MISSOULA — Air Sneed One experienced turbulence when Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed decided to hurdle a player at the goal line and ended up on his back during the Grizzlies’ win over Idaho State on Saturday.
“I’m not sliding at the goal line,” Sneed said about scoring the 2-yard touchdown run as part of his performance that included 464 yards of total offense and four touchdowns, which earned him honors as the STATS FCS national offensive player of the week and the Big Sky Conference offensive player of the week, the latter for the third consecutive time.
“When I have an opportunity to get in there, I’m going to do it at all costs. Just found a way to get in.”
That attitude in relation to getting the tough yards can apply to the team at large because Montana’s play in short-yardage situations has been nothing short of impressive so far.
Short-yardage plays, for purposes of a Missoulian analysis of play-by-play data, are third and fourth downs with 1 or 2 yards to go, and plays within 2 yards of the opposing team’s end zone. Snaps that resulted in a “no play” because of penalties or an intentional knee are excluded.
The eighth-ranked Griz have converted 80.6% of their short-yardage plays through six games. It’s a sizable jump from the 44.4% they posted in 11 games in 2018, which was down from 68.9% in 2017 under former coach Bob Stitt.
Montana coach Bobby Hauck has said the offensive line is key in winning short-yardage situations. The jump in conversion percentage is one way to measure the improvement of the group, which has more experience and depth and is striving to live up to the mantra of "DOLA," or Dominant Offensive Line Attitude, that’s been around Montana since the 1980s.
“I think we’re getting better,” Hauck said about the offensive line play in the week leading up to the win over Idaho State. “I think we’ve improved throughout the offseason, and then, I wouldn’t say each week because we didn’t play very well at Oregon, but we’ve improved through the season so far. So, through the first third to half of the season, it’s been better.”
Senior center Cy Sirmon has been a constant as he anchors the offensive line that’s helped Montana average 496.2 yards of offense, fifth most in the FCS. He’s started there all six games after he moved over from right guard in spring camp.
Senior left guard Angel Villanueva and junior left tackle Conlan Beaver have each started every game at those positions. Villanueva, who dropped nearly 40 pounds in the offseason, has gone down on the field multiple times but returned, while Beaver has split some reps with Dylan Cook.
Cook, a sophomore NAIA transfer, was awarded a scholarship during fall camp and has started the past three games at right tackle after apparently supplanting returning starter Colton Keintz. The two of them have split time there when Cook has moved to left tackle.
At right guard, junior college transfer Moses Mallory has started the past four games. Redshirt freshman Tyler Ganoung was there to begin the season, and junior college transfer Kordell Pillans has also seen time.
“I think they’re playing with more confidence, probably because they have a better understanding of the offense,” Hauck said. “We’re just going to keep playing a lot of bodies in that group, and everybody gives us a little bit something different, which helps.”
On the qualifying short-yardage plays, the Griz have converted 25 of 31 times in six games. Aside from the actual percentage, the number of conversions is significant in that Montana picked up just 24 of them in 2018 and needed 54 attempts across 11 games to do that.
With 1 yard to go, the Griz have gained the necessary yardage 83.3% (15 of 18) of the time compared to 51.7% (15 of 29) in 2018. When they needed 2 yards, they've gotten it 76.9% (10 of 13) of the time, more than double the 36% (9 of 25) they posted last year.
On the ground, Montana has converted 21 of 24 (87.5%) of its short-yardage runs. Sophomore Marcus Knight has been a go-to guy, picking up 12 of his 14 attempts. That’s already more conversions on fewer attempts than 2018 starter Adam Eastwood had in 11 games (9 of 16).
Sneed has improved his rushing stats in short-yardage situations. He’s picked up six conversions on seven attempts after getting just two out of 11 in 2018.
Through the air, the Griz have gained a first down on short-yardage plays four of seven times (57.1%). Two of Sneed’s passing conversions have gone to tight end Colin Bingham and one each to Knight and wide receiver Gabe Sulser.
Sneed noted that the play of the offensive line has been a crucial factor in the team's success. He had high praise for them after the win over then-No. 4 UC Davis, the first game this season the offensive line didn’t allow a sack, all the while paving the way for a balanced attack of 268 passing yards and 260 rushing yards.
“I think it’s probably their best game this season,” Sneed said. “Every game they’ve just gotten better and better. Now when we’re at third-and-1 or third-and-short, we can call a power-heavy run play and I trust our offensive line to go get that yard.
“They take pride. I use that term pride because that’s what they live for. They say, ‘Hey, when we get third-and-1, you give us a run play and we’re going to go get it for you,’ and that’s what they did.”