In the FCS Huddle: Montana looking to tighten up resume

When the NCAA Division I football playoff selection committee meets behind closed doors at the end of the regular season, the group is supposed to look at a team's entire body of work.

However, one loss can sometimes shoot holes into what otherwise would be an impressive resume.

Just ask Montana.

Last season, the Grizzlies were rolling into an Oct. 30 clash with Weber State. Winners of five straight, Montana simply had to win two its final three contests to make the playoffs - something that had been the norm in Missoula for the prior 17 seasons.

But, that norm came to end as Weber State pushed Montana around and the result showed on the scoreboard (a 30-21 Weber State win) and, ultimately, the season as the Grizzlies failed to reach the seven Division I wins preferred by the selection committee.

This season, the circumstances are eerily similar:

Once again 6-2, Montana needs a win to reach seven Division I wins. After Saturday's game, the Grizzlies will wrap up the regular season against Division II Western Oregon and the rivalry game at Big Sky leader Montana State, where the Grizzlies likely will be an underdog.

With everything on the line, the Grizzlies aren't taking the Wildcats for granted.

"It's on our mind (the loss last season), because we don't want to get caught on our heels like last season," senior defensive lineman Bobby Alt said. "It's a motivator having missed the playoffs. It shows all of us, particularly the seniors, that you can't count on anything."

One aspect Alt and teammates can count on is that Weber State might be one of the nation's best, and certainly one of the most physical, teams with a losing record (3-4 overall, but 3-1 in the Big Sky).

"They're a very physical program, maybe the most physical in the front seven as anybody in our league," Montana coach Robin Pflugrad said. "I'm very impressed the way they move people off the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, so I think it's going to be a big battle there."

That physicality played a huge factor in the loss last season, as the Wildcats' offensive and defensive lines got huge pushes all day, dominating the run game on both sides of the ball.

While fullback Vai Tafuna is gone after running over Montana for four touchdowns and 129 yards last season, running backs Josh Booker (215 pounds) and Tanner Hinds (200 pounds) have led a physical ground attack that has averaged 200.3 yards per contest this season.

While the two bigger backs will run behind 1,430 combined pounds of starting offensive linemen, the Weber State defense has been able to shed blocks and bags an average of eight tackles for a loss.

It doesn't help that Montana may have already been dealt a mental blow.

Last weekend, Montana backup quarterback Gerald Kemp and starting cornerback Trumaine Johnson - one of the FCS's best NFL prospects - were arrested after an altercation with Missoula police.

Both pleaded not guilty to charges of obstructing a peace officer, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. They are still listed on the depth chart for Saturday's game. However, it has presented a challenge for the second-year coach, who refused to discuss the altercation in depth at his weekly press conference on Tuesday.

"I think you have to rely on some of your upperclassmen, your leadership players and your leadership council," Pflugrad said. "You just have to focus on the task on hand and that's Weber State."

Historically, Montana teams haven't struggled with Weber State - the Griz lead the all-time series 37-13 and haven't lost at home since 1987.

However, relying on past numbers could be dangerous for Montana, especially with a young Weber State team that put a giant chink in the Grizzlies' armor last season. To make matters worse for Montana, Weber State coach Rob McBride has seen growing potential out of his team.

"This team still hasn't reached their potential yet," McBride said. "They're a very young team, but a very talented team. So we're still on the learning curve with this group, but this group will be better together for the next three years. At times we are very good, and at times we are not very good."

It doesn't matter which Weber State team shows up Saturday, Montana will have to be better either way if it plans to become playoff-eligible.