Southern Conference Game of the Week for Sept. 8: Montana at Appalachian State

John Hooper@soconjohn22Correspondent IISeptember 6, 2012

ASU and Montana First Met On The Gridiron 12 Years Ago In The FCS Semifinals. Saturday's First Regular-Season Meeting Promises To Be Thrilling
ASU and Montana First Met On The Gridiron 12 Years Ago In The FCS Semifinals. Saturday's First Regular-Season Meeting Promises To Be Thrilling

WHO: No. 12 Montana (1-0, 0-0 Big Sky) at No.11 Appalachian State (0-1, 0-0 SoCon)

WHEN: Sept 8, 2012, 6:30 p.m.

WHERE: Boone, N.C., Kidd Brewer Stadium (23,150)

Overview: Saturday's matchup between Montana and Appalachian State will be an enticing non-conference clash between two programs with a rich tradition of championship football. 

The only two matches between the two programs have been in the FCS semifinals nine years apart, and were decided by a TD or less. In 2000, Montana captured a 19-16 overtime win in Missoula, while the 2009 matchup saw the Grizzlies triumphant again in front of the home folks against the Mountaineers, with a 24-17 win, courtesy of TD catch late in the contest by Jabin Sambrano. 

The tradition of the programs cannot be overlooked, with the two schools among the winningest in FCS history, and have a combined five national titles and 10 national title game appearances. ASU of course claimed three straight national crowns from 2005-07, while Montana's title wins came six years apart, as the Grizzlies defeated heavy favorite Marshall to claim their first national crown in 1995 and stepped inside the winner's circle again in 2001 with a win over Furman. 

Whether it was Dave Dickenson's heroics in 1995 in leading the Grizzlies to the upset of Marshall in Huntington in front of a shocked Jim Donnan and a sea of Green, or that cold December night in Chattanooga six years later when the Grizzlies used a defense that featured names like "Steinau" and "Huntsberger" and a QB with a "fu-man-chu" mustache to upend Furman, the script has always remained the same for Montana, which is playing solid, winning football on both sides of the ball. 

Though it is 11 years removed since its last national title, Montana has continued in that same theme, as it has continued to played solid football through the years on both sides of the ball, and has even made the national title game three times only to finish as national runner-up on three occasions, losing in the national title game tilt in '04, '08, and '09. No team won more games than Montana from first 12 years of the new millennium, as the Grizzlies have posted 128 wins from 2000-12. ASU is second with 119 victories since the 2000 season. 

Appalachian State's FCS tradition is on equal footing, and since 2005 no FCS program has one more games (79 wins) and only one FBS program--former Big Sky member Boise State, (80 wins)--has claimed more wins than the Black and Gold. With its win in its season opener on Saturday, Montana is only one game behind ASU's win total and two behind the Broncos' total since '05.  

Unfortunately, both programs had to endure some of the negatives with being a spotlight program, as the off-season brought about some disciplinary actions for off-the-field issues at both programs, but looking at the negatives is not what this game preview is going to concentrate on.

However, there was much more fallout at Montana from the off-season troubles than there was at Appalachian State, but with a new coaching staff and plenty of new faces, Montana didn't look like it was affected all too much by the off-season troubles, posting a 35-24 win over the South Dakota Coyotes before a packed crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. 

Leading the Grizzlies this season on the sidelines is part of the old guard for the Montana Grizzlies football program, in Mick Delaney. Delaney was a defensive assistant and wrestling coach at Montana back in the late 1960's (1968-69) and re-joined the Montana staff under former head coach Bobby Hauck. When Hauck left to become the head coach at UNLV, Delaney was the only holdover from that staff. He served as the associate head coach under Hauck. 

Appalachian State meanwhile, was playing toe-to-toe with Conference USA opponent East Carolina, trailing the Pirates 14-13 in the third quarter, before the sweltering heat and the Pirates size and talent began to wear down the over-matched Apps, as ASU eventually succumbed in defeat, 35-13. However, there were plenty of positives that could be taken from the season opener for ASU, including its 419 yards of total offense against a stout ECU defense.

With that said, the third meeting between the two FCS titans should be one to watch for all fans of FCS football this Saturday. Below is an in-depth preview of Saturday's matchup.

