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A changing of the guard in Big Sky
The king is dead. Long live the new king.
For the first time since 1993, the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs will open this weekend without the University of Montana. What little hope the Grizzlies might have clung to that an expanded 20-team FCS playoff field might be enough to sneak their way in died early Sunday morning when the pairings were announced.
The sad truth is the committee made the right call. This year’s edition of the Grizzlies were not a playoff-caliber team. Montana had just six wins against Division I opponents and only two against teams with winning records. Both of those — against 6-5 Sacramento State and 6-5 Northern Arizona — required fourth-quarter comebacks at home. More often than not, Montana looked like a very average Big Sky Conference team that was lucky to beat 2-9 Portland State on a last-second field goal.
The Grizzlies were decimated by injuries — at least 15 players suffered season-ending blows. A telling sign was this: in the second half of the must-win game against Montana State in the season finale, the Grizzlies bread-and-butter play was quarterback Justin Roper running the ball.
Some may regard Roper’s collegiate career — which came to an end on Saturday — as a bit of a disappointment. But one thing is clear: he is no Denarius McGhee when it comes to being fleet afoot. McGhee, Montana State’s redshirt freshman QB, is 5-9 and lightning quick. Roper is 6-6 and the definition of a pocket passer. His running style is courageous but awkward. Yet in a game the Grizzlies had to win, Roper couldn’t throw the ball downfield. He finished 14 of 24 passing for just 115 yards and couldn’t complete a ball more than 10 yards downfield. Part of that may have been blamed on the poor weather conditions, but there may also have been an undisclosed injury that affected his throwing motion. Suffice it to say, he looked awkward and uncomfortable.
As sad as it is to see UM’s streak of 12 straight conference championships and 17 straight playoff appearances go by the board, it was equally sad to see senior Chase Reynolds come up a mere 3 yards short of the school’s career rushing mark, held by Yohance Humphrey. The way Saturday’s game unfolded with Montana frantically trying to come from behind in the dying minutes, there was no opportunity to call plays to get Reynolds the record, even had coach Robin Pflugrad been aware of it at the time.
Reynolds closed the season with 173 and 180-yard games on the ground, which begs the question as to the kind of year he might have had if Pflugrad had given him the ball more often early in the season.
While many UM fans may be tempted to lay the blame for this season — UM’s worst since a 6-5 campaign in 1992 — on Pflugrad, the fervent hope here is that athletic director Jim O’Day is not among them. I’ve always believed that any coach deserves at least a three-year window to put his stamp on a program and Pflugrad is no exception. To fire him now would be a terrible mistake.
That being said, it’s clear Pflugrad has some major ground to cover in recruiting. The returning quarterbacks on the roster are Gerald Kemp (converted to running back this fall), Jordan Johnson, D.J. Zapata and redshirt Shea Smithwick-Hahn. The state’s top quarterback recruit, Jake Bleskin of C.M. Russell, has already verbally committed to Montana State, although commitments are nonbinding until signing day in February.
Replacing Reynolds won’t be easy, either. Sophomore Peter Nguyen was thought to be the heir-apparent, but has spent most of his first two seasons returning kicks and only carried the ball from scrimmage 17 times this season. The 5-8 Nguyen has great speed, but whether either he or Kemp (224 yards on 45 carries this season) can be the No. 1 running back remains an open question. Seniors Erik Stoll, Tyler Hobbs and Severin Campbell (whose year was cut short by injury) leave major holes to fill on defense as well.
Long live the new king
While the Grizzlies lick their wounds and prepare to hit the recruiting trail in earnest, Montana State finds itself preparing for a playoff game.
The Bobcats earned a No. 4 seed and a first-round bye, meaning they won’t play until Dec. 4 against the winner of this weekend’s Robert Morris-North Dakota State game. MSU is in position to get at least two home playoff games, the second of which could come against Big Sky co-champ Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals.
Bobcat fans may have wondered whether coach Rob Ash will be tempted to pursue head coaching openings at Colorado, Minnesota or other Football Bowl Subdivision schools. In recent years, we’ve seen Paul Wulff go from EWU to Washington State and Bobby Hauck jump from Montana to Nevada-Las Vegas. Both took over bottom-feeder programs and have continued to struggle, although in the case of Hauck, it’s only been one year. Neither Colorado nor Minnesota is in position to contend anytime in the immediate future, regardless of whom they bring in.
Ash signed a contract extension that goes through 2013 last summer and the guess here is that, regardless of how the Bobcats fare in the playoffs, he stays in Bozeman for at least a couple more seasons.
That couldn’t be worse news for Grizzly fans, because Ash is slowly but surely building a powerhouse. The Cats are not only good, but young and figure to only get better over the next couple of seasons.
Around the Big Sky
When Weber State’s Cameron Higgins limped off the field with an injured knee against Montana State on Nov. 6, it appeared the senior from Hawaii had lost his chance to break the Big Sky career record for touchdown passes. But Higgins returned to the field the following week against Northern Arizona, broke the record and then threw one more against Texas Tech last Saturday to finish his career with 98, two better than Dave Dickenson and Matt Nichols.
Is Higgins the best quarterback ever to play in the Big Sky? Far from it, but he’s got the record until someone else comes along.
With Thanksgiving on the horizon, I’d like to take a couple of lines to thank several hard-working people who have made this column possible this season. At the top of the list are media relations directors Dave Guffey at Montana and Bill Lamberty at Montana State, along with Jon Kasper, the media relations director for the Big Sky Conference.
By Mark Vinson, Independent Record