2017 Battle in the Big Sky: College Football Preview

The Montana Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats are ready to hit the field for the new college football season

By Dillon Tabish
Bobcat Stadium. Courtesy Kelly Gorham | Montana State University

Bobcats Look for Bounce-Back Season

Montana State boasts versatile quarterback and young squad hoping to regain playoff form

Head coach Jeff Choate’s inaugural season in Bozeman ended on a high note. A year ago, the Montana State Bobcats won their final two regular-season games, including a spoiler-role victory over Montana, 24-17, that nailed the door shut on the Grizzlies’ playoff hopes.

But the pleasantries dry up after that. Last season produced far more pain than pleasure for Cats’ fans. MSU ended the season 4-7 overall and 2-6 in the Big Sky Conference and missed out on the FCS playoffs.

Eager for a fresh start, the Bobcats enter the 2017 campaign looking to rebuild from a similar position as its in-state rival in Missoula: left out of the national preseason rankings and in the middle of the pack in the conference preseason polls.

MSU has several new faces filling key roles along with a few familiar ones, including the team’s lone preseason all-conference selection, Mac Bignell. The senior from Drummond had 97 tackles at linebacker a year ago, and is moving from strong to weak side this fall. His eight career forced fumbles is tied for first all-time in MSU history.

Chris Murray is retaking the starting role at quarterback a year after emerging as the team’s versatile yet sometimes erratic signal caller. Murray started five games last season and rushed for 860 yards and 12 touchdowns, the most ever for a Bobcat freshman. But the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder completed only 45 percent of his passes and had eight interceptions with six throwing TDs. He was selected as a Freshman All-America and Big Sky Freshman of the Year.

In the team’s first scrimmage last weekend, Murray showed noteworthy growth, completing 10 of 13 passes and connecting on two TDs.

“I think he still has a tremendously long way to go to be the finished product that we would like him to be and that he wants to be,” Choate said of Murray in a media release from the Montana State University Sports Information department.

“But you can see the growth. The ball’s coming out, it looks like he’s throwing it with authority, he’s making more quick decisions, even when he’s escaping the pocket those things aren’t taking quite as long. It’s a continuous process with him, and we’ll be as good as he allows us to be, because I do think we have some pieces around him.”

Murray has an experienced offensive line protecting him, which will give the speedy QB some room to show off his legs.

Murray also has a pair of veteran weapons by his side. Senior receiver Mitchell Herbert caught three passes for 93 yards in the first team scrimmage and junior tight end Conner Sullivan caught a pair of touchdowns, performances that showcased two playmakers who will lead the Bobcat offense this fall.

Last season, Montana State averaged 25.6 points per game but allowed opponents to score an average of 25.1. Also of note, the team was outscored in the fourth quarters by a season total of 68-50.

The defensive line looks to be a significant strength for MSU this season, as six players with starting experience are returning, including 22-game starter Grant Collins at the Buck position, a hybrid between defensive end and outside linebacker. Zach Wright started throughout 2016 at tackle, and Tucker Yates has started parts of the last two seasons at the nose, although that time was interrupted by injury.

No doubt, this is a young Bobcat squad, and Choate is sharpening their skills with intense practices. Choate said that managing the players’ physically is paramount, especially with 59 players in either their first or second year in the program.

“I feel really good about our ability to practice at a high tempo without beating each other up,” he said. “Obviously we have a limited roster at the FCS level, and one of the things I probably learned through last year’s experiences is how important it is to manage that roster through a long fall camp.”

Several local faces are among those talented young players fighting for playing time. Tadan Gilman, a recent Glacier High School graduate and true freshman in Bozeman, recorded a sack in the scrimmage. Logan Jones, another Glacier grad and a junior running back and returner, played in seven games last year and could see increased minutes this fall.

Former Glacier standout Brady McChesney is another Cat QB and completed three-of-seven passes for 25 yards with a touchdown in the scrimmage. Noah James, a 2014 Glacier grad and junior back, played in seven games a year ago and saw action in the scrimmage.

Luke May, a 2016 Whitefish graduate, transferred to MSU from Minnesota, where he threw the javelin, and now the former Bulldog quarterback is finding a niche with the Bobcats. He completed one of two passes for six yards last weekend while rushing for nine yards on one carry.