Previewing The Matchup: ASU opens its home slate in 2012 against a quality, top-notch foe at The Rock, when the Mountaineers welcome the No.12 Montana Grizzlies and their passionate followers in for a mouth-watering FCS non-conference clash.

ASU enters Saturday's matchup 60-19-2 all-time in home openers, with the last loss in a home opener coming in 2009, which was the last non-conference ranked foe to knock off the Black and Gold in the friendly confines in the regular season, as No.16 McNeese State was able to escape with a 40-35 win over the Apps. 

Appalachian State's offense looked brilliant at times in Saturday's season opener, and if anyone questioned if Jamal Jackson was the top quarterback in the Southern Conference, he certainly showed why on Saturday. 

The junior from Atlanta, GA., had a solid day under center, battling cramps and fought through pain as a result of some big hits to complete 23-of-40 passes for 300 yards and an INT. Jackson looked as if he had even gained some arm strength during the off-season, while also looking a bit more elusive, and rushed for 34 yards and a score on seven rush attempts. He scored ASU's only TD of the afternoon, with his 4-yard scamper midway through the first quarter to give ASU a 7-0 lead.

Several receivers impressed in the season opener for the Mountaineers, including true freshman Malachi Jones, who made some outstanding grabs. Jones finished the day with five catches for 69 yards and showed reliability, as he has some of the best hands in the receiving corps.

Tony Washington and Andrew Peacock did nothing to disappoint their statuses as all-conference wideouts for the Apps, as the two veterans were Jackson's top two options when he went to the air against the Pirates. Washington led the way with a career high-tying seven receptions for a career high 102 yards, while Peacock hauled in five catches for 77 yards.  

The Appalachian State running game was dealt a blow on Saturday, as Rod Chisholm broke his hand in Saturday's contest, meaning the redshirt will now likely come off of talented Asheville, N.C. product Tysean Holloway. Chisholm will be sidelined for at least a month with his injury. 

Handling the most of the rushing responsibilities last Saturday for the Mountaineers was Steven Miller, who posted a pretty solid effort on the ground for the Apps, as he finished the contest with a solid effort rushing for 47 yards on 14 attempts. 

The offensive line looked good at times on Saturday, and preseason All-SoCon left tackle Kendall Lamm is the anchor of the unit heading into the home opener against the Grizzlies. The ASU offensive line did not yield a sack on Saturday against a talented ECU front. Last season, the ASU offensive line yielded 17 sacks. 

Montana entered its home opener against South Dakota with only five starters returning on the offensive side of the ball, and a new starter under center.

The Grizzlies' offense rolled up 568 yards of total offense, including 315 rushing yards, in the 35-24 win over South Dakota at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. 

The 2012 Montana offense that is vastly different than the Grizzly and FCS fans have been used to seeing the Grizzlies in the past, with the likes of pro-style quarterbacks such as Dave Dickenson, Drew Miller and Brian Ah'Yat being pass-first, pass-second type quarterbacks of the past.

The Grizzlies saw elements of the 'tempo' offense with Jordan Johnson at the controls last season, and with the new coaching staff installed, this Montana offense is using its speed and athleticism to beat foes, rather than its power and size on the O-Line and superiority at receiver. Now, Montana's offense features more spread tendencies, and though not directly similar to ASU's spread, it will certainly look more akin to the ASU offense than it has in the previous two meetings.

Montana's starting quarterback coming into the 2012 season was Jordan Johnson, but Johnson was charged with rape back in July, opening up the quarterback job. That job is now occupied by freshman Trent McKinney.

McKinney played like a senior in Saturday's come-from-behind win over South Dakota, as he was an extremely efficient passing threat 26-of-32 for 214 yards, with a couple of TDs and an INT. McKinney's only interception in the contest proved to be costly, as it was returned 50 yards for a score to give the Coyotes a 24-16 lead, but that the last score of the day.

When McKinney goes to the air on Saturday, he will have some capable receiving targets, led by Sam Grafton and Bryce Carver. Grafton was the Grizzlies' leading receiver last fall, as he caught a team-leading 29 passes for 365 yards with a TD reception, averaging 12.6 YPR.

