Just as Rich Ellerson did before him, current Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh called Montana’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium the loudest environment he’s ever experienced.
Whereas Ellerson was a former Pac-12 assistant, Walsh has been in many of those same concrete bowls of humanity in his three decades as a coach, and the 24,000 people in Missoula every Saturday top them all.
“I’ve coached at a lot of places,” said Walsh, whose Mustangs take on the 10th-ranked Grizzlies on Saturday, “at Oregon, at Oregon State, at Fresno State, at Georgia Tech, Boston College. It’s the loudest place I’ve ever coached in. And the fans get how to do it. That’s the thing that makes it really impressive. Their fans help them win.”
And despite the Mustangs’ 1-9 record all-time in Missoula, players are excited to once again be in one of the premier atmospheres in the entire FCS.
“Just don’t be overwhelmed by the intensity,” third-year punter Paul Hundley said. “We even feed off the intensity of the crowd. It’s a game we can get excited for. My freshman year, I loved it. A lot of guys do, too.”
Walsh has felt the sting. He recalled a game with Portland State where a crucial third-down, false-start penalty in the noise at Montana led to the Grizzlies getting the ball back and making a game-winning scoring drive with only seconds remaining.
So, it stood to reason the two audio speakers propped up playing music on the offensive end of the field would be a poor substitute at Tuesday’s practice at the Sports Complex.
Then Mother Nature stepped in.
Wind was the ultimate nullifier Tuesday, whipping through the turf practice field and drowning out coaches’ calls as well as the music and everything else.
Most of what was heard was a rush of white noise that knocked down passes just as easily as it scrambled the sounds waves coming from Walsh’s whistle.
Starting quarterback Dano Graves and backup Tanner Trosin found it tough to gauge the wind well enough to complete many passes.
True, leading receiver Willie Tucker is now officially lost for the season with a knee sprain, but even if healthy, Tucker would have been at a loss himself.
Still, the wind was probably the best thing Walsh could have hoped for heading into this week.
Imagine the sound of practice being held from inside the bag of an old vacuum cleaner. It made things a lot more difficult than blaring music could have.
“You’ve got to be able to communicate,” Walsh said. “The defense and offense, too. As windy as it is, it’s an element. We’re going to be playing in an element on Saturday. I think it helps, to be honest with you.”
Many of the current Cal Poly contributors were with the team for the last trip to Missoula in 2011. Montana used a dominant second half to cruise to a 37-23 victory. It was not wholly unlike a 2009 game where the Grizzlies erased a first-half deficit for a 35-23 win in Wa-Griz.
The stakes are higher for this matchup. The Mustangs (3-3, 2-0 Big Sky Conference) were still in the Great West Conference for the previous games.
This time, the programs are fighting for position in the Big Sky standings, and Cal Poly will have a chance to go two games up on Montana (5-1, 1-1 Big Sky) with a victory.
Coming off a rare losing season, the Grizzlies appear to be back among the top teams in the country.
Montana holds records for most consecutive playoff appearances (17) and consecutive Big Sky titles (12) and has been to the FCS title game seven times since 1995.
The winning feeling is back in Montana, and the stats are backing that up.
The Grizzlies rank in the top 10 nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense, racking up an average of 40.8 points per game and allowing just 17.5.
“I knew they were going to be good this year,” Walsh said. “Last year, I thought they were good on film. We didn’t play them, but they lost some close games and made some mistake that lost them some close games and cost them an opportunity to play for a championship. They’re playing with a chip on their shoulder this year because of it. You can see it.”