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Montana junior cornerback Justin Ford (21) smiles as he runs back a blocked field goal attempt for a touchdown during the 120th Brawl of the Wild on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula. Ford, who leads the FCS with eight interceptions, was named one of 25 finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the top defensive player in the FCS.

MISSOULA — Montana junior cornerback Justin Ford and junior linebacker Pat O’Connell are among 25 finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the FCS defensive player of the year.

Ford, a Louisville transfer, leads the FCS with eight interceptions and is tied for fourth in the nation with 16 passes defended. He single-handedly has more interceptions than 40 of the 128 FCS teams. He’s also racked up 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one quarterback hurry and two touchdowns.

Ford was one of three Griz to lead the FCS in a statistical category in the regular season. Redshirt freshman punter Brian Buschini, a Helena Capital grad, ranks first in the nation by averaging 46.7 yards per punt. Junior Malik Flowers’ two kickoff return touchdowns are tied for the most in the FCS, along with Weber State’s Rashid Shaheed and Colgate’s William Gruber.

O’Connell, a Kalispell Glacier grad, is fourth in the FCS with 1.18 sacks per game and is seventh in the country with 1.7 tackles for loss per game. He’s also tallied 91 tackles, five quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one touchdown.

O’Connell was named the Big Sky defensive player of the week after he put up 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks, both game highs, in the win over Montana State. Senior kicker Kevin Macias was the Big Sky special teams player of the week after going 5 of 5 on field goals, including a career-long 50-yarder.

The linebackers, a group that includes senior Jace Lewis junior Marcus Welnel, have impressed Ford, who’s in his first full season with the Griz.

“I always call them guys the fire. Like, they get us started,” Ford said Saturday. “I play with a lot of energy, and I feel like our defense as a whole plays with a lot of energy. It kind of comes from our coach to be honest. We love playing for him. We have a period throughout the week where he’s scout team quarterback dotting us up, and that kind of brings the fire too, he’s talking trash to us. That’s just how we play.”

Record book

Montana has had some standout receivers over the years, but senior Sammy Akem stands above the rest — at least by one measure.

Akem is the only player in Griz history to be ranked in the top five of all three major receiving categories. He’s second in touchdown catches (27), fourth in receptions (185) and fifth in receiving yards (2,572).

Akem’s combined ranking of 11 is the lowest in UM history. Marc Mariani is second with a total of 13 — first in TD grabs, second in receiving yards and 10th in catches — while Jamaal Jones is third with a total of 15 — first in receiving yards, fifth in catches and ninth in TD receptions.

Lewis, a Townsend native, moved into sole possession of ninth place on UM’s list of career tackles for loss with 35.5 and is tied for 22nd in sacks with 12. He became the 13th player in UM history to eclipse 300 career tackles, moving into 12th place with 303.

“Jace, he played really hard today,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said Saturday. “He just bleeds maroon and silver. He wants the Griz to win badly every time he steps out there. I thought his effort level today was terrific.

O’Connell moved into the top 10 in UM history for career sacks, now sitting at 10th with 19.5 and ranking 15th in tackles for loss with 29.

Junior safety Robby Hauck upped his career tackles total to 343 as he remained in sixth place in school history. He passed his uncle Tim Hauck, who had 305 tackles, last month and is closing in on passing Tim’s unofficial tally of 346; the NCAA didn’t count postseason stats until 2002.

Awards banquet

UM honored 15 players with team awards at its annual banquet on Sunday.

Akem and junior wide receiver Mitch Roberts, a Missoula Sentinel grad, were co-winners of the Terry Dillon Award, given to the most outstanding back or receiver. Akem won the award in 2018.

Senior left tackle Conlan Beaver earned the Paul Weskamp Award as UM’s outstanding offensive lineman. He also won the award in 2018.

Senior defensive ends Joe Babros and Justin Belknap were co-recipients of the Sims-Miller Award as the team’s best defensive lineman. The award was renamed in honor of former D-linemen Jesse Sims and Larry Miller, who died in vehicle accidents.

Lewis earned the Tony Barbour Award, which is given to the player “who best exemplifies outstanding practice habits and makes an unselfish contribution to the betterment of the Grizzly Football Team.”

Senior quarterback Cam Humphrey and senior safety Gavin Robertson were chosen as co-winners of the Pat Norwood Award after they battled back from injury and illness. The award recognizes the team’s most inspirational player.

O’Connell and Robby Hauck shared honors as the Doug Betters Golden Helmet Award as the team’s best tackler and hardest hitter. This year, the award was named in recognition of Doug Betters, a Grizzly Sports Hall of Famer and former NFL defensive MVP.

Flowers, senior long snapper Matthew O’Donoghue and redshirt freshman cornerback Trevin Gradney were co-recipients of the Hauck Family special teams player of the year award.

True freshman quarterback Daniel Britt was named the offensive scout team player of the year. Redshirt freshman defensive end Alex Hurlburt was the defensive scout team player of the year.

After the season, the team will vote on the winner of the Steve Carlson MVP Award. The coaches will choose the offensive and defensive MVPs at that time.

Poll position

Montana finished the regular season ranked No. 5 in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25. Its highest ranking this season was fourth.

The Griz have the second-highest ranking of the five Big Sky teams in this week's poll. Eastern Washington is fourth, Montana State is seventh, Sacramento State is eighth and UC Davis is 14th.

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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