On Saturday against South Dakota, Grafton hauled in five passes for 42 yards and has already matched his TD receptions total last season, with a 4-yard scoring reception on Saturday. Grafton is more of the "possession receiver" of the trio of starters heading into Saturday's matchup. Grafton was an Honorable Mention All-Big Sky honoree last fall. 

Carver, a 6-1, 180-pound wideout from Dillon, MT, can stretch defenses with his speed, but also has a great pair of hands. Carver had only eight catches as in his sophomore season of 2011, but will clearly play a larger role for the Grizzlies this fall, as evidenced by his four receptions for 61 yards on Saturday and TD on Saturday.He showed that big-play ability on his 39-yard TD reception in the third quarter, which helped the Grizzlies to regain the lead for good.

Rounding out the starting trio of receivers for the Grizzlies will be sophomore Mitch Saylor, who is coming off a freshman season which saw him haul in nine passes for 103 yards. Saylor is an NFL-sized receiver for the Grizzlies coming into the matchup, at an impressive 6-5, 210 pounds. In the season opener against South Dakota, Saylor did not make a catch and was used more as a perimeter blocking presence for the Grizzlies.

Two other receiving threats to keep an eye on Saturday afternoon for Montana will be freshman Sean Haynes, who led the Grizzlies with five receptions for 53 yards last Saturday, as well as Greg Hardy at tight end. Haynes is a redshirt freshman from Los Angeles, CA, who is a big play threat with some of the best speed on the Grizzlies' roster. 

Hardy, a 6-5, 245-pound native of Fairview, MT, was the Grizzlies' fourth-leading receiver in 2011 and enters the 2012 season as one of two All-Big Sky selections on the offensive side of the football for Montana. Hardy hauled in 19 passes for 180 yards (9.5 YPR) last season, and in the season-opening win over South Dakota, Hardy caught a couple of passes for 14 yards. 

Coming into the season, the one area that Montana was in excellent shape experience-wise was at running back, and in the season-opener against South Dakota, that opinion was only enhanced. The Grizzlies had two running backs rush for over 100 yards in Saturday's win, with senior Dan Moore leading the way with 148 yards and a TD on 27 rush attempts, while classmate Peter Nguyen finished with 102 yards and a TD on 19 carries.

Nguyen entered the 2012 season as Montana's leading returning rusher, with 689 yards rushing and a TD on 120 rush attempts last season, while also proving to be an excellent receiving option coming out of the Montana backfield, with 16 catches for 210 yards and three scores.

Nguyen, a 5-8, 182-pound native of Seattle, WA., is Montana's speed threat coming out of the backfield this season and will also serve as a threat in the kick return game, where he averaged 24.8 YPR on nine attempts last season. Nguyen currently ranks sixth on the school's all-time rushing yards ledger, with 1,352 yards.

Moore finished the 2011 season as the Grizzlies' third-leading rusher, completing the campaign with 342 yards and a team-leading seven rushing scores on 97 attempts, averaging 3.5 YPC. He was Montana's clear-cut option in short-yardage situations last fall, and at 5-11, 235 pounds, he has the kind of size and power to give Montana an advantage in most of those short-yardage scenarios.

Rounding out the running backs expected to see action on Saturday is the speedy Jordan Canada, who didn't see much action in the season opener against South Dakota. The sophomore has game-breaking speed and will remind ASU fans of Steven Miller. 

One area Montana teams have have excelled over the years has been the offensive line, with past greats such as Thatcher Szalay and Dylan McFarland just two names that come to mind from that talent-laden past, and not has much has changed through the decades.

Just two starters returned for the 2012 season, but it didn't appear the Grizzlies missed much of a beat on Saturday, rushing for 315 yards in the season-opening win last week. Anchoring that unit this fall will be right tackle Danny Kistler, who was a preseason All-Big Sky selection and has successfully made the transition from right guard to right tackle with his athleticism.

The other returning starter up front for Montana coming into the season is junior left guard  Kjelby Oiland, who started 12 of 14 games last season for the Grizzlies. 

The strength for the Mountaineers coming into the 2012 season was the defense, and at times in Saturday's season opener at East Carolina, that unit certainly looked dominant at times. ASU ended up yielding 390 yards of total output to the Conference USA foe, including surrendering 242 yards through the air and 153 yards on the ground.

