MISSOULA — Montana plays its first home game against a Big Sky Conference team when it hosts Idaho State at 1 p.m. Saturday for homecoming at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The eighth-ranked Griz (4-1, 1-0) are coming off a 45-20 upset win on the road against then-No. 4 UC Davis. The Bengals (2-2, 1-0) raced past Portland State for a 51-24 win at home.
406mtsports.com caught up with Idaho State beat writer Andrew Houghton, who covers the Bengals for the Idaho State Journal, to talk about this year’s Idaho State team and the outlook for the game Saturday.
Q: How has the start to the season gone compared to what was expected coming in? What's the vibe around the team and the fans given the 2-2 record, especially with an expected loss to Utah and a close defeat against ranked Northern Iowa?
A: I think Idaho State has cautiously exceeded expectations among the fan base so far, mostly because of what the Bengals have done in their last two games. Coming out of the Utah game, competing with a top-10 team on the road looked like an iffy proposition, so to nearly beat Northern Iowa — the final was 13-6, and ISU led 6-3 through three quarters — with a backup quarterback in was a big positive.
I know the defense was walking around with a lot of confidence after that game, and I’d imagine the offense will be doing the same now after hanging 51 on Portland State last week. The Bengals are a veteran team, they know how to handle themselves, and they’ll be coming to Missoula expecting to win.
Q: Why has the defense been so stout early on? What has impressed you about their play, and what areas of improvement are still needed?
A: The pass rush is much improved from last year, which has been a team effort. Kainoa Fuiava is the natural pass rusher on the three-man line, which is anchored by tackle TJ Togiai. Both outside linebackers, Oshea Trujillo and Luke Holloway, are athletic players who can get in the backfield. Holloway has battled injuries in the past, but has been healthy all year so far and leads them with three sacks.
The other area that’s really impressed me is their goal-line defense. They’ve made really an incredible number of short-yardage stops so far — only four touchdowns and eight total scores given up in 13 opposition trips to the red zone. There’s a element of randomness to that, so we’ll see if it keeps up. If they’ve been lucky there, they’ve been unlucky with turnovers — only three takeaways, last in the Big Sky.
Q: What can Montana expect to see out of quarterback Matt Struck, who has some talented receivers and a go-to running back? How has the experienced offensive line held up?
A: Matt Struck has a big arm, and he likes to show it off. If he gets time, he’ll go vertical all day, especially with three receivers he can trust to win one-on-one in Mitch Gueller, Michael Dean and Tanner Conner. He was inconsistent against Western Colorado in the season opener, left the Utah game early, but then hit just about every throw against Portland State.
Getting the run game established early will be big, as it always is, so they’re not in third-and-longs and Struck can go play-action. The offensive line got shaken up in the season opener when starting left tackle Jack Eli-Tufono went down with an injury. ISU tried to move starting left guard Jacob Molenaar to tackle for a while after that but had him back inside with freshman Jacob Angel at left tackle against Portland State and looked a lot better. I’d expect to see that lineup against Montana.
Q: What does Idaho State have to do to win this game? What are the main matchups you'll be watching from an ISU point of view?
A: I think Idaho State showed in the last two weeks that they can hang in either a defensive struggle or a barn burner. The Bengals have to avoid getting punched in the mouth early by Montana coming out with a lot of fire at Washington-Grizzly, and they have to not get overwhelmed by the Grizzlies’ depth in the second half. I think that’s an advantage for UM.
I’ll be watching ISU’s offensive line, especially the freshman, Angel, against Montana’s pass rush. Five sacks surrendered against Northern Iowa, six points; zero sacks surrendered against Portland State, 51 points. It’s not quite that simple, but if Struck has time, his receivers will get open, and he will find them.
On the other side, I’ll be curious to see how often Idaho State puts five defensive backs on the field and how well the Bengals’ trio of corners — returning starter Anthony Ricks, returning starter Caleb Brown, Oregon State transfer Jay Irvine — deals with Akem, Toure and JLM.
Q: What's your score prediction for the game? Why?
A: Montana, 34-21. The Grizzlies have been really impressive so far this season, and they’re playing at home. I think Idaho State will hit a big play or two, I think the Bengals will get a big stop or two, and I think they’ll hang around for a long time — but I don’t think they’ll ever have control of the game.