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Sports >  NCAA football

Big Sky notebook: Montana balances defense with offense to reach No. 2 ranking

Sept. 21, 2022 Updated Wed., Sept. 21, 2022 at 5:04 p.m.

Montana Grizzlies wide receiver Malik Flowers (19) runs the ball against EWU during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, Oct 2, 2021, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Montana Grizzlies wide receiver Malik Flowers (19) runs the ball against EWU during the first half of a college football game on Saturday, Oct 2, 2021, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Strong defensive play has become a hallmark of the Montana football program, which consistently ranks among the Big Sky’s best.

Through three games this season, that again has been the case, and Montana’s average of seven points allowed per game is the second best in all of the Football Championship Subdivision.

But unlike last year, the Grizzlies have paired that with an efficient offense this season.

That’s a big reason why Montana is 3-0 and ranked second nationally as the Grizzlies head into Big Sky play this weekend with a home game against Portland State at 1 p.m.

“Now that conference is about to start, we’re all ready to turn it up a notch and get going,” senior transfer quarterback Lucas Johnson said during the team’s weekly media availability on Monday.

The play of Johnson – who transferred from San Diego State during the offseason – is a significant reason for the team’s offensive improvement. He leads the Big Sky in passing efficiency (161.4) and passing touchdowns (eight), guiding an offense that is so far averaging 50 yards more per game than it did last season.

Montana’s three games have come by convincing scores – 47-0 over Northwestern State, 24-7 over South Dakota and 49-14 at Indiana State – and the Grizzlies have outgained each opponent by at least 152 yards. The Grizzlies are also plus-3 in turnover ratio and have recorded a conference-high 13 sacks. Senior linebacker Patrick O’Connell has five of those sacks after recording 14 last season.

“There are a lot of guys up front and in the secondary making plays that allow me to also make plays,” said O’Connell, who was named the most recent Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week. “I’m honored, but it’s kind of like a team award at the same time.”

Montana hosts Idaho (Oct. 15) and Eastern Washington (Nov. 12) later this season.

Wildcats aim to maintain momentum

As impressive as Montana has looked in its nonconference games, 12th-ranked Weber State has also dominated in three victories to start the season, outscoring its opponents by a combined score of 120-26. That includes the conference’s lone victory over an FBS team this year, a 35-7 win over Utah State of the Mountain West.

Weber State’s defensive scoring average of 8.7 points per game ranks third nationally, right behind Montana and the Ivy league’s Columbia, which allowed three points in its only game this season.

The Wildcats have received strong quarterback play from sophomore Bronson Barron, who has thrown for 722 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions.

On Saturday, Weber State will play at UC Davis; last year the Wildcats also opened Big Sky play against the Aggies but lost 17-14 in Ogden, Utah, a defeat that dropped them to 1-3 overall. UC Davis finished 8-3 last regular season and reached the playoffs; Weber State went 6-5 and did not.

Weber State has allowed just 59.3 rushing yards per game, fewest in the Big Sky. UC Davis is 1-2 this year with losses at Cal and second-ranked South Dakota State.

Eastern Washington travels to play Weber State in Ogden on Oct. 8. The Eagles won’t play UC Davis during the regular season.

Hornets prepare for CSU

Coming off a road win at Northern Iowa, seventh-ranked Sacramento State closes out its nonconference schedule Saturday at Colorado State. The Rams lost 38-7 at Washington State last weekend.

This will be the Hornets’ only FBS game this season. Last year, they drew close late against Cal with 10 fourth-quarter points in a 42-30 loss.

Like Montana State, Eastern Washington’s opponent this weekend, the Hornets use two quarterbacks. Jake Dunniway has attempted nearly four times as many passes (58) than Asher O’Hara (15), but the two have accounted for the majority of SSU’s rushing yards, with 430 between them through two games.

The Hornets are coached by Troy Taylor, who was EWU’s co-offensive coordinator for one season in 2016.

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