Who: SLU at Montana
When: Saturday, December 7th
Time: 1 p.m. MT
Location: Missoula, Montana
Stadium: WA-Grizzly Stadium
How to Watch: ESPN 3
The SLU Lions escaped a nasty first-round playoff game against Villanova. A back-and-forth scoring onslaught that seesawed dramatically from one half to the other. Villanova had a 31-14 halftime lead that might have appeared like the game could be put away quite easily in the second half. SLU was not there to quit as they put up 17 points to Villanova’s zero in the third quarter. Both teams would score two more touchdowns, but a botched PAT kick would make the difference as the Lions made both of theirs so they could escape with a one-point win. Meanwhile, Montana and company were resting on the couch as they enjoyed a bye week.
Southeastern Louisiana Lions 8-4 (6-3 SLC)
The Lions were able to get past Villanova, but what can they do to escape from Missoula with a win? The strength and weakness of the Lions is the passing game. Chason Virgil averages just under 300 passing yards a game and close to two touchdowns a game through the air. On the flip side, last week the Lions allowed four passing touchdowns and threw a long pick-six. Last week, the Lions had three receivers tally over 100+ yards receiving and a total of three touchdowns. SLU ranks as the number one passing offense in the Southland Conference. The passing game will have to be on point as the rushing game is important but does not rack up many yards as their lead rusher Devonte Williams only averages 50 yards per game. Conversely, the Lions are very powerful in the run defense statistically. Although their tackles count is fairly average with 74 as an individual high and did allow Villanova’s quarterback to carve up serious yards, the Lions defense has 104 tackles for a loss. What that means is the defense is getting to runners before they even reach the line of scrimmage in about one of every eight plays (104 TFL, 855 total tackles). The Lions also have an above-average sack total as they have racked up 43 sacks this year. SLU ranks first in sacks (43) and second in interceptions (16) in the Southland Conference.
Key Player: The SLU Defense will play a huge factor in this matchup. If the offense gets shut down in the passing game it could be game over, but for the passing game to have a chance to be in a shootout with Montana the defense needs to come up big. With the number of sacks and tackles for a loss that the Lions bring to the game that could equate to serious pressure on Dalton Sneed and limited success from Marcus Knight rushing. If the Lions can force this game to be a passing versus passing attack they just might have a chance to force the upset. They still will have to find a way to cover Samori Toure, Samuel Akem, and Jerry Louie-McGee.
Montana Grizzlies 9-3 (6-2 BSC)
The Montana Grizzlies have come back to the playoffs after beating expectations all season long in the Big Sky. The Griz only have three losses on the season which includes FBS #13 Oregon, FCS #3 Sacramento State, and FCS #5 Montana State. Montana also ranks within the top five of most statistical categories in the Big Sky conference, including leading the conference with 15 interceptions. Marcus Knight is the leading rusher for the Griz, but also fourth in the FCS in rushing touchdowns and third overall in total touchdowns. While the rushing attack is strong with Marcus Knight, Samori Toure is 14th in the FCS in receiving yards. This offense would not be complete without the arm or legs of Dalton Sneed who has helped lead this team to be a dynamic scoring team. On defense, the Griz take care of business with three 100+ total tackle players including Dante Olson (152), Robby Hauck (120), and Jace Lewis (116). These three players all rank within the FCS top 20 for tackles as Olson is 2nd, Hauck is 13th, and Lewis is 16th. Montana looks to be one of the most prepared and diverse teams in the playoffs.
Key Player: Dante Olson. I gave one player’s name here simply to not overshadow SLU’s section which has their own talents. Montana simply has more high-profile talent available to them and with several on each side of the ball. Dante Olson continues to embark on his tour of terrorizing teams around the FCS. His awareness of the ball and how to take down runners is not just natural but instinctive. Olson does not just fly around the field, he gravitates to the ball and causes destruction. Olson’s stat line is 152 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, 1 interception, and 2 forced fumbles. Despite Olson’s success, the majority of the wins this season were true team efforts where everyone was necessary to succeed.
SLU poses a unique threat to Montana with such a sturdy front seven who are able to produce high numbers of tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Initially, this could stun the Griz early on as they are known for slow starts in big games. A slow start could give the Lions just enough time to build a lead and walk out of Missoula with the upset. This is all completely possible, but it simply will not happen. Montana did have a huge blunder in the “Brawl-of-the-Wild” as they lost by a season-high 34 points. While this was embarrassing for the Griz faithful, Montana is a perfect 6-0 when playing at home this season. In the past four seasons, the Griz have only lost 5 games at home. For Montana to lose at home during a home playoff game for the first time since 2015 seems like an impossible task even for another seeded team to do. 26,000 unruly Griz fans screaming at the top of their lungs will create an FBS level advantage to the Griz as long as they keep playing at a high caliber. Even if the Lions are able to shut down Marcus Knight and the running backs that still leaves Dalton Sneed and the hot receiving group to contend with. SLU is a talented team, but I think Montana has far too many talents to scheme and cover. Montana may run away with the game, but a two-touchdown lead seems very attainable for the Griz.
Montana 35, SLU 23
My name is Ben Schleiger and I’m your representative for the Big Sky Conference. I have done work for multiple newspapers and sports blogs including The Johnstown Breeze, The University of Northern Colorado Mirror, and Mile High Maniac. I am a proud alumnus of the University of Northern Colorado with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Political Science. In my free time, I like watching sports, playing video games, and trying new foods.