MISSOULA — Montana and Southern Utah will play each other for the final time as members of the Big Sky on Saturday.
The Thunderbirds are leaving for the relaunched Western Athletic Conference next season. The Griz (5-2, 2-2), a charter member of the Big Sky in 1963, will host SUU (1-7, 0-5) at noon Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.
Southern Utah beat writer Sean Ellertson, who covers the Thunderbirds and Dixie State for the The Spectrum newspaper, sat down with 406mtsports.com to share his insight into SUU.
Q: What’s the vibe around this team at 1-7, and what’s their motivation, what are they still playing for?
A: "I think the vibe around the team is still relatively positive. Obviously, you don't want to be 1-7, but this is a younger team. All of their major contributors on offense are all sophomores: starting QB, top two running backs and top two wide receivers. I think they and the coaching staff know that better things are ahead for that group specifically. They're still playing and learning, and as they continue to grow as a group, it could be pretty good."
Q: Why has Southern Utah been on the losing end of some blowouts after losing five games in the spring by just a combined 15 points?
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A: "The quality of competition has been better, I think, especially when you look at playing San Jose State and Arizona State. Eastern Washington is always a good FCS program. Portland State has a quality team, too. The Vikings pulled ahead in the fourth quarter against SUU in what was a defensive struggle. The Thunderbirds' one win, against Tarleton State, is a good win. That's a talented offensive team, and they were able to match them. This past weekend, the offense just couldn't capitalize on great chances."
Q: What have been the biggest surprises on both sides of the ball?
A: "The biggest suprise on offense has been wide receiver Ethan Bolingbroke. He's been on fire for four straight weeks now after a couple of guys above him on the depth chart went down. On defense, cornerback Kobe Singleton has been solid as a freshman. A pair of interceptions, and he's made an impact after not seeing any playing time in the spring. He also has good size for a corner at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds."
Q: What are still the biggest question marks for this team?
A: "I think the biggest question mark going forward is how will they develop. A lot of their top impact players are younger. Being more consistent and showing signs of improvement, I think, are going to be looked at more than actual results for the rest of the year. Tangible improvements that show this team is moving in the right direction."
Q: What’s your score prediction for this game, and why?
A: "The first thing that jumps out is the stinginess of the Griz defense. They've been lights out essentially all year long, and after Southern Utah's offense was unable to convert on a few chances last week, that doesn't bode well for SUU. However, the passing attack did have a good day on Saturday. Montana had a bounce-back week on both sides of the ball against Idaho, and I think they'll keep that positive momentum going. 37-17."
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.