The ASU defense surrendered three offensive TDs, with the other two scores on the afternoon coming as a result of a fumble return for a score, as well as a kick return. However, through the first three quarters on Saturday, the ASU defense yielded just 242 yards and allowed ECU only 4.2 yards-per-play. 

ASU, which utilizes a 3-4 defensive scheme, got an outstanding performance its young trio of starters on Saturday. The starting trio up front on the defensive line expected to start on Saturday are defensive ends Davante Harris and Ronald Blair, while true freshman nose tackle Stephen Burns will draw his second start on Saturday against the Grizzlies. 

Burns turned in a solid performance in the middle of that ASU defense in his first start, contributing a couple of sacks and a pass breakup. Burns sports impressive size, at 6-2, 280 pounds. 

Both Harris and Blair are solid athletes, with Harris, like Burns, starting just his second game for the Mountaineers on Saturday. Harris has impressive size, at 6-6, 285 pounds, and he was slated to play last fall before a concussion ended his season prematurely and he was red-shirted. In Saturday's season opener at ECU, Harris performed solidly and provided pressure on ECU starting quarterback Rio Johnson on several occasions, finishing the game with three tackles and a tackle-for-loss.

Blair is the unquestioned leader of this defensive front, and though just a sophomore, he's a player that has already established himself as one of the SoCon's top defensive ends. Last season, Blair seemed to step up and make an impact in big games. One of those games was in ASU's 24-17 win over Georgia Southern, as in that contest, he contributed eight tackles, 2.0 TFL and a sack to garner SoCon Freshman of the Week accolades. 

In the season opener, Blair was didn't get the pressure on the quarterback that he was able to get in some games last season, but he did make the most of his only tackle of the day, as he had a tackle-for-loss. Blair is athletic and powerful and finished the 2011 season ranking second on the team in sacks (3.5 TFL) and sacks (11.5 TFL).

The real strength of the ASU defense is its four starters at linebackers, and there are many in the nation better than the senior tandem of Jeremy Kimbrough and Brandon Grier. Kimbrough came into the season as a member of the Buck Buchanan Award watch list and was a preseason second-team All-America selection, according to The Sports Network.

Kimbrough, who will start at inside LB on Saturday against the Grizzlies and will solidify the middle of that ASU defense, did nothing to discredit those preseason acknowledgments, leading the Apps with 13 tackles with a TFL. Kimbrough led the Apps with 105 tackles, 12.0 TFL and four sacks last fall. 

Grier, who will start at the other ILB position, has a tendency to find himself in the shadow of his classmate Kimbrough, but in many respects is equally impressive and athletic. In the season opener against ECU, Grier just missed double digits in tackles, finishing the contest with nine stops. He ranked second on the squad in tackles last season, with 97 tackles last fall, and also contributed 10.5 TFL in 2011. 

The two starters at the respective outside LB positions will be Joel Ross, who will start at the 'star' LB position, while James 'Deuce' Robinson will start at the 'bandit' linebacker position on Saturday. Robinson looked good in making the transition from his true defensive end position from last fall to OLB/hybrid defensive position in fall camp. In my opinion, Robinson is one of the keys for Appalachian State in this game because ASU must get pressure to keep Montana's balanced attack out of rhythm

In the opening-season loss at East Carolina, Robinson put in a solid effort, as he was able to rack up six tackles and 1.5 TFL, and was one of the leaders of the ASU defense in the season opener. Robinson is coming off a 2011 season, which saw him post 12 tackles and half-a-sack in eight games of action as a reserve along defensive line for the Apps last fall.

Starting at the other outside linebacker position on Saturday will be Joel Ross. Ross, a 5-10, 178-pound native of Damascus, MD, notched his first start for the Apps on Saturday, and finished the afternoon recording three tackles and half-a-tackle-for-loss. Ross is athletic and is a sure tackler, with the ability to drop in coverage as well as come up and make plays against the run.

If there is a concern defensively entering the season for the Black and Gold, it has to be the secondary. That unit now is even more in the cross hairs with Doug Middleton going down with a season-ending injury in the opener.

The good news for ASU is there is star talent in veteran returning performers, in strong safety Troy Sanders and cornerback Demetrius McCray. Sanders, like Grier at LB, is one of those veterans on the defensive side of the ball that goes a bit unheralded, but he's a player that has been reliable since starting his first game for ASU back in 2010, and enters Saturday's contest against the Grizzlies having started 26-straight games for the Apps. He is the only player on the ASU roster to start every game since the start of the 2010 season and entered the campaign as an All-SoCon pick. 

