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Championship Preview: Montana vs. Richmond
By Chuck Burton, The CSN Way Columnist
Some had chalked up the three-time defending champions, Appalachian State, to be playing tomorrow at Chattanooga. Others had thought that James Madison was simply too tough to be denied a chance at the national championship game. Still others thought Northern Iowa, with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, would be a good shot at making it here.
But all these teams fell to the two teams that will be slugging it out this Friday - two teams that made it here with punishing defense and precision offense.
While admirers of the spread offense may have to wait for next year’s final to see a high-octane offense put points on the board like a pinball machine, this matchup could be a football purists’ dream - solid, fundamental football, precision offense, and contact. Lots and lots of contact from two aggressive, physical defenses.
Previewing the National Championship Game
This year’s game, in this 31st year of crowning Division I national champions in football through the playoffs, features one former champion that is returning to the limelight in Chattanooga for the first time in four years, and a first-time participant in the national championship discussion.
The University of Montana is no stranger to Chattanooga. In the past twenty years they’ve been to the national championship game five times.
In 1995, the Griz beat (then I-AA) Marshall 22-20 in the 18th Division I National Championship Game, and would fall to the Thundering Herd 49-29 in the rematch in the 18th the following year - Marshall’s final years as a I-AA school. (Back then, the championship games were played in Huntington, West Virginia at Joan C. Collins Stadium, Marshall’s home.)
More recently, Montana has been to Chattanooga three times this decade to play for national championships. The first was in 2000 - the 23rd national championship game - where the Griz fell to the second of head coach Paul Johnson’s national championship teams at Georgia Southern 35-27.
The next was in 2001 in the 24th national championship game, were Montana beat Furman 13-6 (in Furman head coach Bobby Johnson’s last year as Paladin head coach.
Head coach Bobby Hauck, who succeeded former Griz head coach Joe Glenn, also made it to Chattanooga a year after he started coaching the Griz in 2003. Montana’s last national championship appearance was Hauck’s squad in 2004 in the 27th game, losing to James Madison, and head coach Mickey Matthews, 31-21.
After dominating Texas State in the first round of this year’s playoffs 31-13 and enacting some revenge on their only regular season loss by beating Big Sky leaguemate Weber State 24-13, Montana has to think of destiny and history after beating Matthews’ James Madison Dukes in the semifinals 35-27 to bring them to the brink of Hauck’s first-ever national championship and the first Griz national championship since 2001.
The University of Richmond’s playoff history can’t compare to Montana’s. Everything about the Spiders seems, well, new.
Not a lot of people picked Richmond to be here. Going into the season, teh Spiders were sporting a first year head football coach (Mike London, who stepped in when head coach Dave Clawson headed to take the offensive coordinator duties at Tennessee). Even though the same core of players returned from the team that made the FCS semifinals last year (a team who fell to eventual national champion Appalachian State 55-35), that was the first time the Spiders advanced past the quarterfinals in the past 29 years of playoff football. Furthermore, all year they seemed a step behind the CAA regular-season victory, James Madison, all year - a Dukes team who came oh-so-close to beating the Mountaineers in the playoffs in 2007 and who also beat Appalachian State during the regular season in 2008.
But after beating Eastern Kentucky 38-10 (whom they also beat in the playoffs in 2007), and tallying a resounding win over Appalachian State in the quarterfinals - a 33-13 shellacking that few folks outside of Virginia predicted - Richmond clearly established itself as a team that is capable of winning the whole thing. And after reclaiming the lead with 13 seconds left over Northern Iowa in a thrilling 21-20 win in the semifinals, Spider fans have to wonder if destiny might be wearing a Spider sweatshirt this year.
Tale of the Tape
Before looking at the matchups to look for this Friday, it’s worth noting that what seems to have gotten both teams to the brink of the national championship is defense. Montana held three of the most potent offenses in the nation to 13, 13 and 27 points per game in the playoffs: all well below their regular-season averages. And Richmond did the same, holding Appalachian State - a team that rang up 70 points on nationally-ranked Wofford on Halloween night - to only 13 in their upset win.
