MISSOULA — The Montana football team will shoot for its first 3-0 start since 2013 when it begins Big Sky Conference play by hosting Cal Poly at 1 p.m. Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The contest between decorated coaches Bobby Hauck and Beau Baldwin has some minor potential to be a trap game for the Griz ahead of their nationally-televised game at Eastern Washington next week. UM is 2-0 and ranked No. 4, while Cal Poly is 1-2 in Baldwin’s first full season as he transitions the Mustangs from a triple-option offense to a spread passing team.
UM will try to reverse the trend of its recent struggles coming off regular-season bye weeks. Hauck is 7-6 as a head coach, including 6-3 at UM, but is 1-5 in his past six instances. The Grizzlies’ last win coming off a regular-season bye week was 2015.
Here are five things to watch in the game:
UM has struggled converting third downs, picking up just eight first downs on 25 attempts. That places the Griz 11th out of 13 in the Big Sky and 79th out of 123 in the FCS. They should have a better chance against a Cal Poly defense that’s allowing teams to convert third downs at a 50% clip. Improve that efficiency, and it’s a sign of growth for the offense. Struggle against a porous defense, and it may lead to angst about the offense possibly holding back a dominant defensive squad. However, success on first and second downs might mean few third-down opportunities.
UM turned the ball over four times in the win over Western Illinois after a clean sheet against Washington. While the offense showed growth in that game, turnovers could be a killer for the Griz when they face higher-caliber teams, especially when facing an offense capable of converting those into points. The defense bailed them out by forcing three turnovers, but it left UM with a minus-1 margin for the game, plus-2 for the year; Cal Poly is plus-1. UM faces some uncertainty with Cal Poly missing its starting QB, but it may be able to rattle the younger QBs in a new offense.
UM will have an opportunity to establish the run against a Cal Poly team allowing 241.3 rushing yards per game, which is last in the Big Sky. The Griz relied on true freshmen Isiah Childs and Junior Bergen last week. True freshman Xavier Harris flashed in the opener before he came up limping and sat out the past game. Whether or not he returns this week, the Griz will likely be relying on a mix of them until they potentially get back Marcus Knight and/or Nick Ostmo later in the season. It’s another chance for one or more to step up and show they can be trusted.
UM has yet to break off the type of field-flipping special teams return that has been common under Hauck. Malik Flowers, who has three career kickoff return TDs, has the longest kick return this season at 30 yards and is averaging 24.3 yards on three returns. Gabe Sulser, who broke off some big punt returns in the spring, has the longest punt return at 27 yards and is averaging 18.8 yards on four returns. Conversely, Cal Poly has two of the top six players in the Big Sky for yards per kickoff return. Lepi Lataimua is sixth at 21.6 yards, while Adam Garwood is fourth with 23.3 yards.
A fast start to the game by UM will eliminate any thoughts the Mustangs have of pulling off a monumental upset. It’ll also be a sign of improvement for the Griz. They’ve gotten off to slow starts, being outscored 86-85 in the first quarter since the start of 2019. It’s by far their lowest point total of any quarter in that stretch and the only one in which they’ve been outscored. UM should be able to dig itself out of a hole against Cal Poly if such a situation happens. But that may not be as feasible against tougher competition, especially next week on the road at EWU.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.