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Opponent Defense Preview: Montana Grrrrrrrizzlies

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Guys it’s football season!

NCAA Football: Montana at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Oh hey, didn’t see ya there.

I’ve been doing these defensive previews for what... five years now? And each year, my least favorite one to do is invariably for an FCS team. This isn’t a slight to the FCS — I don’t hate FCS teams, I just hate that there’s a neurotic amount of information available for FBS (especially Power 5) teams to the point where you could find out their 3rd string left guard’s 40 time from when he was 16, whereas for FCS teams there’s unfortunately a less psychotic amount of information available. It stinks, and FCS fans deserve better.

Plus, as a certified Dumb Distractible Moron, it’s very inconvenient. Add the COVID factor into the equation, and it’s even more so. Remember that the FCS postponed their season until last spring. The Montana schools modified theirs further, so the Griz’ 2021 spring season looked like this:

*ahem*

April 10th, 2021 vs THE Central Washington University: win, 59-3

April 17th, 2021 vs Portland State University: win, 48-7

Aaaaaand that’s it.

Even under normal circumstances, it’s tricky to do a substantial, informative FCS preview, particularly for a season opener. So today *rolling up sleeves*, I will just try my best. And any Montana fans who happen across this, I’m so sorry if I have any bad takes. Please correct anything as you see fit in the comments. But like... be nice preferably...

Personnel and What to Expect

Going just off the depth chart they released for Washington, they show a 3-3-5 as a presumed base — but we all know the dependability of depth charts to reflect what you’ll actually see on the field varies from team to team.

What does feel more dependable based on a depth chart glance is that there’s no position of youth. There’s two freshmen on the two-deeps, corner Autjoe Soe and safety Jaxon Lee, neither of whom are listed starters (although, again, that doesn’t necessarily mean too much without context) and who are only considered true freshmen due to the COVID year classification.

In fact, every listed starter other than nickel (and Washingtonian by birth) Nash Fouch is an upperclassman, and as a redshirt sophomore he too would be considered one were it not for the COVID year. Based on those implications, this shouldn’t be a team that makes mistakes or messes up.

One thing I always look for against FCS teams is simply the size differences. More often than not, it seems a major distinguishing factor between FBS and FCS rosters — especially up front — is FBS having the size advantage. It makes sense; there’s really just not that many 19 year-olds who are 300+ lbs and can move, so pretty much all who are that big and athletic will be snatched up by FBS schools just by default.

In their back seven/eight, Montana actually compares quite well size-wise. Their linebackers are all pretty much in the 225-235 range and, at 205 lbs, the aforementioned Fouch is bigger than any nickel Washington’s ever had (although, again, this detail of the depth chart might not be best taken at face value since his role likely blurs the lines between traditional nickel and safety). But on the defensive line, as is so often the case, is where the Griz start to lose relative size.

This is most prominent at nose tackle, where their two players who should be liberally rotated — junior Eli Alford and redshirt sophomore Alex Gubner — are both under 300 lbs. (Barely, at 290 and 294 respectively, but it still puts Montana’s defense in a difficult starting spot against FBS teams.)

So after spending the last 600 words on depth chart takeaways... to the tape!

All one instance of it in almost two years, that is.

First thing’s first: the depth chart doesn’t lie, they actually do do 3-3-5. Almost exclusively, in fact during their Portland State game.

What I love about their defense is that within 3-3-5 they line up in a diverse array of fronts and from there like to keep the offense guessing, both insofar as who will be the fourth man rushing the passer and where he’ll be coming from. Without actually tracking their blitz rate I can’t say for certain, but I didn’t feel like they were sending five+ guys all that much, electing instead to just keep the offensive line on their heels by disguising stunts and sources of pressure pre-snap.

From there, the whole front seven (or six, I suppose) just executes really well. They’re disciplined and do a good job keeping within their lanes even if that’s not the sexiest role — Portland State’s quarterback frustrated them at first by being a wiley mfer who manipulated the pass rush within the pocket and did a good job escaping when possible, but Montana’s line and linebackers adjusted well as the game went on.

This feels like a good time to mention some of those linebackers. All three starters are from Montana, including walk-on turned All-American Jace Lewis. Between him and multi-season veteran Patrick O’Connell, these guys hit hard and fundamentally really well. As a former rugby player who hates crappy football tackling, it’s *chef’s kiss*.

Their front six kind of reminds me of a hockey line and defensive pairing that’s played together for years, developing that chemistry where they move so fluidly together and are always in the right position based on what the guys around them are doing. It’s satisfying to watch, provided you’re not rooting for their opponents.

Beyond them, the secondary (and whichever linebackers are dropping back), exacerbate a quarterback’s woes by providing fantastic coverage.

Their strong safety is Gavin Robertson, who transferred from Arizona a few years ago and can lay a big hit at 215 lbs, while preseason All-Big Sky free safety Robby Hauck is around the ball more often than not. And of course there’s Fouch, who blends the role of nickel and safety together.

The only “bad” job I saw from the secondary was one single play. Unfortunately, it was a big one, where CB Corbin Walker got beat on a double move on the sideline for a 73 yard touchdown, and the defense was presumably in cover one so the safety couldn’t make it over in time to break anything up (couldn’t tell for sure because of the local broadcast camera work). Other than that, they held Portland State to 193 passing yards, which really was more like 120 passing yards if you take away that one high-yardage mistake.

Bottom Line

While Montana’s defensive line is a bit undersized by FBS standards, they’re quick and move so well as a unit together with the linebackers that I could actually see Washington having a bit of an annoying time with them. I for one will be paying attention to Julius Buelow in particular, as he’s starting for the first time at left guard and it’ll be interesting to see if he struggles at first with getting protection responsibilities right.

Not coincidentally, I think Dylan Morris’ legs and poise will be an asset — not so much for taking off as just manipulating the pocket and staying focused despite Montana’s brand of chaos up front. And again, ultimately Washington’s talent and size advantage should be apparent on the line, but the Griz’ trickiness and veteran understanding of their scheme should also make them a more difficult opponent here than other FCS teams.

If I were a gambler I’d say this defense could actually put up a better fight than some of UW’s FBS opponents this year. I sound like a broken record but they really are just so in unison and fundamentally sound — more than you can say for a bunch of defenses that otherwise have stacked talent coming out the wazoo (no pun intended considering Wazzu does more with less, talent level-wise) *coughUSCcough*.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.