Here’s a unit-by-unit breakdown of each team.
Montana’s Cole Bergquist (2,889 yards passing, 364 yards rushing, 36 TDs) and Richmond’s Eric Ward (2,712 yards passing, 394 yards rushing, 24 TDs) take pride in the fact that they don’t turn over the ball much. Where they differ is in style points. Bergquist rarely looks pretty when running and passing the ball - the senior is devastatingly accurate with a 61.5% completion percentage. Ward, on the other hand, is equally accurate but when the junior is really rolling, he’s an unstoppable force - witness his near-perfect performance last weekend against Northern Iowa, going 28-for-35 with no interceptions - and several of those incompletions were on the game’s final drive, with two spikes to stop the clock.
Both signalcallers are exactly what their coaches want them to be. In a game that may come down to mistakes by either quarterback, this matchup is clearly one that is too close too call. Advantage: Even.
Both quarterbacks have some of the best running backs in FCS to take the pressure off. Richmond’s Josh Vaughn (1,722 yards rushing, 19 TDs) averages 5.2 yards per carry and is a speedy back with enough size and power to get the tough yards, too, when necessary - a back in the same mold as the NFL’s Tim Hightower, the back who Vaughn replaced from last year. Montana’s Chase Reynolds (1,536 yards rushing, 22 TDs) is a tiny bit smaller, but he’s in the same mold as Vaughn - big and physical, with real speed.
With two even running backs and two quarterbacks that rush the ball effectively, we’ll have to go down to the third running option to find the advantage. Montana running back Andrew Schmidt (466 yards, 2 TDs), who can come in to spell Reynolds, gives the Griz a slight - very slight, mind you - advantage in running the ball. Advantage: Griz.
It’s in the receiving corps where you start to see a difference between the two teams - finally.
Bergquist’s favorite targets are wideouts Marc Mariani (1,136 yards, 15 touchdowns) and Mike Ferriter (818 yards, 10 touchdowns), two athletic leapers who more often than not come down with the ball when they go after it. They are clearly Bergquist’s No. 1 and No. 2 targets.
Ward, on the other hand, spreads the ball around a lot. While possession wideout Kevin Grayson (828 yards, 3 touchdowns) and speedster Tre Gray (679 yards, 4 touchdowns) are the primary guys, it’s Wards third and fourth options that have been helping the Spiders win lately like wideout Jordan Mitchell (437 yards, 3 touchdowns) and tight end Joe Stewart (308 yards, 4 touchdowns) - case in point, Stewart caught the game-winning touchdown pass last weekend against Northern Iowa.
While Mariani and Ferriter are tough targets, Richmond poses matchup problems with the many different weapons they have to throw to. Advantage: Spiders.
With two offenses that run the ball so effectively, it’s two great offensive lines that make these offenses go. Montana’s “O” line is anchored by 302 pound guard J.D. Quinn, while Richmond’s go-to lineman is 6′5 300 pound tackle Michael Silva.
With two similar quarterbacks, however, it’s one statistic - sacks allowed - which shows the advantage. Montana allows on average 3 sacks per game, compared to Richmond’s 1 1/2. Advantage: Spiders.
Front Seven: On paper, both teams are loaded with superstars in the front seven. Start with Richmond: defensive lineman Lawrence Sidbury (51 tackles, 7 1/2 sacks), defensive lineman Sherman Logan (49 tackles, 12 1/2 tackles for loss), linebacker Eric McBride (103 tackles), and linebacker Patrick Weldon (89 tackles, 3 intercpetions, 2 forced fumbles). These four have are the foundation of Richmond’s “Stonewall Defense", which has been outstanding all year.
But they have their match in defensive prowess with Montana: defensive lineman Jace Palmer (44 tackles, 8 1/2 sacks), defensive lineman Mike Stadnyk (49 tackles, 7 1/2 sacks), linebacker Tyler Corwyn (98 tackles, 2 interceptions) and linebacker Shawn Lebsock (89 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) are equal to the Spiders in terms of star power.
