Montana, Montana State embrace Big Sky opportunities

(STATS) – Montana and Montana State can turn the Big Sky title race upside down from the start on Saturday, but as traditional powers in the conference, it would fit with what they’ve long done.

They’re facing the Big Sky’s 2016 co-champions, with Montana State (0-2) paying a visit to No. 17 North Dakota (1-2) in Grand Forks and Montana (2-1) hosting No. 11 Eastern Washington (1-2) in Missoula, on the first full day of the conference season.

Montana and Montana State have won the most titles in Big Sky history with 18 and 15, respectively.

While Montana was picked sixth in the 13-team conference’s preseason polls, the Griz believe they have a legitimate chance to win the title. Montana State is still rebuilding under second-year coach Jeff Choate, so a win at UND would be more surprising. UND was picked first and Eastern Washington, a winner of four of the last five titles, second in the preseason.

“It’s going to be a big test going to the defending conference champion’s place,” Choate said. “Them coming off a loss, I know they’re going to have their edge. But for us, in terms of what it means for our program, we need a win, that’s what it means. I think we have a young team that can gain some confidence and do some really good things in this league if we’re able to find that breakthrough moment. And we’ve got an opportunity on Saturday.”

Said Montana third-year coach Bob Stitt: “We’ve tried to get our team away from looking at the schedule and circling a few games. We’re trying to really get them focused on executing against a scheme rather than a team. And then on Friday and Saturday, we start talking about the team.

“You don’t talk about, oh, this is a huge, huge game. They’re all huge, especially in the Big Sky.”

Montana State had a bye week following its four-point loss at home to fourth-ranked South Dakota State on Sept. 9, so the Bobcats have had two weeks to prepare for North Dakota.

Sophomore quarterback Chris Murray had yet to become Montana State’s starter when the Bobcats lost 17-15 to North Dakota last season, and the 2016 Big Sky freshman of the year should be troubling for North Dakota. He is coming off only the fifth 300-yard passing-100-yard rushing game in program history.

“It starts up front,” Choate said, “I think that’s where the battle against a team like North Dakota is always going to be won or lost, is in the trenches because they’re built very, very stout on their front seven on defense.

“If we can create knockoff and force double-teams and be able to control the line of scrimmage, then I think we’re going to have a good opportunity.”

Montana also will be young at quarterback for its eighth all-time night game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium – very young. Redshirt freshman Gresch Jensen will be making his first career start after the Griz lost Reese Phillips to season-ending leg injuries in their 56-3 win over Savannah State last Saturday.

Jensen impressed after he entered the game in the second quarter, completing 11 of 15 pass attempts for 178 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He also scored on a 3-yard run.

“You want a guy that thinks he ought to be starting,” Stitt said of Jensen’s confident demeanor. “He handled it very well on Saturday. We expect him to come out and be able to handle the big stage. This is going to be as big as it gets with a night game and conference opener and being Eastern Washington.”