Choate says he sees a player whose toughness and versatility may allow him to contribute other than behind center.

“He’s athletic, and he’s tough,” Choate said. “We have him doing some stuff on special teams because he’s a good enough athlete. If he ends up traveling as a two quarterback or a two-and-a-half quarterback, however it plays out, he can do some things for us and help the team.”

Montana State kicks off the season in Pullman against Washington State on Sept. 2. The team’s home opener is Sept. 9 against South Dakota State.

Chris Murray. Courtesy Kelly Gorham | Montana State University

Players to Watch

Chris Murray     #8 | Sophomore | Quarterback

Excitement is surrounding the new starting quarterback for the Bobcats. The Inglewood, California, native took over the starting role midway through last season and set new freshman records for yards rushing (860) and touchdowns (12). While his running abilities shined, his passing prowess proved less effective. He completed 45 percent of his passes and had eight interceptions compared to six passing TDs. But the word out of Bozeman is that he spent the offseason focused solely on improving his passing abilities.

Grant Collins     #41 | Junior | Linebacker

Montana high school football fans likely remember Collins as a star defender for the undefeated state champion Hawks in 2013, and now the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder is a force for the Bobcats. He enters his junior year with 22 games under his belt and is poised for a monster season haunting opposing quarterbacks. A year ago, he had a season-high eight tackles against Montana.

Bryson McCabe     #10 | Senior | Safety

Head coach Jeff Choate must see something special in McCabe, a native of Spirit Lake, Iowa. McCabe is new to Bozeman, having transferred from Iowa Western Junior College, yet he was tabbed as one of the team’s four captains, alongside linebacker Mac Bignell, receiver Mitch Herbert and offensive tackle Dylan Mahoney. McCabe was originally a recruit at South Dakota State before transferring to Iowa, where he recorded 59 tackles and two interceptions a year ago.

Josh Sandry competes for a ball during practice. Courtesy Eric Taber | Grizzly Athletics

Griz Look to Defy Expectations

After missing the playoffs, Montana hopes to reload its fast-paced offense and regain Big Sky Conference dominance

When the Montana Grizzlies hit the football field last week for the first practices of the 2017 campaign, they found themselves in unfamiliar territory.

Unranked on the national stage and underestimated in the Big Sky Conference, this year’s Griz are striving to defy expectations. That includes third-year head coach Bob Stitt, whose tenure in Missoula has produced mixed results and could use a bounce-back season.

To recap: Last year was a rollercoaster ride of excitement and angst for the Grizzlies and their feverish fans. The team had one of the best scoring offenses in the conference, but a promising playoff run tumbled down the final stretch, as Montana went 1-4 and suffered a 24-17 defeat to Montana State. The late-season crash was made worse when the 24-team FCS postseason playoff bracket debuted with a notable exception. Once a national powerhouse, Montana — 3-5 in conference and 6-5 overall — found itself excluded from the playoffs for just the third time in 24 years.

As rough as last season was, it’s worth remembering that the team lost three of its five games by only seven or fewer points.

But the latest preseason polls reflect the hole — or at least the perceived hole — from which Montana must climb to reclaim its standing atop the Big Sky. The last time the Grizzlies were left off the national FCS Top 25 preseason poll was 1991, and the last time they were out of the top five in the Big Sky preseason rankings was well before any of this year’s squad was born.

Stitt, whose highly touted offensive style hyped up his arrival from the Division II ranks, has several talented players to fulfill his prophecy, including speedy running back Jeremy Calhoun and wide receiver Jerry Louie-McGee. The team returns eight starters on both offense and defense but graduated several key performers, such as defensive linemen Caleb Kidder and Ryan Johnson.

But the largest question mark — and the true factor that will decide the fate of Stitt’s fast-paced playbook — is the quarterback position, which is up for grabs following the graduation of Brady Gustafson.

The three players vying for the starter role are redshirt senior Reese Phillips, 6-foot-2, 206 pounds, junior Caleb Hill, 6-4, 205 pounds, and redshirt freshman Gresch Jensen, 6-2, 215 pounds.

Phillips, a University of Kentucky transfer, has emerged as the early frontrunner and has the most experience, albeit barely two years. Hill, a transfer from Blinn Junior College in Texas, where he was a team captain, is entering his first season at Montana and is also a strong candidate after a memorable spring scrimmage where he completed 15 of 27 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns.

