MISSOULA — Montana’s bye week should be rather enjoyable.
The eighth-ranked Griz head into their week off with a record of 5-1 overall, 5-0 against FCS teams and 2-0 in the Big Sky Conference. They’re one of just four undefeated teams in league play and one of two, along with Montana State, who are 2-0.
So how would Montana head coach Bobby Hauck assess his team’s play through six games?
“You assess it by the record,” Hauck said after the 59-20 win over Idaho State on Saturday. “They put them in front of you, and you either beat them or you don’t. We’re happy to be where we are right now.”
Montana heads into the bye week averaging a blistering 48.6 points per game against FCS teams while holding them to 20.2 points on average. During the start, the Griz beat then-No. 4 UC Davis on Sept. 28 for their first road win over a Top 25 team since 2016.
In going 5-1 so far in the 12-game season, the Griz are getting back to the dominant level Hauck had them during his previous stint. They won seven consecutive conference titles, made three national title game appearances and were in the top 10 for 94 out of 100 weeks from 2003-09.
Hauck’s right-hand man during that run, then-offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie, got to see Montana in person on Saturday. He’s now the Idaho State head coach and had his Bengals out to a 17-0 lead 16 minutes into the game before Montana put together a 59-3 run.
So how close does Phenicie think the Griz are to being a legitimate conference-title threat like they were in Hauck's first time at Montana?
“Probably right there,” Phenicie said. “It’s solid in all three phases. It’s scary to punt the ball to McGee. It’s scary to kick it off to Flowers. Dangerous on both sides of the ball.”
Times had changed since Phenicie left with Hauck for UNLV following the 2009 season, when Montana was coming off its seventh national title game in 15 seasons. The Griz went through three coaches in Robin Pflugrad, Mick Delaney and Bob Stitt over an eight-year period.
Montana saw its streak of 17 consecutive playoff appearances snapped in 2010. Since Hauck and Phenicie left, the Griz have made the playoffs just four times in those nine years and have missed out each of the past three seasons, a first since not qualifying from 1990-92.
Last year, Hauck started rebuilding the program with the motto "Return to Dominance," but the Griz finished 6-5 as their season culminated with a goal line fumble in a loss to Montana State. It was their first three-game losing streak to the in-state rival since 1983-85 and their first time losing three straight games in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, which opened in 1986.
Montana started the 2018 season 4-1 but lost back-to-back games and went into its bye week at 4-3. The Griz suffered an unimaginable loss to Portland State on a field goal and got blown out by North Dakota. After the bye, they collapsed in the second half against UC Davis.
So how big is it to head into the bye week off a win?
“It’s huge, obviously,” sophomore safety Robby Hauck said. “We weren’t able to do that last year going into our bye week. This year, and going forward, it’s definitely big. It’s more of a positive mindset and attitude into the bye week. Yeah, it’s huge, getting healthy and all that.”
The Griz have corrected many of their woes that plagued them in 2018.
They’re outscoring teams 88-30 in the third quarter and 63-20 in the fourth quarter. That makes the second-half margin 151-50 and an even more impressive 148-36 against FCS teams. In fact, their 25.2 points in just the second half are more than 52 FCS teams are averaging in an entire game.
Behind an offensive line that’s given up just 1.8 sacks per game, the Griz lead the Big Sky and rank fifth in the FCS with 496.2 yards of total offense. They also have a turnover margin of plus-3, tied for fourth in the league.
The Griz showed they could make necessary defensive stands and offensive drives in the fourth quarter against South Dakota and Monmouth. They showed they could erase a halftime deficit against North Alabama. They showed their second-half dominance with a 21-0 run in the first six minutes of the third quarter at UC Davis. And they most recently showed they could come back from an early deficit after trailing Idaho State by three scores in the second quarter.
Forget just qualifying for the playoffs. Montana could potentially be a national seed.
Even with the early success, the Griz are far from being content with their play. They’ll have a big challenge when they return to the field on Oct. 19 to face an upstart Sacramento State team that’s coming off a win over No. 22 Eastern Washington, has played FBS teams tough and could be ranked in the Top 25 on Monday.
Montana has a challenging schedule beyond that, hosting No. 4 Weber State and No. 22 Eastern Washington, and traveling to No. 6 Montana State, in addition to games against Idaho and at Portland State.
“There’s always room to improve,” Hauck said. “The perfect game has not been played yet. We’re still trying to get it done. We’re going to try here in two weeks.”