Lumberjacks, Grizzlies to measure themselves against the other
In the last two weeks, Montana ran roughshod over a pair overmatched opponents, holding a 114-0 scoring edge over the span of six quarters.
The next two weeks will present a much greater challenge to Bob Stitt's Grizzlies, the 10th-ranked team in the STATS FCS Top 25.
Before a showdown at No. 3 Eastern Washington, Montana this Saturday visits a Northern Arizona team picked to win the Big Sky that is coming off a lopsided victory of its own. The matchup starts at 4 p.m. on FOX Sports Arizona and FOX Sports Go.
The Grizzlies (5-1, 2-1) are riding high after recording consecutive 60-point wins for the first time in program history, notching a 67-7 beatdown of Mississippi Valley State and a 68-7 dismantling of Sacramento State. Those teams, however, are a combined 1-13 with two of the worst defenses in the FCS.
Despite easily dominating the lesser opponents, Stitt was impressed with how his team handled itself.
"I was really proud overall about how we go out and play regardless of where we're at and regardless of who we're playing," he said. "We play with the same intensity and execution every week."
The Grizzlies may need to dial it up even more these next two weeks.
A shootout is on tap Oct. 29 at Eastern Washington, with the two of the nation's top offenses squaring off. The Eagles are second in the FCS in scoring at 47.5 points per game while Montana checks in a No. 3 at 46.7.
First, though, the Grizzles turn their attention to a Lumberjacks team that seems to be finding its rhythm offensively.
Northern Arizona (3-4, 2-2) racked up 517 yards in last weekend's 52-7 win over Idaho State, as Blake Kemp had his best game since taking over for the injured Case Cookus, the 2015 STATS FCS Freshman of the Year.
Kemp completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 319 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. He averaged 8.6 yards per attempt after averaging 5.4 while tossing just one TD in his first two starts.
"I think he's done an admirable job of picking things up and carrying the weight of the offense on his shoulders," NAU coach Jerome Souers said. "It's unfair to compare him to Case Cookus. Case is a really tough and tremendous quarterback but I'm really proud of the progress Blake has made and the impact he's had on our team on and off the field."
While Kemp is coming off a four-touchdown performance, that has been the norm lately for his counterpart.
Brady Gustafson has thrown four touchdowns in each of the last three games against just one interception and was added to the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List on Wednesday. The senior is ninth in the FCS with 1,801 passing yards and sixth in TDs, with 18.
"With the way Gustafson is throwing the football they are very productive," Souers said. "The pace in which they run their offense is a little scary. I know it could cause a lot of problems for a defense with its tempo."
Making the matchup potentially scarier for Souers is Gustafson could be getting his favorite target back. Jerry Louie-McGee has returned to practice after missing the last two games with an unspecified injury. Despite playing just four games, the dynamic freshman playmaker is tied for fourth in the Big Sky with 41 receptions.
Slowing down the Grizzlies is a daunting task but Souers' defense is capable of putting pressure on Gustafson. NAU is sixth in the FCS with 22 sacks, with senior defensive lineman Siupeli Anau leading the Big Sky with 6 1/2.
Montana is right behind the Lumberjacks with 19 sacks and is second in the FCS with 9.2 tackles for loss per game. Sophomore linebacker Josh Buss has a conference-best 12 1/2 tackles for loss for the Grizzlies, who lead the Big Sky in total defense (305 ypg) and scoring defense (20.2).
"I'm very happy with the way we are playing but I'm not surprised of how good we are," Stitt said. "We're getting a little stronger each week and more confident."
The Grizzlies roughed up Cookus in last year's meeting, holding him to a season-low 187 yards passing while sacking him eight times in a 23-14 win.
"Their defense has been matching up well with everybody. They are predicating a lot of what an offense can and cannot do," Souers said. "We're really focused on what we need to do to play better."