Bob Stitt’s anticipated head coaching debut at Montana exceeded expectations and shined a bright light on both the FCS and Big Sky Conference.
A record crowd filled Washington-Grizzly Stadium to watch the Grizzlies secure a come-from-behind victory against four-time defending national champion North Dakota State during college football’s opening weekend.
Among those watching the nationally televised ESPN broadcast was the Cal Poly football team, which has spent the past month in training camp with an eye toward Saturday’s 6:05 p.m. season opener in Missoula.
“In terms of the FCS,” Mustangs center Stephen Sippel said, “it’s probably one of the best environments you can play in.”
Montana’s upset victory set the tone for an already intriguing Cal Poly season that features six straight games against top-25 opponents. The Grizzlies (1-0) have beaten the Mustangs in 11 of 12 meetings in Missoula, needing overtime to hold off Cal Poly during its previous visit in 2013.
Senior quarterback Chris Brown was the main catalyst in the Mustangs’ 41-21 victory last season. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Brown rushed for 226 yards — a school record for a quarterback — and scored two touchdowns. He also completed nine passes for 107 yards and another score.
Stitt said he and his eight new assistant coaches have been preparing for Cal Poly’s triple-option offense before this week. He said the challenge Saturday will be preventing the Mustangs from sustaining long drives capable of consuming big chunks of time off the clock.
“I like our matchups personnel-wise against those guys,” said Stitt, who spent the past 15 seasons coaching at Division II Colorado School of the Mines. “But we’ve got to do the job on the defensive side or our offense isn’t going to be very effective.”
Cal Poly has established one of the most consistent running offenses in the FCS during the past three seasons.
Averaging more than 351 rushing yards per game last fall — the No. 1 mark in the country — the Mustangs ran their way to 4,221 yards 44 touchdowns to break the school and conference records in both categories.
Cal Poly also led the nation in rushing in 2013, piling up more than 309 yards per game, and finish third in 2012.
Head coach Tim Walsh said two things stood out when he watched film of Montana’s season opener.
The Grizzlies did some good things on offense in order to score 38 points and tally nearly 550 yards against the Bison. Walsh was equally impressed with Montana’s defensive effort after halftime, when it limited North Dakota State to one touchdown.
While a lot has been made nationally of Stitt’s fly sweep, high-paced offense — the Grizzlies ran 92 plays against the Bison — Walsh said that isn’t something he’s concerned with, noting Cal Poly ran 108 plays a few years ago.
“We could care less how many plays they run,” the seventh-year head coach said. “If they run 92 plays, that’s the way it goes. We don’t want them to because we want to get off the field. But the reality is our players will be ready for as many plays as they need to be ready for.”
Saturday will be the first opportunity to see what life after standout linebackers Nick Dzubnar and Cameron Ontko looks like for the Mustangs defense. Eight starters on the preseason depth chart played in all 12 games last fall, as did key reserve Josh Letuligasenoa.
Senior cornerbacks Karlton Dennis and Chris Fletcher were each 12-game starters in 2014, and both players figure to be busy while trying to keep Montana’s talented receiving tandem of Jamaal Jones and Ellis Henderson in check.
Jones and Henderson combined to catch 15 passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns against North Dakota State, helping take some of the pressure off first-year starting quarterback Brady Gustafson.
When asked what he remembered from last year’s win against the Grizzlies, Dennis’ response was pointed.
“They didn’t take one play off and we didn’t let up — not one play,” Dennis said. “That’s what it’s gonna take to beat them again.”