MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies are finally coming out of hibernation.
With the non-scholarship Pioneer League’s Valparaiso Crusaders coming to town, first-time starting quarterback Reese Phillips and other first-time starters in linebacker Vika Fa’atuiese, running back Jeremy Calhoun, right tackle Mike Ralston, defensive end Chris Favoroso, defensive end Tucker Schye and free safety Evan Epperly will have the opportunity to ease into their roles.
“When you watch film for the first opponent, you have to take it a little bit with a grain of salt,” coach Bob Stitt said. “We want to be a little bit more vanilla and just work our base stuff. … You've got to just really, really count on your base defense and your base concepts on offense and how we train our quarterbacks is, it doesn't matter what team we're playing.”
Even though Stitt isn’t overly concerned with who his opening-week opponent is, he and the rest of the coaches will be watching several different on-the-field and sideline things this weekend.
Of course, the X's and O's are important to Stitt and Co., but there are other intangibles that the Griz coaches will be looking out for too.
“We're gonna be watching how our players handle things and the body language and how they support each other and how the sideline is, the talk on the sideline,” Stitt said.
Here are five other things to watch for on Saturday:
Phillips: He’s a fifth-year senior, but it’s his first start. He’s performed well this fall, completing 69 percent of his passes in the three camp scrimmages for 511 yards and five touchdowns.
He’s growing into his confidence, telling reporters on Monday that the more games he plays in, the more his confidence is going to grow. He’s come a long way from his lackluster four-interception spring game back in April. Don’t expect that to happen on Saturday.
“I'm definitely more comfortable than I was in spring,” Phillips said. “I was trying to do a little too much in spring.”
Run game: This is an area that should be watched for both teams.
The Griz lost their leading rusher in John Nguyen to graduation. Six-foot, 213-pound Jeremy Calhoun is primed to shoulder the brunt of Montana’s rushing game in his first career start. Washington State transfer running back Alijah Lee is listed at second on the Griz depth chart. He’s a much different back than Calhoun, standing at 5-foot-6 and weighing 197 pounds. Valparaiso’s defensive line is much smaller than the Griz offensive line, so look for holes to open up for Calhoun, Lee and other offensive play makers.
The Crusaders return their leading rusher from last year in Jarrett Morgan, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound bruiser. His 576 yards rushing last season accounted for more than 51 percent of Valparaiso’s ground game. He’s versatile too, as he catches passes in the backfield as well. The preseason All-Pioneer League running back could disrupt some things for the Griz defense if they don’t dial in on him.
Filling in: Two starters from last season won’t be taking the field on Saturday. Senior free safety Justin Strong, who started in 10 games last season, is nursing an injury and will be out, making room for Epperly. Epperly had six tackles last year as a sophomore.
At linebacker, Fa’atuiese is taking over the starting role for suspended senior Connor Strahm, who started all 11 games and had 70 tackles and eight tackles for loss last season. Strahm is suspended for two games. Fa’atuiese had 14 tackles last year in his first season. Expect him to make the most of his chance.
"I'm just excited to get after it, see my team do well, just put our heads down and keep grinding,” Fa’atuiese said earlier this summer. “This team is looking very good and I'm enjoying a lot of fun with them. It's been great."
Staying sharp: If this game goes as predicted, the Griz could run over the Crusaders.
Even if Montana puts in its second- or third-string players, Stitt wants all players at their A game at all times.
“We had games last year that were lopsided, (and) we got really, really sloppy when that happened. We put in backups and it got very, very sloppy,” Stitt said. “Coming out of halftime, you've gotta be able to focus and I'm not saying that any of that is gonna happen, you don't know what the score is gonna be like. We want to go out and play great football.”
Weather watch: The air quality in Missoula this week has been all over the map. The worst the air quality has been in the Garden City this week was Unhealthy. The health effects recommendation for Unhealthy air quality is to limit prolonged outdoor exertion. The projected high for Saturday is 96 degrees with low winds out of the southwest. The record high for Sept. 2 in Missoula is 96 degrees. That was set back in 1998.