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5 burning questions as Cats, Griz open practice
Montana and Montana State open fall camp this week – the Cats started today and the Griz go on Tuesday – and that means the football season is right around the corner. Like all teams at this time of year, both the Grizzlies and Bobcats have concerns as they begin preparations for the long season ahead.
In Missoula, the Griz are coming off a 14-1 campaign in which they made yet another run to the FCS title game in Chattanooga, Tenn. The beat continued for one of the most idolized programs in the country. But change is in the air as new coach Robin Pflugrad takes over for Bobby Hauck – one of the most successful coaches in school history – and as they wave goodbye to the winningest group of players in the history of the program.
In Bozeman, expectations are soaring as the Cats bring back 18 starters, the most in the league. On the heels of another winning season, fourth-year coach Rob Ash and his bunch look primed for a big year. But they need a quarterback to step up and lead them. They also need to stay health and cut WAY down on their turnovers, which have become annual battles. Ash says depth is another concern, though the team’s list of top players appears as good as any squad in the league.
With that, we break down the five biggest questions Cats and Griz fans can’t wait to have answered in the weeks and months ahead:
5 QUESTIONS: MONTANA
1. Can new coach Robin Pflugrad meet enormous expectations? When asked during the spring if he can keep up the same ridiculous winning percentage of his predecessor, Pflugrad unequivocally answered no. And he’s probably right. Hauck went 80-17 in seven seasons and made three appearances in the FCS title game. Pflugrad has been an assistant for 30 years, but this is his first go-round as a head coach. All eyes are on him.
2. How does the team replace all those seniors? Simple: They don’t. Montana graduated a crop of players (Marc Mariani, Shawn Lebsock, Shann Schillinger, Levi Horn et al) that went 51-6 overall and 31-1 the last four years in the Big Sky Conference. What UM can bank on, though, is that the winning attitude was passed down to its younger players. That never has been a problem for the Griz.
3. Will the offensive line mesh with an influx of change? The Griz are reshuffling their offensive front this season, and not just schematically. UM lost Levi Horn, Chris Dyk and Terran Hillesland, not to mention two solid tight ends that blocked regularly. Jon Opperud, a guard last year, is switching to tackle, and the team is looking for some extra stability to surround center (and anchor) Alex Verlanic. This is the area Pflugrad was most concerned about in the spring.
4. Will Pflugrad’s offense be too pass happy? Sure, a big-play offense will remind Griz fans of Don “Papa Bear” Read, but will it win games like Hauck’s smashmouth approach did? Though maligned for whatever reason, former offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie was one of the best closers in the business when his boys had the lead. It’s a good thing the Griz still have Chase Reynolds in the fold.
5. Can Chase Reynolds break the school’s rushing record? The senior running back in just 986 yards shy of passing Yohance Humphery for the top spot on UM’s all-time rushing list. Chances are Reynolds won’t get a third straight 1,500-yard season. But if you ask Reynolds, he’ll tell you he couldn’t care less about the record. He wants a ring. Humphery has one. Reynolds doesn’t.
5 QUESTIONS: MONTANA STATE
1. Will the Bobcats finally get some consistency at quarterback? It’s Rob Ash’s fourth year, and it’s time for the team to find a leader under center. Cody Kempt, a senior, and Denarius McGhee, a redshirt freshman, have been battling it out for the majority of the playing time. Idaho State transfer Grayson Galloway is also in the mix. But somebody – anybody – needs to take the reins and lead this offense. Otherwise, prosperity will come slow.
2. Can they stay healthy? The Bobcats have been hexed in the Ash era with injury troubles up and down the lineup, and it’s prevented them from making the big strides they’ve wanted to make. If they stay healthy in 2010, there should be no reason the Cats can’t make a legit run at the league title. But we’ll believe they can stay off the training table when they actually do.
3. Can the offense protect the ball? It’s been a big problem in Bozeman the last two years. MSU can’t seem to find itself on the plus side of the turnover margin, and it has single-handedly lost them games. The Cats were minus-10 in ‘08 and minus-6 last year. The Griz, by contrast, were a combined plus-34 the last two years. Do ya think that had ANYTHING to do with them going to back-to-back FCS title games? This is an easy one: Protect the ball and win; give it away and lose. The Cats’ success hinges on a major improvement in this area.
4. Will the punt return game improve? It has to. MSU averaged a paltry 5.6 yards per punt return last year. The year before it averaged 8.1. The Cats have to find a reliable guy to return punts – somebody who can avarege at least 10 yards per attempt. It wouldn’t kill them to run one or two back for a score either. Field position is huge in any football game. MSU can’t continue rely on its defense to win that battle every single time.
5. Will they be able to stand prosperity? If things go well in the early going – and they should – the Cats will have to deal with the role of being the hunted rather than the hunter. And they haven’t played that part too well in the past. Remember the Colorado game? A huge win followed by three crushing losses. Whenever the Cats appear ready to turn the corner, they lose a game they shouldn’t or suffer an rash of injuries that ultimately kills them. MSU must guard against that this season.
As I said up top, answers to these questions will begin trickling in over the course of the next few weeks. In the meantime, tell me: What questions are YOU waiting to have answered?
By Greg Rachac, Billings Gazette