Sanders was impressive Saturday, snagging an acrobatic one-handed INT in the opening quarter of Saturday's season-opening loss at ECU, setting up ASU's lone touchdown of the afternoon. Sanders also contributed 10 tackles and 1.5 TFL.

McCray, who picked off five passes to lead the Southern Conference last fall, came into the 2012 season with plenty of preseason accolades as a result of that outstanding 2011 campaign. McCray, who is part of a secondary that has picked off more passes (69 INTs) than any other SoCon team since 2008, started off his senior season against ECU by notching three stops in the 35-13 setback.

McCray is a tremendous athlete and was a highly successful quarterback as a prep. He entered the 2012 season as a part of the Buck Buchanan Award watch list.

Patrick Blalock and Aaron Krah will round out the starters in the secondary for the Mountaineers at both free safety and left cornerback, respectively. Blalock, a former walk-on, earned his way onto the depth chart a couple of years ago, with his play on special teams.

Blalock battled injuries last season, and didn't see all that much playing time last fall. Blalock started four games last season and saw action in seven contests, recording 14 tackles and blocked a kick. In last week's opener at ECU, Blalock recorded eight stops. 

Rounding out the starters on the defensive side of the football will be freshman Aaron Krah, who drew his first start for the Apps in last Saturday's opener at ECU. Krah drew the starting position at the left cornerback position, and he is an explosive athlete and he is coming off a solid performance in his first-ever start, and he had a couple of tackles. 

The Montana defense is seemingly one of the top units in the nation, year-in and year-out, and this season things will likely be just the same. However, the Grizzlies have had to basically reload their defense altogether this season, with only three starters returning.

The Grizzlies will utilize a 4-3 defensive scheme and certainly looked pretty strong in their season-opening win over South Dakota, as the Grizzlies were able to limit the Coyotes to a total of just 233 yards of total offense, including a meager 61 yards on the ground. 

Two of the three returning starters returning for the Grizzlies for the 2012 season are at linebacker, as both Jordan Tripp and John Kanongata'a are back to help stabilize the middle of that Montana defense in 2012. 

Tripp took a medical redshirt last season, and that's why he's a player that has flown under the radar coming into the season. In the season-opening win over South Dakota, Tripp led the Grizzlies in impressive fashion on the defensive side of the football, with 10 tackles to notch Big Sky co-Defensive Player of the Week accolades. In addition to his 10 stops, Tripp also had 1.5 TFL, a sack and forced a fumble to collect conference POW honors.

Two years ago, Tripp fashioned an impressive campaign which saw him record 99 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 3.5 TFL, 3 FRs, 3 PBUs and an INT. His 99 stops were second on the team, and much like Grier for Appalachian State, he played in the shadow of heralded LB Caleb McSurdy for a good portion of his career. Tripp is slated to start at the weakside LB position heading into Saturday's matchup with ASU and will be one of those players for Mountaineer fans to keep an eye on.

Completing the trio of Montana LBs will be strong-side LB John Kanongata'a and middle LB Josh Stuberg. Kanongata'a is another one of those veteran returnees on the defensive side of the football from last season's FCS semifinal squad, and Kanongata'a came into the season as the leading tackler from the 2011 squad. Last season, Kanongata'a registered 68 tackles, 8.5 TFL, two sacks, an INT and a fumble recovery. Kanongata'a finished right behind Tripp on the tackles ledger in the season opener, with eight stops, while also picking off a pass

Stuberg had some pretty big shoes to fill for Montana entering the 2012 season, having to replace All-American MLB Caleb McSurdy in the middle of the Grizzlies' defense, after McSurdy led Montana with 114 stops last fall. The senior Stuberg was solid in the opener, posting six tackles and half-a-tackle-for-loss. As a reserve last season, Stuberg was solid, recording 32 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sack and had a fumble recovery.

Expect Stuberg to split the action on Saturday with talented junior Brock Coyle, who completed his sophomore season with 27 stops, 4.0 TFL and 1.5 sacks.  