“Each one of them should know they have a chance to be the guy,” Stitt said in a media release from the University of Montana Sports Information department.

“In every scrimmage we had, and in the spring game, each quarterback shined one time,” he added. “They all know they can do it; they just have to be more consistent, and that’s what we need out of the quarterback position. They don’t have to always make plays; they just have to be very, very consistent and put the ball where it needs to go.”

A familiar Flathead Valley player is making it difficult for the quarterbacks to get comfortable in fall practices so far.

Josh Sandry, a sophomore safety from Bigfork, is eliciting praise after another strong offseason in the weight room.

Sandry has emerged as a young leader for the Griz defense and is poised to play a huge role in the Montana secondary this fall as a starting strong safety. He’s just ahead of another local standout on the depth chart, Glacier High School graduate Evan Epperly, a junior.

Last season, Sandry played in 11 games, starting three, and recorded 30 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He shined in this year’s team scrimmage, tallying three interceptions and returning two for touchdowns. His momentous rise isn’t slowing down — he was the star of the Grizzlies’ opening practice last week, intercepting one of Phillips’ passes and returning it 50 yards for a TD.

“The quarterback got the safety moved, and he just made a heck of a play on the ball, and that’s what we want to see,” Stitt said of Sandry’s athleticism in a media release from the UM Sports Information department.

Sandry made another athletic leaping pass breakup later in practice to showcase his uncommon abilities.

“We put in a lot of work this summer, so to get out here with the guys and get the team back together felt awesome,” Sandry said. “We’re really excited. We’ve got a lot of dudes that can play defense. We’ve got good depth, I think, so to get out and play, I think we’re going to have a great season.”

Montana, which begins the season at home against Valparaiso on Sept. 2, has its work cut out in order to regain its Big Sky dominance. First, the team needs to improve its road record, which was a dismal 1-4 last season. Second, it will need to topple Eastern Washington or North Dakota, or both, when those teams come to Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

The preseason polls have North Dakota tabbed as the team to beat in the conference this season. The league’s coaches and media outlets selected the Fighting Hawks to repeat as Big Sky champs. North Dakota returns several key contributors from the 2016 season, including safety Cole Reyes and running back John Santiago. Reyes is the Big Sky’s reigning defensive player of the year and was selected as the Big Sky’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

The Big Sky’s other 2016 co-champion, Eastern Washington, finished second in both the coaches’ and media polls. EWU received first-place votes in both polls but will be entering a rebuilding year with first-year coach Aaron Best and without star receiver Cooper Kupp. The Eagles still return several impressive contributors, including quarterback Gage Gubrud, the Big Sky’s Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

Jerry Louie-McGee. Courtesy Eric Taber | Grizzly Athletics

Players to Watch

Jerry Louie-McGee    #16 | R-Sophomore | Wide Receiver

Griz fans quickly became familiar with Louie-McGee last season when the Coeur d’Alene native enjoyed a record-breaking freshman season. A finalist for the FCS Jerry Rice Award recognizing the nation’s top freshman receiver, the 5-foot-9 speedster led Montana with 73 catches for 651 yards, both team highs, despite only appearing in eight games. The dynamic slot receiver was sidelined with injuries and Griz fans are anxiously awaiting his return and hoping for a sophomore sequel.

Jeremy Calhoun    #8 | Junior | Running back

Meet the new star of the Grizzlies rushing attack. The Long Beach native is the top returning running back in Missoula and will play a big role in head coach Bob Stitt’s fast-paced offense this fall. Calhoun, one of the best all-around athletes on the field, appeared in 10 games a year ago and finished with 555 yards and a team-high nine rushing touchdowns. He averaged a team-high 7.2 yards per carry.

Josh Buss     #42 | R-Junior | Linebacker

Montana’s leading tackler from a season ago is back and in top form entering the new fall campaign. As a sophomore, the Boise native racked up 81 tackles, including 43 solo, and several postseason honors, including FCS Defensive All-American first team. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder led the Big Sky Conference with 20 tackles-for-loss. Montana’s defense will likely center on the intensity and ferocity of Buss, who registered a QB hit in the first five games of last season.

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