Both front sevens are hard hitters, have great fundamental tacklers, and are agrressive in forcing turnovers. They excel at red zone defense, and both are among the nation’s leaders in defensive points allowed. In a word, this is too close to call. Advantage: Even.
In the secondary, it’s no easier to find an advantage on either side.
Montana boasts safety Colt Anderson (121 tackles, 3 interceptions) that is the captain of the Griz defense and an exceptionally hard hitter in run support - like a fourth linebacker. He’s been a key reason that Montana’s opponents have had such a rough time running the ball. At the corners, junior defensive back Keith Thompson (32 tackles, 6 passes defended) has been getting better every week - and made a big play on fourth down to help Montana upend James Madison last weekend.
But Richmond’s secondary is equally tough to crack. Start with defensive back Justin Rogers (51 tackles, 7 interceptions, 2 returned for touchdowns) and safety Michael Ireland (84 tackles, 4 interceptions) are great defenders, too.
Both have a superstar in the secondary - but give an ever so slight edge to Richmond here, whose backs have the experience of last year’s playoff run to help them on Friday. Advantage: Spiders.
Richmond kicker Andrew Howard had a very good year (56/58 on extra points, 17/26 on field goals), but Montana’s Brody McKnight (51/56 on extra points, 9/15 on field goals) has also done very well, showing some great range on his kicks as well. Once again - notice a trend here? - it’s too close to call.
If this gets to be a field position game, though, Montana’s punting game should give them an advantage behind the kicking of punter Ken Wood (41.5 yards per punt) versus Richmond’s Brian Radford (37.1 yards per punt). Advantage: Griz.
Both have a go-to return man - Richmond has defensive back Justin Rogers (788 return yards) and Montana has wideout Marc Mariani (856 yards, 2 touchdowns) - but it’s the guy on the other side that may cause headaches for the Spiders. It’s Montana wideout Rob Schulte (580 return yards) that give them the edge here. Advantage: Griz.
Just call it even. Montana’s Bobby Hauck’s team is incredibly sound on the fundamentals, and his team is incredibly disciplined, while first-year Richmond head coach Mike London’s team is the exact same way. Most impressively, both teams have improved a lot as the season has gone along, gaining more and more confidence each week. Don’t even bother trying to find who’s the better coach. Advantage: Even.
You could call this “intangibles", but in games like this it’s the little things that could make the difference - for example, Richmond fullback Shawn White, whose catch on 4th-and-2 in the UNI Dome is why the Spiders are playing in Chattanooga today, or Montana tight end Steve Pfhaler, who caught his first career touchdown pass in last week’s semifinal versus James Madison. An advantage? Once again, both teams seem to ooze senior leadership in the not-so-obvious areas of the game, too. Advantage: Even.
It’s not quite a “mirror match", but these teams appear to be very, very evenly matched - and these offenses will have to earn every yard versus these defenses. Those looking for a physical, hard-hitting championship game will be in for a treat.
In such a close game, it’s going to come down to experience. But what experience to look at? Last year, Richmond made the semifinals with this same group. But Montana head coach Bobby Hauck has been to the championship game before, and knows what sort of preparations are necessary.
Key for Montana will be to take control of this game early, just like they did in their last three games. If they can jar the Richmond offense to fork over the ball a couple more times, they stand a great chance of becoming champions.
Key for Richmond will be to jump out early and give their defense a lead to protect in the first half - something that they haven’t done in any of the other three playoff games they’ve played this year. And, like Montana, they will need to convert some turnovers to help the Spiders win their first-ever national championship.
In the end, I think it’s the trend during the playoffs that will continue. It’s Montana that will control the game early. Richmond’s defense will keep things close, as they always do. But the difference is that the Spiders won’t be able to surge in the second half and snatch this game away from Montana - if there’s one thing the Griz know how to do this postseason it’s how to protect a lead.
The Griz will get that early lead - and ride it all the way to another national championship.
Montana 21, Richmond 17