Big Sky Capsules: Montana Grizzlies
RECORD LAST SEASON: 7-4 OVERALL, 5-3 IN BIG SKY CONFERENCE PLAY
2018 NON-CONFERENCE RECORD: 2-1
FIRST CONFERENCE GAME: Sacramento State at Montana, 1 pm Saturday, Sept. 20
Big question: Does Bobby Hauck still have it?
Hauck’s return has dominated the Big Sky conversation since his re-hiring was announced last December.
It’s tough to overstate how much Hauck’s teams ran through the Big Sky during his first go-round at Montana, but seven straight conference titles and six Big Sky losses in seven years speak for themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, Hauck’s teams won 31 of 32 conference contests. UM advanced to the FCS national championship game in 2004, 2008 and 2009.
Back then, the Grizzlies were tough, physical and always seemed to win close games. Maybe it was luck, maybe it was the aura of the Griz, maybe it was something else – but Hauck’s teams always seemed to come out on top. The Grizzlies were usually the most talented team in the league those years, but no one’s really been able to explain why they won so much beyond clichés like “They just wanted it more.”
It’s nearly a decade later now and the Big Sky Conference has changed in many ways, from the 2012 absorbing of the Great West quartet of North Dakota, Southern Utah, Cal Poly and UC Davis to an unbalanced eight-game schedule in a 13-team league to the influx of coaching talent the league has incurred the last 10 years. But the consensus seems to be that Hauck hasn’t. Montana fans want their glory days back. If Hauck returns as the best coach in the league and he still has that magic, the Griz could be closer than anybody thinks.
“The league hasn’t changed much,” Hauck said at the Big Sky Kickoff in July. “Southern Utah, we’ve played before. Cal Poly we played every year. Davis we played. The newcomer is Idaho but historically, we have a lot of familiarity with them as well. Real familiar.”
The returns early don’t tell much. Montana rode the momentum of Hauck’s return to 26 first-half points before hanging on for a 26-23 win in its opener over No. 13 Northern Iowa. The following week, UM needed 31 points in the final 15:44 to beat FCS non-scholarship Drake 48-16. Last week, Montana rallied from a 14-0 deficit to take a lead into halftime at Western Illinois only to give up a punt return touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the last six minutes to Steve McShane in a 31-27 loss.
Offensive Player to Watch: Dalton Sneed, QB
Because of injuries and struggles, the Montana Grizzlies haven’t had much stability under center in recent years. Sneed is the seventh starting quarterback to take snaps for the Griz in just three seasons.
The former UNLV starter transferred to Montana from Fort Scott CC and has shown natural leadership qualities, an ability to throw while rolling out to both sides and elusiveness in the run game through three starts. He’s a dynamic runner who can both gain yards with his legs and get outside the pocket to buy time for his receivers. He has a strong arm, but started off inconsistent with his throws.
Sneed’s accuracy has gotten much better since arriving on the UM campus, although he can still miss easy throws and occasionally stares down his receivers. All accounts are that he’s a natural leader who would be fine with the pressure of being the starting quarterback at Montana. He’s showed that in three starts as well.
Sneed crafted a signature play to cap UM’s first drive of the season by scoring a 16-yard touchdown and celebrating in front of the student section at Washington-Grizzly Stadium as the sellout crowd erupted. Since then, Sneed has done his best to operate a lopsided attack that has struggled to run the ball between the tackles. Sneed enters his first Big Sky game averaging 252 passing yards per game. He’s thrown five touchdowns and scored two more on the ground.
Defensive Player to Watch: Josh Buss, LB
Buss’s health was one of the biggest unknowns for Montana entering the season. The Preseason Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and preseason All-American was one of the best linebackers in the country last season with 94 tackles and 5.5 sacks, both top-10 numbers in the Big Sky Conference. He’s a star, and the kind of player who can stabilize an entire defense.
But Buss sat out all of spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery, before Skyline Sports reported over the summer that he had also suffered a torn pectoral in summer workouts. He missed most of fall camp while Hauck expressed pessimism about his return for the opener against Northern Iowa. Buss started that game and played about half the defensive snaps. His playing time has increased steadily each of the last three weeks and so has his production. He has 13 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks so far this fall.
Head coach Bobby Hauck on his team’s 2018 schedule: “I think the Northern Iowa game is interesting to open,” Hauck said. “They finished probably 15 spots ahead of us or something last year, maybe more. And then the first league game against Sac State, I think Jody (Sears) has done a great job there. I have a high regard for them and their quarterback Kevin Thomson. He’s a dynamic player. He was actually one of our players at UNLV. Recruited him, coached him there, probably should have played him as a true freshman in hindsight.
“Going into the end of the season, you want to be playing your best football in November. That’s always what you want to be doing. That was sort of a hallmark of our former teams here that we played our best football down the stretch. It would not be my preference to play our two oldest rivals in consecutive weeks (Idaho, Montana State to cap the season). That’s not common when you look at teams around the country, whether it’s Washington-Oregon and Washington-Washington State or if it’s Florida-Georgia or Florida-Florida State or whatever the case may be, they don’t often play in consecutive weeks. I hope that’s something that changes down the road where we play those games farther apart.”