FCS Game of the Week: Montana at South Dakota
By CRAIG HALEY
Week 1 Matchup: No. 25 Montana (0-0) at South Dakota (0-0)
Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET at the DakotaDome (about 5,500 due to stadium renovations) in Vermillion, South Dakota
Television: MidcoSN, ESPN+
Series: Montana leads 12-6 (last meeting: Montana won 28-20 in Missoula on Sept. 13, 2014)
The Skinny: The Big Sky-MVFC Challenge heats up with a matchup that is pivotal for both teams' FCS playoff resume. Each team has an upcoming FBS game in which it will be a heavy underdog, so this matchup is important for a winning record in nonconference games.
Montana finished only 6-5 in coach Bobby Hauck's return season last year, but it has 20 returning starters and improved depth (adding eight transfers this season). Dual-threat QB Dalton Sneed was the 2018 Big Sky newcomer of the year, finishing strong with 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the team's final three games. He can spread the ball around to excellent receivers, led by Samuel Akem (59 receptions, 13 TDs) and Jerry Louie-McGee (165 career catches). The defense was dented for too many yards a year ago (over 419 a game), but first-team All-America LB Dante Olsen was outstanding with a school-record 151 tackles and an FCS-best 13.7 stops per game.
South Dakota returns 15 starters in coach Bob Nielson's fourth season. While Sneed was ninth-ranked in the FCS in total offense, Coyotes QB Austin Simmons was even better at No. 6, averaging 314.2 yards per game. The Coyotes need better play at the line of scrimmage: As a playoff team in 2017, they averaged 190.8 rushing yards and allowed 150.8 per game, but those averages fell to 125.4 and 211.1, respectively, in a 4-7 season last year. New defensive coordinator Travis Johansen has redesigned the system to stop run-pass option offenses. Senior DE Darin Greenfield has 41 tackles for loss, 19 sacks and 33 QB hurries in his career. Brady Schutt has placed 40 of his 126 career punts inside an opponent's 20, including 13 inside the 10.
Prediction: Think of it this way: These two teams have one postseason bid in the last three seasons, and it didn't come from two-time national champ/seven-time finalist Montana. The Griz need a big season. They have to come out attacking and not fade in the fourth quarter, which plagued them in losses a year ago. Montana, 31-24.
Updated August 28, 2019