MISSOULA — Montana coach Bobby Hauck challenged his offense to run the football more effectively Saturday and they certainly answered the bell.
The Griz churned out 248 rushing yards, an average of 5.5 yards per carry, and ran for five touchdowns as they used a gritty performance on the ground and improved play from the offensive line to trounce Portland State, 48-7, on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Montana accrued 197 rushing yards and 4.9 yards per carry in the win over Division II Central Washington last week. Those are respectable numbers, but the performance left something to be desired for Hauck.
“They ran hard, the front played great, the quarterbacks got us into the right checks,” Hauck said Saturday. “I thought that (offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach) and (quarterbacks coach) Brent (Pease) did a good job getting some checks made and getting us into the right place off the sidelines. So, it was a good team effort today.”
The 248 rushing yards are the most by the Griz since they ran for 254 on Oct. 26, 2019, against Eastern Washington. They’re the fifth most since Hauck returned to UM in 2018.
True freshman Xavier Harris and sophomore Nick Ostmo combined for 191 rushing yards and five rushing scores against a team that’s trending upward in the Big Sky. They had totaled 82 yards and two scores on the ground last week, the Grizzlies’ first game without injured All-American running back Marcus Knight.
“These two young guys did a nice job, both last week and this week,” Hauck said. “I think the thing that will go untalked about but is most important to me and evident is we had two young guys, a freshman and sophomore, and they took care of the ball really well. We didn’t give the ball up, and that was a physical game today. There was some great hitting out there, and our running backs took care of the ball, first and foremost.
“Then, I think they’re seeing things well, they’re running through contact, they’re keeping their feet moving, they’re scraping and clawing for yards. It’s been good.”
Harris showed his elusiveness as he danced his way to 109 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries and caught two passes for 10 yards. Ostmo complemented him by bruising his way to 82 yards and three scores on 16 carries while catching three passes for 32 yards.
“It all started with the O-line,” Ostmo said. “We emphasized running all week, and the O-line just got a lot of push and got off the ball fast just like we wanted them to, and that made it really easy for us to run the ball on them.”
UM started the same line last week that struggled to get a push against CWU despite being the team’s most veteran position group on paper. Those players are left tackle Conlan Beaver, left guard Skyler Martin, center AJ Forbes, right guard Moses Mallory and right tackle Dylan Cook.
Mallory and Colton Keintz rotated nearly every series at right guard, and Martin saw some time at center in the second half. The changes caught Barnum off guard a little bit, he noted.
It was UM’s tight ends and how they created and enlarged running lanes that impressed the sixth-year Portland State head coach. He knew it was going to be a challenge stopping the run.
“I expected Montana to punch us in the neck. I told my kids that,” Barnum said. “I said, ‘You’re going to go into Missoula,’ and I said, ‘This isn’t … the XFL, where they throw the ball and it’s inside and everybody’s pretty and there’s lights and there’s fireworks.’ I said, ‘You’re going into a bar fight, a saloon, these guys are going to whip your ass, so you better respond.’ A lot did.”
Montana started six drives in Portland State territory but scored on just two of those short fields. The Griz were three of six last week against Central Washington.
UM converted a turnover on downs at the PSU 40-yard with 52 seconds left in the first half into a 15-yard touchdown pass from Cam Humphrey to Sammy Akem on a post route. They turned Jace Lewis’ 20-yard interception return to the 10-yard line in the third quarter into a 6-yard touchdown run by Nick Ostmo.
Humphrey was picked off in the end zone by David Joseph on the first play after Malik Flowers blocked a punt, setting up UM at the PSU 15-yard line.
The Griz got another big special teams play when Gabe Sulser had a 56-yard punt return to the PSU 32-yard line. The drive ended with backup QB Kris Brown coming up short on a fourth-and-2 run up the middle on his first snap of the game after Humphrey appeared to get banged up.
In the fourth quarter, UM started drives at the PSU 43-yard line and 50-yard line but ended up punting on both possessions.
“You want to capitalize, but the big thing is flipping the field position, controlling the field position game, making the other team go long fields, allowing your team to have short field options,” Hauck said. “Obviously, anytime you get the ball on the 2 coming out, you want to go 98, you get the ball on the 35 going in, you want to go 35. We want to score every time.”
Montana had three players leave with apparent injuries during the game.
Humphrey was down on the field after being hit by linebacker Justice Pagan and free safety Ty Apana-Purcell during a scramble with the Griz up 27-7 in the third quarter. He limped off the field with the help of athletic trainers but was walking around celebrating with the team after the game.
Harris appeared to take a hard hit on one of his legs when he tried to cut a run back inside. Center AJ Forbes also went down on the field. Those both happened in the fourth quarter with UM 41-7, and they each limped off with the help of athletic trainers.
“A guy can sprain his ankle any time, so next guy’s got to be ready to go and next man up, and I think that attitude on our team is prevalent,” Hauck said. “The idea, as I mentioned a little bit ago here, is if you’re in the game, we expect you to make plays. So, I thought our guys did a good job of that, and I think they usually do.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.