Montana facing tough challenge at Liberty

(STATS) – Since coming in from the outside to take over Montana, coach Bob Stitt has applied his stamp on the offense, player accountability and most aspects of the Grizzlies’ program.

What he had no say in was the grueling non-conference schedule he inherited for his first season leading the FCS power.

His eighth-ranked Grizzlies will play a top opponent for the third straight game Saturday night when they make a rare appearance in the East at No. 15 Liberty. Both teams finished 9-5 last year and bring 1-1 records into the matchup in Lynchburg, Virginia, where the normal crowds at 19,200-seat Williams Stadium don’t get much bigger across the FCS, with one of the few exceptions being at Montana.

"I like to play quality teams early. I just don’t want to play three of ’em," said Stitt, whose team tripped four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State 38-35 to open the season, lost to Cal Poly 20-19 and then had a bye last weekend.

"You’d like to have a week that you could play a little bit of a lesser opponent. If we can get through this week healthy, it’s really going to help us once we get into the conference season. We’re really not going to see anything on a weekly basis in the Big Sky that we didn’t see in the preseason."

Seeking change, Montana made Stitt its first head coaching hire without any program connections since Don Read took over in 1985. Stitt has installed a no-huddle spread offense with the goal of running 90-100 plays a game. He’s also continued to change the culture within a program that in recent years had a handful of players run afoul of the law.

The Grizzlies aren’t quite the national power they once were – they’re two-time national champions and seven-time finalists – but Stitt has created the feeling that his program’s results will match its tradition in the future.

In Montana’s first road game this season and only its sixth in the regular season east of the Mississippi River in school history, the Grizzlies hope to dictate a fast pace with Liberty, which has a similarly explosive offense.

Montana ran 92 offensive plays in each of its first two games. Redshirt junior quarterback Brady Gustafson has thrown for an FCS-high 787 yards, but the offense has to limit the turnovers since it has already committed seven.

"They’re going to move the ball. We understand that, that’s part of their offense," Liberty coach Turner Gill said. "We have to make them kick field goals. That would be the biggest thing we can do. And we’ve got to create turnovers."

Montana and Liberty have met only once – a 34-14 Grizzlies victory in Missoula three years ago. Saturday’s game is the first Top 15 matchup at Williams Stadium.

While Stitt is seeking a scheduling break, it doesn’t get any easier for the Grizzlies after Liberty. Their Big Sky opener next week is against Northern Arizona, which entered the poll this week at No. 24.