Why is Montana Opening With Western State?

By Beacon Staff

Eight-and-a-half months after the Grizzlies lost to Richmond in the Football Championship Subdivision National Championship game, it’s finally time for University of Montana football.

And this week, on the west sideline of a packed Washington-Grizzly Stadium, we will welcome the Crimson and Slate-clad Mountaineers of Western State.

No, the Montana insurance company doesn’t have a team – although with Brad Salonen working for them up here in the Flathead and in even better shape than when he played at UM, it might field a representative group.

This is Western State College of Colorado that will hop a bus in Gunnison on Sept. 3, travel more than 900 miles from south of Denver, and head for the confines of Big Sky Country to face the Grizzlies for the first time.

There’s not much doubt it will be a tall order for the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (Division II) team that opened its season at home against Fort Hays State.

While they return 16 starters and 27 letter winners from last season’s 2-8 team, the Mountaineers haven’t advanced to the postseason since 1997 and, with few skill players returning, they will depend on their defense to remain competitive, especially until they find a starting quarterback to run a spread offense and replace two-year starter Cameron Merill, who graduated.

Some ask why Montana would open the season against an obviously inferior program that plays opponents such as Nebraska-Kearney, New Mexico Highlands, Adams State and Chadron State.

Chadron State?

Yes, that Chadron State. You know the one that defeated Montana State University in Bozeman in 2006 after the Bobcats had beaten Colorado the previous week.

But I digress. So again, what are the merits of facing off against D-II opponents at any time, let alone for the home season opener?

For one thing, you have to play somebody other than the league schedule in Missoula, and given the team’s success at Washington-Grizzly Stadium (147-20) and the economics of team travel, it is getting increasingly more difficult to find an opponent.

But put the business of athletics aside and subscribe to former head coach Don Read’s (85-36) scheduling philosophy.

The purpose of non-league encounters is to keep your team as healthy as possible for league play and develop depth for the future, which you realize in college football, can be the next play.

And then there’s always that surprise team as evidence of Chadron State, or D-II South Dakota State in 1993.

The Grizzlies trailed 35-7 in the third quarter before sophomore quarterback Dave Dickenson engineered the biggest comeback in FCS history, leading Montana to a 52-48 victory.

Don basically inherited Larry Donovan’s schedule when he took the coaching reins in 1986 and ’87, but it didn’t take long before he dotted the schedule with such opponents as Eastern New Mexico in ’88 and ’89, South Dakota State in ’88, Thomas More in 1990 and Humbolt State in ’91.

Now the Read schedule wasn’t all patsies.

He took his 1989 team to Fresno State, won at Oregon State, lost two games in seven days at Louisiana Tech and McNeese State and fell at Washington State and Kansas State in ’92. But more often than not, to balance the “money” games that a program really needs to balance the budget, facing Sonoma State and Carson-Newman at home in 1994 before traveling to Denton and defeating North Texas at the start of an 11-3 national semi-final run would be his best-case scenario.

You can make the argument that a tougher schedule prepares a team for the eventuality of a tough league matchup or a postseason opponent, but it’s hard to criticize UM’s unprecedented league and playoff appearance success.

While I’m anxiously anticipating the trip to Boone, N.C. to play Appalachian State in three years, and another chance to head to Lake Charles, La. to meet McNeese State, I’ve always done my game prep with this in mind: Respect all opponents and fear none.

So a cordial welcome to our Colorado friends and enjoy the best venue in FCS football.

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