101616  griz vs sac state-31-tm.jpg (copy)

Montana's Keenan Curran takes a hit from Sacramento State's Manny Scott-Anderson during the Grizzlies' home game against the Hornets two years ago. Montana demolished Sacramento State in that game, but this Saturday promises to be a much tighter affair.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited to reflect changes and updates in the depth charts. 

MISSOULA — The Big Sky Conference football season is finally here and on Saturday the No. 19 Montana Grizzlies host Sacramento State, a team that received 143 votes in this week's STATS FCS Top 25 poll. 

It was a blood bath the last time these two teams played back in 2016: the Grizzlies topped the young Hornets by the most decisive of margins, 68-7.

But now those freshmen and sophomores are juniors and seniors, and Montana's Bobby Hauck knows that.

"I don't have a great handle on what happened here two years ago, but it was a blowout," Hauck said Monday. "Those roles are now reversed. I hope they don't beat us like we beat them two years ago."

A look at all eight position groups, the intangibles and who has the edge:

QUARTERBACK: For the fourth week in a row, Montana faces a fifth-year senior quarterback with a ton of experience.

Hauck said he couldn't recall a time in his coaching career where he's faced that much experience.

"It's the fourth week in a row we're playing a fifth-year senior starting quarterback which I don't think I've encountered before," Hauck said. "They just keep coming one after another, guys that are talented and understand and they're going to be hard to fool and they're going to do things right. That'll be a challenge."

But this foe is a little different for Hauck and Co.

Quarterback Kevin Thomson was recruited by Hauck and UM offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach when they were at UNLV. Thomson elected to become a Runnin' Rebel and redshirted in Hauck and Rosenbach's last year at UNLV.

"Kevin played for us. We recruited him. His freshman year he actually redshirted, but yeah, Rosey recruited Kevin and obviously I helped with that and I've been to him home and all that," Hauck said of Thomson.

He added: "He likes to run it. I think that he throws it well. I don't think he gets credit for being as good of thrower as he is because he is a good athlete. He likes to run it, sees the read zone stuff. He doesn't make too many mistakes on the read stuff. ...It's fun, kind of, to see a guy you know and watch him on film and the prep time we had. He's evolved as a player. I'm proud of him for becoming the player he is."

So far this season, Thomson's completed 38 of his 60 passes for 645 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He's also added 57 yards on the ground.

Thomson overlapped with Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed for one year at UNLV in 2015. 

Sneed's game on Saturday wasn't as productive as his first two, but he's looking to bounce back. Through three games, the junior captain has completed 64 percent of his passes, thrown five touchdowns and passed for 755 yards.

With those high numbers come high rankings. Sneed's completions per game average of 27 is ranked No. 6 among all FCS gunslingers and his passing yards are ranked No. 24 nationally.

Sneed also is getting it done on the ground as Montana's leading rusher. His 165 net yards rushing are 58 yards more than leading running back Adam Eastwood. 

It's a close one, but the edge goes to Montana.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Montana's offensive line is still young, but they're making progress. Montana changed up the starting line-up last week, starting Cy Sirmon at right guard in place of Dylan Eickmeyer. Cody Meyer, who wasn't listed on the depth chart last week, did end up making the trip and starting at center.

"I think the offensive line is consecutively getting better. They're getting better each week. Cy Sirmon got his first start at guard last week and hadn't played offensive line since high school and he did a terrific job." Sneed said. "We're only going to get better up front."

Sacramento State's offensive line is incredibly experienced. The five starters have started in 82 combined games. The edge here goes to Sacramento State.

RUNNING BACK/FULLBACK: Sneed has been the most successful on the ground for the Grizzlies, but Eastwood is gaining ground on him. Eastwood has 107 yards rushing now on 35 carries with two touchdowns. Senior Alijah Lee has eight carries for 22 yards. The Grizzly rushing offense, with Sneed, Rey Green and Jerry Louie-McGee's carries included, is ranked No. 90 out of the 124 teams in the FCS. 

The wild card in senior running back Jeremy Calhoun is unknown at this time. His 2-game, turned 3-game suspension is over and he was charged and sentenced on Wednesday for a misdemeanor assault stemming from a fight outside a bar in downtown Missoula in May.

He is not listed in the depth chart, but Calhoun can ride the bench, play or even start at Hauck's discretion. 

"Our two-deep that we produced on Tuesday is all we’re going to say about that," Hauck told reporters last Wednesday. "I haven’t given him much thought, frankly. He hasn’t been in the mix, so if he ever works his way into the mix, we’ll give that some thought.”

Sacramento State's rushing game is led by sophomore running back Elijah Dotson, who averages 67.7 yards per game and has scored three touchdowns. His output is ranked sixth among conference rushers. He shares carries with junior running back Ja'Narrick James, who has 61 yards on 12 carries and two touchdowns.

The edge goes to Sacramento State.

WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END: The cream is rising to the top with Montana's receivers, as Jerry Louie-McGee, Samuel Akem, Samori Toure and Keenan Curran split most of the receptions among receivers. 

