MISSOULA — In trying to better understand the long and short of Montana’s offensive struggles, two key areas to study are short-yardage plays and long (or explosive) plays.
The Griz are averaging 24.2 offensive points in six games. Add in the 29 total points scored by the defense and special teams, and UM is averaging 29 points per game overall, fourth in the Big Sky and 37th in the FCS.
Of the Grizzlies’ 80 drives, their most common result is a punt, which they’ve done 30 times (37.5%). Of those 30 punts, 22 have come after three-and-outs, 27.5% of their drives.
They’ve scored on 24 drives (30%), with 10 TD passes, eight TD runs and six field goals. They’ve thrown seven interceptions, lost four fumbles, turned the ball over on downs four times and missed five field goals, including one failed fake field goal. They also had six end-of-half drives.
Due to injuries, the Griz have been without quarterback Cam Humphrey for two games, All-American running back Marcus Knight and backup Nick Ostmo all six games, third-string RB Xavier Harris one and a half games, fourth-string RB Isiah Childs for essentially three games and receiver Gabe Sulser for two and a half games. Right guard Colton Keintz retired after Week 3.
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For the offense to take its next step, senior wide receiver Sammy Akem said it starts with hard work and preparation throughout the week. But then they must show it in games.
“I feel like we just have to execute better and be focused in on making plays when they come to us,” he said. “We just got to execute. That’s really what I think it comes down to: execution.”
In trying to clean things up, there are a lot of areas to address.
The Griz have struggled in short-yardage situations, lacked explosive plays, put themselves in second-and-longs and third-and-longs, failed to capitalize on turnovers, struggled when given a short field, haven’t fared greatly in the red zone and have been hurt by sacks lately.
Short-yardage plays, for purposes of an analysis of play-by-play data, are third and fourth downs with 1 or 2 yards to go, and plays within 2 yards of the opposing team’s end zone. Snaps that resulted in a “no play” because of a penalty or an intentional knee are excluded.
The Griz have converted 58.6% of short-yardage plays (17 of 29) this fall after picking up 75% (9 of 12) in the two spring games with a similar roster. That’s a sizeable drop-off from 2019, when they converted 77.3% of those plays, especially for what’s supposed to be the best offensive line in head coach Bobby Hauck’s third season.
It’s not as bad as the 44.4% conversion rate (24 of 54) they had in 2018 when Hauck took over and they had three true O-linemen playing. But it’s much lower than the 68.9% (42 of 61) they converted in Bob Stitt’s third and final season as head coach in 2017.
It’s not that the Griz have a small sample size this season. They’ve converted 17 of 29 short-yardage situations through six games. Extrapolate that to 14 games, and that’s 67.7 plays in those situations, which is almost identical to the 66 plays run in 2019. The thing is that the 2019 team failed to convert just 15 plays (51 of 66), while the 2021 team has already failed 12 times.
One potential reason for the decline could be UM going to redshirt freshman quarterback Kris Brown. However, the Griz converted 9 of 14 times through the first four games when Humphrey was the starter, and are nearly identical at 8 of 15 in Brown’s two starts
Another reason could be the absence of Knight and Ostmo. The Griz have converted 12 of 22 short-yardage run plays, with the 10 fails matching the 2019 total, except that team ran 54 such plays and converted 44 times. With a trio of freshmen this year, Xavier Harris is 3 of 6, Childs is 2 of 4 and Junior Bergen is 3 of 7. Knight was 29 of 35 in 2019, while Ostmo was 4 of 6.
Another area that could be identified is 2019 QB Dalton Sneed was a dual-threat player, while Humphrey and Brown aren’t. Sneed was 9 of 10 with his legs that year. Humphrey is just 1 of 1, a somewhat surprising lack of attempts given UM is missing its top two RBs. Brown is 3 of 4, including 3 of 3 on plays within 2 yards of the end zone.
Humphrey and Brown are supposed to be better passers than Sneed, so it makes sense the Griz have passed more on short-yardage plays, especially because they’re without their top running backs. They’ve gone 5 of 7 (71.4%). Humphrey is 2 of 4 and Brown is 3 of 3. The 2019 team was 7 of 12, with Sneed going 6 of 10 and Humphrey 1 of 2.
UM has converted each of its last five short-yardage pass attempts after incompletions to Harris and Sulser to start the year. Cole Grossman has caught two of the conversions, while Akem, Erik Barker and Keelan White each have one.
Explosive plays, for purposes of a look at play-by-play data, are passing or rushing plays that generate at least 20 yards. Not all explosive passing plays are deep shots because some are short passes with a lot of yards after the catch.
This fall, UM has averaged 3.8 explosive plays per game, 23 in 6 games. The 2019 team averaged 4.4 per game, 62 in 14 games, which equates to about one more play every two games. While a small difference, hitting just an extra one of those plays per game could lead to a score and seven points or put them closer to the end zone and in a better position to score.
