Shann Schillinger, a former safety in the NFL and the defensive backs coach at the University of Montana, hasn’t had to worry about the chemistry between his two starting safeties in recent weeks.
When you’ve played together since you were 6 years old, teamwork comes naturally.
Josh Sandry and Evan Epperly both grew up in Bigfork and excelled alongside each other in youth soccer, football and basketball. Now the Bigfork boys are shining together in the Grizzlies’ secondary.
“It’s a pretty cool situation to have two kids from the Bigfork area,” Schillinger said. “They’re both great kids. Extremely smart and extremely coachable. When you have those characteristics on top of their athletic abilities, you’ll have kids who will be good football players.”
Last weekend, the pair were Montana’s starting safeties for the third straight game, and Epperly caught his second career interception in the first quarter as the Griz steamrolled Northern Colorado 44-14 in the final home game of the regular season. Epperly, a redshirt junior, stepped into the starting role after Justin Strong was suspended two games for violating the student-athlete code of conduct following a fight.
“(Evan) stepped in and has done an unbelievable job. I never doubted the kid for a second,” Schillinger said. “I knew we could win a lot of games with Evan Epperly at safety. He’s smart and he’s got playmaking ability.”
Sandry has already emerged as one of Montana’s go-to leaders and playmakers on defense. The sophomore was named Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week in mid October after a standout game against North Dakota. He returned his third interception of the season 74 yards while also tallying seven tackles, a half sack and forced fumble.
“He’s a natural leader,” Schillinger said of Sandry. “Josh just has that ‘it factor.’ He’s extremely competitive and aggressive, and he’s got playmaking ability as well. He’s the whole package.”
Sandry and Epperly grew up playing together and eventually attended different high schools. Sandry shined at Bigfork as a multi-sport all-state athlete while Epperly was an all-state multi-sport athlete at Glacier.
“We’re very familiar with each other and we’re good friends off the field,” Epperly said. “It’s pretty cool to be able to play with a guy in the secondary that you grew up with.”
Epperly had his best game as a Griz in a pivotal win over Northern Arizona two weeks ago. He recorded eight tackles, including four solo. Sandry has enjoyed seeing his friend and fellow Flathead Valley product succeed.
The dynamic duo from Bigfork will be among several local players showcasing their abilities in the final college football game of the regular season.
Montana State (4-6 overall, 4-3 in the Big Sky Conference) hosts Montana (7-3, 5-2) in the 117th Brawl of the Wild.
Montana has won two straight and five of the last six games with hopes of qualifying for the FCS playoffs. Montana needs a win in Bozeman and is tied for fourth place in the conference standings behind Southern Utah (8-2, 6-1), Weber State (8-2, 6-1) and Northern Arizona (7-3, 6-1). The Griz are tied with Eastern Washington (6-4, 5-2) and Sacramento State (6-4, 5-2).
The Bobcats have lost two straight and sit in seventh place in the standings.
Montana leads the Big Sky in offensive output, averaging 36.2 points per game, but the Bobcats are second best on defense, allowing only 25.2 points per game. The Griz offense has been red-hot lately, outscoring opponents by a 62-point differential in the last six games.
“We’re right where we want to be,” Sandry said. “We’re healthy and I really think everything is coming together at the right time.”
Montana State won last year’s Brawl of the Wild 24-17.
“Cat-Griz is always an exciting game. It’s a huge game for the state of Montana,” Epperly said. “Being a Montana product myself, that’s one you always circle on your calendar.”