Louie-McGee — who just welcomed his son into the world on Tuesday morning — leads the Grizzlies with 20 catches and 212 yards. Akem is on his heels with 18 catches and 202 yards. Akem caught both touchdown receptions on Saturday, giving him three scores on the year. Toure had 109 yards on 12 catches, but that number would be more if a penalty on Saturday didn't negate a 55-yard catch. And Curran has 11 receptions for 122 yards. His start streak came to an end on Saturday, after going down with an injury against Drake. He bounced back, though, and had four catches for 48 yards against Western Illinois.

Other guys are getting in the mix too, though, as Colin Bingham has four catches for 44 yards, Matt Rensvold has one catch for nine yards, Bryson Deming has one catch for eight yards, Mitch Roberts has one catch for six yards and even Sneed has a catch on the books.

Sacramento State spreads the ball around considerably, but senior wide receiver Jaelin Ratliff has 217 yards on nine catches to lead the Hornets. Behind him is senior wide receiver Andre Lindsey who has 142 yards on seven catches. In total, 12 different Hornets have at least one catch.

Montana gets the edge.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Montana's four starting defensive linemen are dominant up front. They combined for 11 tackles, one tackle for loss, ½ a sack and five quarterback hurries against Western Illinois. 

No. 37 Jesse Sims leads the defensive linemen with 15 tackles, 2½ tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Senior Reggie Tilleman is not close behind with 12 tackles and three quarterback hurries. Redshirt freshman RJ Nelson has 10 tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry. Senior David Shaw has seven tackles, a ½ tackle for loss and three quarterback hurries. 

The backups are involved too as redshirt freshman Braydon Deming has five tackles, 1½ tackles for loss, a ½ sack and a quarterback hurry, sophomore Randy Rodriguez has had three tackles and a ½ tackle for loss, sophomore Jed Nagler had four tackles with a sack and true freshman Eli Alford has a tackle. 

The eight players on the two-deep combined help account for the No. 11 ranked rush defense in the FCS, as well as the sixth-highest sack rate in the country. 

Sacramento State's defensive line is formidable too. 

The quartet of senior George Obinna, sophomore Elijah Chambers, junior Seperini Aumua and sophomore David Perales have a combined 55 starts. And Chambers is the sack leader in the conference with four through three games. Chambers also has five tackles for a loss of 33 yards. 

Slight edge goes to Montana.

LINEBACKERS: Sacramento State plays a 4-3-4 defense, meaning the Hornets play three linebackers in their base packages.

The three linebackers to watch are senior Immanuel Anderson, Manoah Pearson and Elijah Wallace.

Anderson has started in a team-high 35 games and is listed as a defensive back on the roster. Despite that, he's the Hornets' second-leading tackler with 18 tackles and 2½ tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.

Wallace, also listed as a defensive back, has added 18 tackles and 2½ tackles for loss. Pearson has 26 starts under his belt. He's the third-leading tackler for the Hornets with 18 tackles. He also adds a ½ sack, a forced fumble and a pass breakup to his statline.

Montana's Dante Olson, who's earned the STATS FCS national defensive player of the week and two-time Big Sky defensive player of the week so far this season, has 40 tackles (a mark that leads the league), six tackles for loss, 3½ sacks, two interceptions, two pass breakups, four passes defended, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. And don't forget about Josh Buss, who appears to be back at 100 percent with 13 tackles, 2½ tackles for loss, 1½ sacks, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry.

Sacramento State's linebackers a tough bunch, but Montana's are too. Grizzlies take the edge. 

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Montana's passing defense is near the bottom of the league, giving up an average of 270.3 passing yards per game. Redshirt freshman safety Robby Hauck's 24 tackles are tied for eighth in the league and senior safety Reid Miller's 18 tackles are tied for 23rd.

Sophomore cornerback Dareon Nash is fourth in the league with five passes defended and senior cornerback Justin Calhoun is eighth with four passes defended.

Only 10 players in the league have at least one interception and Nash is one of five that have two.

Sacramento State's defensive backs, especially senior First-Team All-Big Sky safety Mister Harriel and junior safety Caelan Barnes, aren't to be trifled with. 

Harriel and Barnes have just 23 starts combined, but their stats speak for themselves. Barnes' 22 tackles are 12th among league defenders, while Harriel's 15 are 38th. Harriel has four passes defended and two interceptions on the year. Both of his picks came against FBS San Diego State — a team that hadn't thrown multiple interceptions in 40 games.

It's a close one, but the edge goes to Sacramento State here.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Hard to top Malik Flowers' kick return game from last week. A 95-yard kick return touchdown? Pretty impressive. 

Senior Australian punter Owen Hoolihan is coming off an impressive game too. He won the Big Sky Conference special teams player of the week nod after punting eight times for 280 yards with six of his punts landing inside the 20-yard line.

INTANGIBLES: It's the Dave Dickenson game. You can't lose the Dave Dickenson game. Edge goes to Montana.


Notes: The fourth Grizzly Coaches Show of the season with Bobby Hauck and Voice of the Grizzlies Riley Corcoran is Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. The Coaches Show has changed venues this year and is now hosted at the Press Box instead of Brooks and Browns. All Grizzly Coaches Shows will be on Wednesdays during the season at the Press Box at 6:30 p.m.

Sign up for our Cat-Griz Insider newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Amie Just covers Griz football and Missoula-area preps. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

Load comments