Where the difference can be seen is this year’s team has 13 explosive plays on passes and 10 on rushes. The 2019 squad had 50 passes and only 12 rushes.
One on hand, the Griz have gotten almost as many explosive plays on the ground despite losing their dual-threat QB and top two running backs from 2019. Harris has four runs of 20 or more yards, Brown has three, Bergen has two and Drew Turner has one.
On the other hand, while they have QBs who are supposed to be better passers than runners, they’re averaging 2.2 explosive passing plays per game. The 2019 team was at 3.6 per game, although that team did include Samori Toure, UM’s single-season receiving yards leader, and Jerry Louie-McGee, UM’s all-time receptions leader.
Humphrey has nine passes of 20 or more yards in four games (2.25 per game). Brown has four in two games (two per game). Flowers and Akem each have three of those receptions, Mitch Roberts and Grossman have two apiece, while Sulser, Bergen and Joey Elwell have one each.
Down and distance
UM is converting just 36% of third downs (31 of 85), which ranks 10th in the Big Sky and 66th in the FCS. The 2019 team was at 47% (91 of 195). Even Hauck’s 2018 team that finished 6-5 and missed the playoffs was at 40% (64 of 160).
Success on third down can be improved by performing better on first and second downs. That’s especially true of first downs because teams don’t want to get behind the sticks right away.
Montana is averaging 4.69 yards per play on its 169 first-and-10 plays. UM’s 13 other first-down plays with more or less than 10 yards to go were excluded because those situations can change play calling.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether the Griz run or pass on first-and-10 because they’re averaging 4.769 yards on 104 runs plays and 4.569 yards on 65 pass plays.
Of the 169 plays, 27 (15.9%) have gone for 10 or more yards, resulting in another first-and-10 or a score. Take out those plays, and the Griz are averaging just 2.2 yards and have committed five turnovers on the first-and-10 plays that don’t result in a first down or score.
Regardless of first-down distance, the Griz have been in second-and-long (7 or more yards) 58.5% of the time (83 of 142), second-and-medium (4-6 yards) 29.6% of the time (42 of 142) and second-and-short (1-3 yards) just 11.9% of the time (17 of 142).
The Griz have found themselves in third-and-long (5 or more yards) 63.5% of the time (54 of 85). At least they’re in third-and-short (1-2 yards) more often than third-and-medium (3-4 yards): 20% compared to 16.5%.
The Griz are averaging 19.3 first downs gained per game this season. That number was 23.9 in 2019 and 21.2 in 2018.
Points off turnovers
Montana’s offense has scored just 14 points off 14 forced turnovers. The Griz forced a 15th turnover, but the defense returned that for a touchdown.
After two of the turnovers, Humphrey threw an interception that Western Illinois returned for a touchdown and seven points, and Brown lost a fumble that Dixie State returned for a touchdown and six points. So, UM’s offense has a net total of plus-1 point off those 14 turnovers, 13 of which were forced by the defense and one by special teams.
Here’s how UM’s offense has done on the drive after forcing a turnover: five punts, three interceptions, two touchdowns, one fumble, one blocked field goal and two end of halves. Four of the five punts came after a three-and-out, with three of those four coming with Brown at QB.
The Griz offense has turned the ball over 11 times, leading to 30 points for their opponents. In six games, that’s 1.83 turnovers per game. That’s worse than the 2018 team that had a propensity for fumbles and committed 20 turnovers in 11 games, 1.81 times per game. The 2019 team turned it over 24 times in 14 games, 1.71 times per game.
Montana has started 16 of its 80 drives in opponent territory, or 1 out of every five drives.
The Griz have scored on just five of those 16, or 31.3%. With 31 points in 16 drives, that’s an average of 1.9 points per drive that began in opposing territory.
The breakdown of those drives: four touchdowns, four interceptions, three missed field goals (including one fake), two punts, one fumble, one made field goal and one end of half.
Humphrey led the Griz to 10 points on eight of those drives. Brown led them to 21 points on seven drives. Robbie Patterson had one drive with zero points.
Montana has scored on 73% of its trips into the red zone, converting on 19 of 26 opportunities. That percentage ranks seventh in the Big Sky and 90th in the FCS. Comparatively, the 2019 team converted on 83%, while Hauck’s 2018 team converted on 84%.
Where the red zone struggles hurt the most is that the Griz are scoring touchdowns on just 50% of their trips, 13 of 26. By comparison, the 2019 team was at 70%, while the 2018 team was at 60%.
The Griz have given up 14 sacks in six games for an average of 2.33, which is ninth in the Big Sky and 78th in the FCS. Humphrey was sacked six times in four games. Brown was sacked eight times in two games, fumbling on four of those, partly a lack of pocket awareness.
The average of 2.33 sacks allowed per game is worse than when the 2018 team gave up 2.27 per game, 25 in 11 games. The 2019 team allowed 2.71 per game, 38 in 14 games.
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.