Griz vs. Western Illinois 17 (copy)

Western Illinois’ Michael McFarlane (87) is tackled by Montana's defense during the game between the Griz and Western Illinois on Sept. 11 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula. The Griz host Cal Poly this Saturday in their Big Sky opener.

MISSOULA — This week is homecoming for Montana, but it feels like a different holiday for head coach Bobby Hauck.

“We are very, very pleased that Cal Poly’s not running the triple option anymore. Exceedingly pleased. Happy. It’s like Christmas came again,” he said.

Cal Poly has ditched the triple option run by former coach Tim Walsh in favor of a spread passing attack under new coach Beau Baldwin. The former Eastern Washington coach, who led the Eagles to the 2010 FCS title, is in his first full fall season at Cal Poly.

While there's certainty in knowing what a defense will see when facing the triple option, UM is presented with some uncertainty this week because Cal Poly quarterback Spencer Brasch is expected to be out five more weeks because of a fractured hand. He had passed for 528 yards and three touchdowns in the first two games.

Grayshirt freshman Kahliq Paulette started Saturday and completed 9 of 23 passes for 112 yards and one touchdown while running nine times for 27 yards. Sophomore Conor Bruce came in to go 3-of-3 passing for 69 yards and one score while rushing once for 3 yards and fumbling.

“We don’t know for sure who we’re going to see,” Hauck said. “One of those guys runs a little better than the other, so you might see some more quarterback run based on who’s in the game. But we’re not exactly sure who to prepare for.”

Cal Poly coach Beau Baldwin wasn't going to tip his hand on his plan at quarterback. Paulette is listed as the starter on the two-deep, but that's never set in stone.

"We have guys in this system who can give you something in the run game," Baldwin said. "They’ve all got some athletic ability. But ultimately we feel good about them being able to distribute the ball to our receivers. Distribute the ball and get it out of your hand and understand your reads, and that comes with time.

"It’s not as if the game plan changes a bunch from what we were doing with Spencer in game one or game two compared to what we were doing last week with Kahliq most of the time, Conor a little bit at the end. It’s just each player has a little bit different style. Certain players have a little more strength in one area. Our job as coaches is to lean on that strength with how we call it, how we develop our game plan."

The Mustangs have 101 passes and 83 rushes in three games, but they’re gaining 239.3 passing yards per game, sixth out of 13 Big Sky teams, compared to just 53.7 rushing yards, the worst average in the league. Five of their six touchdowns have come on passes.

They primarily run 11-personnel packages (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and 12-personnel packages (one running back, two tight ends, two receivers).

“It’s pretty standard stuff,” Hauck said.

Whoever trots out at quarterback will be met by a disruptive defense that’s dominated opposing offenses this season. The Griz defense has allowed just one touchdown, on the opening drive of the season, and has gone over 115 minutes without allowing a score.

It might be easy for a team to knock in a score in the fourth quarter, especially if starters get pulled in a blowout. But Montana only gets better as the game goes on, limiting teams to 14 total points in the second halves of their past four home games.

“We always practice fourth quarter hard,” defensive end Justin Belknap said. “We realize that in the fourth quarter, some teams tend to slow it down. We like to try to speed it up and just be better in the fourth quarter.”

Baldwin knows his offense is in for a test, even if it has somewhat of an element of surprise. He compared the Griz defense to what Washington State ran under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who's now the DC at Oklahoma.

"I think there’s levels of what Montana does that they’re even more resistant, they’re even tougher and suffocate offenses even more than, and that’s not taking anything away from WSU, it’s just that impressive what they’re doing," he said.

"The thing that I think is impressive about what Montana does on defense is they create chaos, but they do it within total control. That says a lot about the makeup of their players to be able to create that havoc, create that control but not get out position themselves. It also says a lot about the job they’re doing coaching to get those guys in that spot.

"With that, they play very violent. They play physical D. There’s a serious violence. What they’re doing can sometimes be complex to the opponent, but you can tell they make it simple for them. They’re able to create this to where it looks like they’re not out of position, it seems like it’s very clean. Being able to do that is not simple. It takes hard work. It takes being locked in. It takes great coaching. It takes players really buying into that mindset."

Defensive changes

While the transformation of Cal Poly’s offense has drawn headlines, the Mustangs have also reworked their defense under Baldwin.

The results haven’t been great as they have the worst statistical passing and rushing defenses in the Big Sky. They’re allowing 329 passing yards per game and 241.3 rushing yards on average.

“They try to mix fronts a little bit,” Hauck said. “I think they’re going to play odd and even. I don’t even know which one they consider their base, probably the even front. They do some good things schematically. I think they make you prepare for a lot of things.”

The Griz will be able to prepare more for Cal Poly’s defense and focus on their own specific offensive improvements instead of having to spend extra film and practice time on a triple-option offense, something they would normally see only once in a season.

Montana used its bye week to perform a self-scout, diving into an in-depth breakdown of its stats from its first two games. For as good as UM’s offense and defense have been, there are areas to nitpick for improvement. Hauck highlighted third downs on both sides of the ball and winning the turnover/takeaway battle.

The Griz are 8 of 25 (32%) on third downs, which is 11th out of 13 Big Sky teams. They’re 9 of 30 (30%) on third down defense, which is third in the league.

They’ve been intercepted three times and lost their lone fumble; all four turnovers came against Western Illinois after they had a clean sheet against Washington. Their defense has picked off four passes, tied for the second most in the conference, and recovered two of the three fumbles they forced.

“We just need to continue with consistency and execution,” Hauck said.

Fundraiser

UM reserve offensive lineman Trevor Welnel is helping to organize a fundraiser this week to benefit the Montana Food Bank Network.

The fundraiser will be a car wash for charity from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday at Dazzlers Car Wash, located at 2610 Radio Way, just off Reserve Street, in Missoula. It's being put on in conjuntion with UM's College of Business.

MFBN will be receiving 25% of profits throughout the day, according to a poster for the event, which notes that $1 can provide five meals. Food donations will be excepted, as long as they are unexpired and unopened.

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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