MISSOULA — Montana controls its own destiny to win the Big Sky Conference championship with two games to play in the regular season.
Imagine reading that sentence in 2019 — in just the second season since Bobby Hauck returned to coach his alma mater for the second time. Even he didn’t think the turnaround would happen this quickly into his tenure since taking over in December 2017.
But here Montana sits, boasting an 8-2 overall record and a 5-1 mark in the Big Sky heading into its final two games of league play, starting with a top-five showdown against Weber State, as it tries to accomplish something it hasn’t done in 10 years.
It’s been quite the turnaround to say the least, highlighted by improved talent and depth in the trenches, quality running backs to complement Dalton Sneed and a capable backup quarterback in Cam Humphrey, among other things.
“If you asked me where we’re at now compared to where I thought we’d be now when I first got here like two springs ago, I’d say we’re probably a year ahead of where I thought we’d be. That’s because we got a bunch of great guys wearing our helmets and playing for us,” Hauck said after his Griz plastered Idaho at home Saturday to keep the potential to win the league crown in their own control without needing help from other teams.
When Hauck ran the Griz from 2003-09, conference titles were the norm. They won seven in seven seasons and made three trips to the FCS national championship game.
Since then, it’s been a decade of ups and downs on the field, a scandal off it and now a fourth head coach. In those nine years, the Griz have finished as such in the conference: tied for third, tied for first, tied for eighth, third, tied for second, tied for second again, eighth, tied for sixth and tied for sixth again — and the 2011 first-place finish was later vacated.
Montana also missed the postseason five times since Hauck left and made it just four times. The Griz appear to have ended their streak of three consecutive misses by picking up their eighth win of the season on Saturday to seemingly secure their first playoff berth since 2015.
Now the Griz get their shot for more — a chance to reassert themselves atop the Big Sky Conference. Standing in the way is Weber State, currently ranked No. 3 in the nation. The Wildcats come to Missoula Saturday in what will be the biggest home game to date this season.
The Griz can’t officially wrap up the title, or even a share of it, with a win over Weber State. But they won’t be able to capture any part of the crown if they lose the game.
The Wildcats sit atop the conference at 8-2 overall and 6-0 in the Big Sky but needed a late rally to squeeze out a 30-27 win over North Dakota on Saturday. They can wrap up at least a share of the title with a win over Montana.
Sacramento State, ranked No. 8, is still in the title hunt at 5-1 in league play, but it also needed a late surge Saturday to top Northern Arizona without starting quarterback Kevin Thomson.
Even Montana State and Eastern Washington, both at 4-2 in league play, are still alive for a shared title, although it’s much more of an outside shot than Weber State, Montana and Sacramento State. They would need to win out and get help from others, including the Bobcats needing to root for the Griz to beat the Wildcats.
The Brawl of the Wild game against the Bobcats looms on Nov. 23. It’s bound to be meaningful for Montana as a heated rivalry game in which it’s lost three consecutive times, but its prominence could be taken to another level if the Griz have a shot that game to secure their first Big Sky championship in 10 years.
First, they need to take care of business Saturday in what should be the FCS game of the week.