The Montana defensive line will of course have four new starters, but the new crop showed plenty of promise in its first start as a cohesive unit last Saturday, helping limit the Coyotes to a meager 61 rushing yards, and recorded a TFL and provided decent pressure on South Dakota quarterback Josh Vander Maten in last week's opener. 

Anchoring that Montana defensive line heading into the game against the Mountaineers will be sophomore defensive tackle Tonka Takai, who finished the 2011 campaign with only five tackles as a reserve, was pretty impressive in the season opener against South Dakota, posting three tackles, a TFL, a sack and recovered a fumble in the victory. 

Lining up alongside Takai at defensive tackle on Saturday afternoon will be Alex Bienemann. Bienemann is a 6-2, 295-pound junior from Denver, Co., is a player that is powerful and athletic and showed the ability to a real leader on this defense in his first start on Saturday. He finished Saturday's opener by recording two tackles and half-a-tackle-for-loss.

The starting defensive ends for the Grizzlies on Saturday are expected to be Zach Wagenmann and Josh Harris. Wagenmann, a 6-3, 240-pound native of Missoula, MT., comes into the season off a campaign which saw him have nine tackles and a quarterback hurry in action against as a reserve.Wagenmann is a good athlete and has a chance to be Montana's top pass-rushing defensive end this fall, but was just held to a tackle in the season-opener against South Dakota.

Harris rounds out the starting four along the Grizzlies' front line. The 6-5, 251-pound native of Kalispell. MT., is coming off a season-opening performance which saw him post a couple of tackles and half-a-tackle-for-loss.

Historically, Montana has always had that one playmaker in the secondary that has been able to wreck havoc by creating turnovers. Players from yesteryear that come to mind when I think of the Montana from past seasons are safeties like Colt Anderson (2005-08) and Vince Huntsberger (1998-01), and talented cornerbacks like Calvin Coleman (1998-01) and Trumaine Johnson (2008-11).

Coming into the 2012 season, however, the defensive backfield was a concern for Montana fans, and the Grizzlies had a few missed assignments in the season opener against South Dakota, which is something that the Grizzlies can't afford to do against ASU's fast, athletic receivers on Saturday. Despite some big plays, however, the Grizzlies did limit South Dakota to just 172 yards through the air last Saturday.

One of the three returning starters on the defensive side of the football for Montana resides in the secondary, and that is junior strong safety Bo Tully. The 6-2, 197-pound native of Spokane, WA., enjoyed a solid sophomore season with 44 tackles, an INT and forced two fumbles last season. In the season opener against South Dakota, Tully registered three stops.

Starting free safety Matt Hermanson is a player that could be that "breakout player" in the secondary for the Grizzlies this season. Hermanson is a big hitter in the Montana secondary, and is coming off a strong freshman campaign which saw him post 38 tackles and three tackles in action as a reserve at strong safety last fall. In the season opener against South Dakota last week, Hermanson was relatively quiet with just two tackles.

Rounding out the starters for Saturday's showdown at The Rock will be cornerbacks Nate Harris and Sean Murray. This is the position that is of most concern for the Grizzlies, especially with Harris starting, who is a freshman. In the season opener last week, Harris did not record any defensive statistics, but expect Appalachian State to test the freshman on Saturday.

Murray is a veteran, who is entering his junior season. The 6-1, 195-pound native of Corona, CA., has good speed and overall athleticism, and he recorded a tackle in the season-opening win last Saturday.

Briefly Looking At Place-Kicking: Appalachian State looked much improved in the kicking game in last week than it did coming down the stretch last season. Drew Stewart, who connected on a pair of field goals in the season opener against ECU, will compete for All-SoCon honors this fall. 

Montana's Chris Lider is a redshirt freshman, so he is more of question mark entering the matchup than ASU's Stewart, and the slight advantage in the kicking game, at least on paper, has to go to Appalachian State.

Final Prediction: Appalachian State-Montana is a matchup that makes any FCS football fan salivate when the thought of the matchup enters their mind. Saturday's matchup will feature two extremely young, but athletically talented teams and it should be a fun one to watch. I expect the opening quarter of this one to be tentative one in the opening quarter, but for the following three quarters will see a shootout break out. With a school-record crowd expected, I look for Appalachian State to notch its first win of the season in near heart-stopping fashion.

38-35 Appalachian State  


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