MISSOULA — Injuries are never ideal, but Montana is fortunate with the timing of its latest slew.
The sixth-ranked Griz (3-1) welcome winless Dixie State (0-4) to Washington-Grizzly Stadium for a game at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Trailblazers, in their second year transitioning to Division I, have been outscored 175-44 in four games and will play their fourth straight ranked team.
This is a prime chance for the Griz to see the next-man-up mentality in action as they try to get back on track and avoid an emotional letdown. It’s a rare departure from Big Sky play this late in the season, but a win may help spring them into six consecutive weeks of league games to close the regular season.
“We just got to play better. We got to coach better. Not necessarily in that order,” UM coach Bobby Hauck said in the days after the loss to Eastern Washington.
Here are five things to watch in the game.
Redshirt freshman Kris Brown is seemingly slated to make his first start after an injury to senior Cam Humphrey. Hauck declined to comment on the status of Humphrey, who injured his right ankle and didn’t return to last week’s game after leaving. Brown has been the backup since spring 2020, Robbie Patterson has been third string and Daniel Britt has run the scout team. Brown has played late in blowouts but has yet to be in any sort of pressure situations except for four snaps last week. He has the physical tools and quality receivers to possibly ease him in.
Going on the ground
Running the ball effectively may take pressure off Brown against DSU, which is allowing 266.8 rushing yards per game. Xavier Harris ran for a career-high 124 yards last week, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. UM has had a player rush for 70 or more yards five times despite missing its top two running backs. Harris did it three times; Isiah Childs and Junior Bergen once each. Childs was limited last week because of a reported knee injury. Successfully running the ball on first downs will help UM get in shorter third downs and improve upon last week’s 5-of-15 showing.
Putting together lengthy drives hasn’t been UM’s strong suit, having gone three-and-out 16 times and scored just 15 times in 53 drives. Long drives will also help UM’s defense stay fresh. Although dominant, the Griz defense has been on the field for 307 plays while the offense has run 266 plays, a difference of 41. But in the last two games, UM had to defend 178 plays while the offense ran 136, a difference of 42. Some of that is because of defensive and special teams touchdowns, but it still takes a toll and could be aided by the offense performing better.
DSU senior Jalen Powell has caught a pass in 20 consecutive games and has had at least five catches nine times in his career, including each of the past three contests. Powell has 30 catches for an average of 7.5 per game, tied for seventh in the FCS. Keeping the ball out of his hands can be achieved by getting pressure on the quarterback. DSU’s three QBs have completed just 54.7% of passes and been picked off 12 times compared to five touchdown passes. Powell is also explosive in the return game, averaging 23.8 yards on kickoffs with a long of 50 yards.
Malik Flowers has returned a kickoff for a score each of the past two games. Maybe a third consecutive one will finally get him Big Sky player of the week honors. Flowers now holds the UM career record with five and is one off tying the Big Sky and FCS records. Punt return could be more of an adventure after the Griz lost Gabe Sulser to an injury last week and had to call upon Robby Hauck and Keelan White to field punts. The Griz also could get Kevin Macias some confidence as he’s just 3 of 6 on field goals with a long of 26 and had one blocked last week.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.