MISSOULA — Montana has a challenging but exciting road ahead in its chase for a Football Championship Subdivision championship.
The seventh-ranked Griz earned a national seed, a first-round bye and a second-round home game in the playoffs by beating rival Montana State on Saturday. They’ll start the playoffs at 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 3, at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in a game that'll be streamed on ESPN+.
Montana will begin its FCS-record 25th postseason appearance by hosting the winner of Northern Iowa and Eastern Washington, which play this weekend in Cheney, Washington. With a win, they may have to go on the road to face the No. 3 and No. 2 teams in the country.
The Griz lost to EWU in the regular season, 34-28, in Cheney on Oct. 2. The Eagles rose as high as No. 2 in the FCS Top 25 poll. Northern Iowa scored a 34-16 road win over Sacramento State, a team which beat UM, on Sept. 11.
“When a team beats you, you’d kind of like another shot at them if you’re a competitor,” UM coach Bobby Hauck said while appearing on the FCS selection show. “That game was on ESPN on the national stage. It was a close game, came down to the last play. We look forward to playing that one, but we’re familiar with Northern Iowa as well, feel like they’re an awfully good team.”
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If the Griz win that game, they’ll most likely have to travel to No. 3 seed James Madison in the quarterfinals. They would then likely have to play at No. 2 North Dakota State, which has won eight of the past 10 national titles, in the semifinals.
It’ll be a challenging task for the Griz to pull off, but they’ve played well on the road, opening the season with a 13-7 win over Washington, which was ranked No. 20 in the FBS at the time. They’re 4-1 away from home, with that lone loss at EWU, which is reminiscent of 2019, when the Griz beat Weber State at home but then lost to the Wildcats on the road in the playoffs.
“We’ve kind of probably played better on the road this year in general, but our stadium as awesome,” Hauck said after Saturday’s win. “I’d rather play every dang game right here at home because, I mean, our fans love us and we love them. It’s pretty cool when it’s like that.”
Griz quarterback Cam Humphrey got injured late in the EWU game and didn’t play in the Sacramento State game as he recovered from a right ankle injury that kept him out for a month. It was one of numerous injuries on both sides of the ball, but his absence played a big role in the loss to Sacramento State, which prevented UM from winning its first Big Sky title since 2009 and likely getting a top-four seed.
Hauck said Sunday that “the sixth seed is great,” but he had pitched for a higher seed on Saturday, seemingly hoping the selection committee would take the injury situation earlier in the year into account. Despite the injuries, both of the Grizzlies’ losses were one-score defeats.
“We’ve had to fight through a lot of things, and to be 9-2 and I think deserving of one of the top four seeds in the playoff picture is quite an accomplishment considering what we’ve been through,” Hauck said Saturday.
Montana was one of five teams from the Big Sky to make the playoffs, a league record, and one of three to be seeded. Sacramento State received the No. 4 seed as the Big Sky champion. Montana State got the No. 8 seed and could potentially host Missouri State, coach by Montana native Bobby Petrino, in the second round.
In addition to EWU, UC Davis will play a first-round game against South Dakota State. The winner will play at Sacramento State in the second round.
“The league’s good,” Hauck said Sunday. “We have good offense, good defense. Depending on the team, maybe both on some of these squads. We had a couple wins over Pac-12 teams this year, which was cool. Obviously, you saw the highlights on NAU beating Arizona. I think it’s a strong conference and probably deserved five spots.”
Defending national champion Sam Houston got the top seed and is on a 21-game winning streak. Villanova is the fifth seed and East Tennessee State is seventh.
With the bye week, Montana will have time to continue healing up from injuries, get in some film study and weightlifting, and eat “a lot of turkey on Thursday,” Hauck said. The Griz will then start preparing for their first playoff game, which will likely also serve as the final home game for UM’s seniors, barring a loss by JMU in its first playoff game.
“It’s always bittersweet,” Hauck said about senior day on Saturday. “We introduce our seniors. It’s the last scheduled home game. Like I said, we love our guys. I love this football team. I don’t want this season to end. Obviously, at some point, it will come to an end. I hope we can extend it for a long time.”
Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at email@example.com.