FCS Champions Prepare for Hostile Environment in Missoula

The four-time defending Football Championship Subdivision winners open the season Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium

By DAVE KOLPACK, Associated Press
Whitefish native and Montana Grizzlies defensive end Derek Crittenden. Courtesy Montana Sports Information

FARGO, N.D. — In their short life as a Division I football program, the North Dakota State Bison have notched signature wins on the road at Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Colorado State and Minnesota. Bison coach Chris Klieman says none of those places is as intimidating as the University of Montana’s home field.

Even when the air is clear.

The four-time defending Football Championship Subdivision winners open the season Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in front of what Klieman calls “27,000 sitting on that mountain” in Missoula, where the first D-I game of the season is expected to go on even though the air quality on Friday was rated “very unhealthy” because of forest fires in the region.

The Grizzlies rarely lose at home, where they have won 89 percent of their games and were 7-0 last season.

“We’re going to be under a lot of fire,” Klieman said, referring to the game and not the smoke. “We’re going to learn an awful lot about our guys, especially our young guys.”

Joe Glenn, the University of South Dakota coach who led Montana to a national title in 2001, said Missoula is one of college football’s loudest environments, and being “locked in a canyon” can be difficult for visiting teams.

“You’re right in Hellgate Canyon,” Glenn said. “There’s a great big mountain on one side, big buildings around you. And then there’s no track and the stadium is really pitched high. They’re right there on top of you and there’s nowhere for the voices to go but off the walls and off the canyon walls and off Mount Sentinel. And they’re into it. They’ve got it figured out how to make it noisy when you come to the line of scrimmage. They’re just well-educated fans. It’s a great home-field advantage.”

The Bison will counter with one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Carson Wentz, who in his first game as a starter last year found his team down 14-0 to Iowa State. He proceeded to help the Bison score 34 straight points to win going away.

“I think Carson reacted pretty well last year, even down 14-0, but who’s going to be that next guy?” Klieman asked. “Who’s going to be the guy that we say, wow, that guy really answered the bell.”

Wentz threw for 3,111 yards and 25 touchdowns last season and was the team’s second-leading rusher with 642 yards and six TDs. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. lists him as the third-rated senior quarterback in all of college football.

The Bison have piped artificial noise into their practice sessions in an attempt to prepare Wentz and an experienced offense for the crowd, which will also be amped up because the game is on ESPN.

“We have a lot of weapons,” Wentz said. “It’s a good test for us to go out there and compete with those guys, to measure up and see where we’re at.”

The Bison have several newcomers in the starting lineup on defense, but first-year Montana coach Bob Stitt isn’t expecting much of a drop off.

“You don’t win four national championships in a row not being able to reload at some time,” Stitt said. “We’re going to find out real quick how good we are.”

The Bison, who have 58 victories in the last four years, rode a school-record five field goals by Adam Keller to a 22-10 win over Montana last season in Fargo.

“There’s one thing in this profession, I think, and especially at NDSU, I try to make sure our coaches and our players don’t take any wins for granted,” Klieman said. “Wins are hard to get in college football.”

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