unknown, although he warmed up Saturday. Either way, senior wide receiver Sammy Akem and the offense will have to be ready to go.
“I think it’s another opportunity for us to go show who we are as a football team and what we are about,” Akem said. “I see another opponent in front of us. I see guys who want to beat us. And I see another opportunity to go out there and compete.”
At least there’s the fact that Hauck has never lost to any of those four teams as the UM head coach. He’s gone 18-0: 7-0 vs. NAU, 5-0 vs. UNCo, 3-0 vs Idaho and 3-0 vs. Southern Utah.
Then again, Sacramento State was 0-12 in Missoula until Saturday. And Hauck is just 7-7 on the road since returning to UM in 2018. He went 25-8 on the road during his first stint at UM from 2003-09.
The chance for a get-right game against a historical rival in a game that features a trophy — the Little Brown Stein — could give the Griz some extra motivation. Cornerback Justin Ford, who's intercepted a pass in four straight games, is new to the rivalry but is staying focused on the task at hand while the defense tries to regain the swagger it lost in recent games.
“As a team, I feel like our preparation is always going to be great,” he said. “I don’t go into no week specifically like preparing better than the next one. Every one is just as important. I’m just going to do the same thing I’ve been doing, like working hard, and we’ll see them on Saturday, we’ll be ready.”
The four games in this stretch all looked like they’d be blowout victories on the afternoon of Oct. 2. Even before Saturday's game, they still felt like games where wins could be easily penciled in. Nothing is certain anymore.
This was supposed to be the easy part of UM's schedule, used to fine-tune itself for the regular-season finale and a likely deep playoff run. Instead, UM finds itself looking for answers as it tries to gear up for a potential playoff run.
At least the Grizzlies’ potential at-large case for the playoffs includes an FBS win because there aren't any chances for signature wins until the game against MSU. But even that UW win hasn’t held up well as the Huskies are 2-4, meaning their four wins have come over teams with a combined record of 4-21. Their two losses have come against teams that are a combined 11-2.
Hauck still has hope for turning things around by stringing together some wins these next few weeks.
“Anybody that’s played has lost a game, so it’s what you do when you lose a game: you go practice, you go to work and you go try to get the next one,” he said. “That’s what competition is, and we have a competitive group.”
The sentiment was similar to his thoughts after the loss Saturday: “I like our football team,” he said. “I like our toughness. I like our effort level. I like our competitiveness. I thought we had a great week of preparation. We were focused all week long and into the game. We just got to play better.”