Northern Arizona proved that Montana can be beaten.
But the Lumberjacks didn’t exactly hand the Cal Poly football team a by-the-numbers blueprint to toppling the 10th-ranked Grizzlies, who have looked near invincible in every other game this season.
In Northern Arizona’s 34-16 victory over Montana (5-1, 2-1 Big Sky Conference) three weeks ago, the Grizzlies gave away two touchdowns on turnovers.
The Lumberjacks brought back fumble returns of 98 and 22 yards for scores while building a 28-3 third-quarter lead. A third Montana fumble gave Northern Arizona possession at midfield and set up a 10-yard touchdown run five plays later.
Coming into today’s 12:30 p.m. showdown in Missoula, Mont., which is scheduled to be televised locally on FOX, the Mustangs (3-3, 2-0 Big Sky) can’t count on similar breaks.
“Uncharacteristically, they turned the ball over,” said Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh, who said he’s watched the Northern Arizona-Montana film repeatedly. “And if you look at the things Montana traditionally does, that’s not one of them.
“They took advantage of the opportunities Montana presented that they caused, but I’m sure those are things that they’re working hard on to not do ever again. ... and I think they came back to show people that they moved over it. They got back to the basics of who they are.”
The Mustangs’ most recent loss came in a game where they similarly turned the ball over and made crucial mistakes in a 24-10 home loss to Yale that rankled players and coaches much more than the defeats against FBS foes Fresno State and Colorado State.
After the loss to Yale, Cal Poly bounced back with an inspired 47-0 effort against lowly Weber State, which has allowed the most points in Division I college football but had yet to be shut out this season.
Much like Montana has bounced back from its loss with blowout victories over Portland State and UC Davis, the Mustangs have shrugged off the loss to Yale and go into Washington-Grizzly Stadium feeling confident.
“They understand how to make adjustments probably as well as anyone in the country,” Montana head coach Mick Delaney said. “They know how to do it, and they do it very well. They have so many variations of triple option that it’s a very difficult offense to defend.”
Delaney bemoaned the short amount of time his team had to prepare for an offense unlike any other it has faced all season.
The Grizzlies also have a dearth of information to study on Cal Poly quarterback Dano Graves, who made his first collegiate start against Weber State, ran for more than 100 yards and accounted for three touchdowns.
The sophomore Air Force transfer flashed the talent that won Folsom High the 2010 CIF Division 3 state title against the Wildcats. A tougher test against Montana will give a better clue about Graves’ ability to be a consistent threat at the FCS level.
But the game still may come down to the performance of the Grizzlies.
While Graves was splitting time for the Air Force prep school in 2011 after setting the California state high school record for touchdowns, Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson was having a breakout college season, scoring particular success against Cal Poly.
That season, the last time the two teams met before today, Cal Poly held a 17-10 halftime lead in Missoula before being outscored 23-6 in the second half.
Johnson finished with 240 passing yards and picked apart a worn-down Mustangs defense with ease in the second half, throwing two touchdown passes and producing two two-point conversions.
“We’re a different line than we were back then,” Cal Poly senior defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz said, “but I think pressure’s going to be important once again this week.”
That’s something that has been tough for the Mustangs to generate. After Grosz picked up a couple of sacks in the season opener against San Diego, Cal Poly didn’t record another one until facing Weber State, when Grosz got another 1 1⁄2.
Perhaps the Mustangs won’t need sacks to beat Johnson, but they can’t let him sit back in the pocket and carve them up either.
“All the other games,” Grosz said, “there were times when me and few other D-linemen get pressure on the quarterback, but he just throws it away quickly. It’s going to happen. You can’t really go into a game saying, ‘I’m going to get sacks’ because then it’s not going to happen, and you’ll be too worried about it. Then you’ll mess up on your other responsibilities.”