MISSOULA — Montana will try to push its record to 2-0 when it opens its home slate against North Alabama at 7 p.m. Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Griz are ranked No. 22 in the FCS and coming off a 31-17 road win over South Dakota. The Lions (1-0) will play their first road game after a 26-17 season-opening upset of Western Illinois.
Here are five things to watch in the game under the lights. The contest will be televised on ABC/Fox Montana.
Can Montana keep North Alabama’s receivers in check?
As North Alabama tries to decide which running back is its go-to guy, the Lions could rely on their depth at wide receiver. They return their top five receivers — Cortez Hall, Jakobi Byrd, Dexter Boykin, Andre Little and Jack Peavey — and Hall has three straight 100-yard games.
With big-play ability, three of the Lions’ five scoring drives last week were two minutes or less. Montana’s secondary will be up for a challenge and could be helped by a disruptive front seven against an offensive line with one returner and quarterback Christian Lopez, who went 253 passes between interceptions last year.
Can Montana find some balance with the run game?
As South Dakota geared up to stop the run last week, Montana went with the run-pass option and dominated through the air. The Griz ended up rushing for 83 yards, including 61 by the running backs, although Marcus Knight shined with 6.7 yards per rush and no negative runs.
North Alabama recorded six tackles for loss and four sacks as it mixed its inside size with speed off the edge, holding Western Illinois to 119 rushing yards. If the Lions divert resources from the box to focus on Montana’s receivers, it could open running lanes if the offensive line gets some more push.
Can Montana replicate its success in the fourth quarter?
Montana held the ball for 12-plus minutes of the fourth quarter in its season-opening win, while the defense came up with three key stops. The end result was the Grizzlies’ second fourth-quarter shutout in 12 games since Bobby Hauck returned as the head coach.
North Alabama didn’t trail at all in its season-opening win and returns seven starters on offense who were part of a team that mounted four fourth-quarter comebacks last season. The Griz, on the other hand, blew four fourth-quarter leads in 2018.
Can Montana repeat its strong showing on third downs?
Montana converted 11 of 17 third downs against South Dakota, including going four of five on short-yardage situations. North Alabama presented a strong challenge to Western Illinois, limiting the Leathernecks to two conversions on 13 third downs and one of three fourth downs.
Montana’s defense had similar success, holding South Dakota to two of 10 on third downs and one of three on fourth downs. The Griz will face a North Alabama offense that could only convert four of 16 third downs and didn’t pick up the one fourth down it attempted last week.
Can Montana break through on special teams?
Montana sophomore Malik Flowers averaged 29 yards on four kickoff returns and came close to returning a kick for a score against South Dakota, tackled by seemingly one of the last defenders twice. Jerry Louie-McGee was only able to return one punt, which went for 6 yards; North Alabama allowed an average of 15.7 yards on three punt returns last week.
The Griz will have to hold onto the ball against North Alabama, which forced and recovered a fumble on a punt return last week. The Lions did have a punt blocked and returned for a score against Western Illinois, so the Griz could have a chance to make a game-changing play there.
Five stats to know
0: North Alabama is 0-3 all-time against nationally ranked FCS teams. It lost to No. 1 North Dakota State in 2018, No. 3 Jacksonville State in 2016 and No. 3 Youngstown State in 1994.
10: Montana wide receiver Jerry Louie-McGee is 10 catches away from becoming the program’s all-time receptions leader. Louie-McGee has 183 catches, while leader Raul Pacheco had 192.
15: Montana has won 15 consecutive home openers dating back to 2004. That streak is tied for the sixth longest in the FCS with McNeese.
37: Since 1989, Montana is 30-7 at home against teams traveling from east of the Mississippi River, like North Alabama. The Griz are 7-1 against those teams in the past decade.
24,837: That is the largest crowd to have ever watched a North Alabama football game. A record could be set if Washington-Grizzly Stadium approaches or reaches its capacity of 25,217.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.
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