The Montana football team was brimming with confidence and ranked No. 12 in the country when Cal Poly came to Washington-Grizzly Stadium last September.
Upsetting defending national champion and top-ranked North Dakota State can have that effect on any team, and perhaps the Grizzlies overlooked a young Mustangs squad heading into Week 2.
The result was a stunning 20-19 loss, which proved to be the start of an up-and-down season in Missoula under head coach Bob Stitt that eventually ended in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
It’s a similar situation this week, with sixth-ranked Montana (2-0) coming off a road upset of No. 3 Northern Iowa, a legitimate national championship contender. The Griz had a bye week leading up to their trip to San Luis Obispo, and Stitt said he expects to face “quite a challenge” when the two teams meet at 12:05 p.m. Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
“Coming off a big win at Northern Iowa, you’ve got to be able to bounce back mentally and get ready for another big game,” Stitt said Wednesday morning. “We didn’t do a great job with that last year.”
Nearly half of Montana’s roster is comprised of new players as Stitt brought in one of the largest recruiting classes in program history, including 23 high school seniors and eight college transfers. The goal being to rebuild the Griz roster in a way that best suits Stitt’s single-back, up-tempo offense that was highly successful during his long tenure at Division II Colorado School of Mines.
The good news for Montana fans is fifth-year senior quarterback Brady Gustafson is back and appears to have fully recovered from the broken leg that sidelined him for six games a year ago.
A 6-foot-7, 235-pound signal caller and NFL prospect, Gustafson is still establishing chemistry with a group of new-look wide receivers now that all-conference standouts Jamaal Jones, Ellis Henderson and Ben Roberts have moved on.
Through the first two games, Gustafson has thrown for 471 yards and four touchdowns while completing 57.5 percent of his passes. Speedy redshirt freshman Jerry Louie-McGee has emerged as Gustafson’s favorite target — 11 receptions for 93 yards — and his 81-yard punt return for a touchdown was one of the key plays in Montana’s win over Northern Iowa.
“We’ve got some really talented receivers,” Stitt said. “They just don’t have a lot of experience.”
The same can be said for the Griz defense, which returned three starters from 2015 and is working under a new defensive coordinator in Jason Semore. So far, the group has exceeded preseason expectations.
Montana, the only team in the Big Sky that hasn’t played three games, leads the conference in total defense with 302 yards allowed per game, and ranks second in scoring defense (22.5 points), rushing defense (113.0) and passing defense (189.0).
However, facing Cal Poly’s unorthodox triple-option offense presents an entirely different challenge, and Stitt said he was grateful to have an extra week to prepare for the Mustangs (2-1).
He believes the Griz’s team speed will help neutralize some of Cal Poly’s explosive perimeter plays, which were largely effective last week during its upset of then-No. 9 South Dakota State.
“Still, stopping the triple option, if you’re not confident in what you’re doing and what your read is, then the team speed goes out the window,” Stitt said. “We’ve got to be able to react and go.”
Week 4: Cal Poly Mustangs Football
Who: Cal Poly Mustangs vs. Montana
When: 12:05 p.m. Saturday
Where: Alex G. Spanos Stadium
Radio: ESPN 1280