Dec. 16, 2008

By Nate Crossman
Special to NCAA.com

Montana always expects to be good. The Grizzlies are in the midst of their 22nd winning season and 16th playoff appearance in a row, and their 66 wins and counting over the past six years are the most by any team in the FCS.

But there are varying degrees of good. When the Grizzlies began preseason camp in August, head coach Bobby Hauck knew his team’s offense would be solid, thanks to three All-Big Sky-caliber linemen and a hyper-efficient quarterback in Cole Bergquist. But Hauck had legitimate concerns about Montana’s defense, which returned only three starters. Hauck’s concerns were realized in the Grizzlies’ first few intra-squad scrimmages.

“When our offense went against our defense, it was like throwing our offense against air,” Hauck said.

The defense, however, improved, as did the entire team. Montana shook off an October loss to Weber State to earn a share of the Big Sky crown, and now finds itself in Friday’s NCAA Division I Championship game against Richmond. It will be the Grizzlies’ sixth championship appearance in the last 13 years, with Montana winning in 1995 and 2001.

“One thing that’s really impressed me about this team is its willingness to prepare and improve every week,” Hauck said.

Richmond is similar to Montana in that the Spiders had to overcome adversity to make it to the championship. Richmond’s 38-31 regular-season loss to James Madison dropped their record to 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the conference, forcing them into a win-or-you’re-out scenario. The Spiders, however, responded by winning eight in a row and counting.

Defense will be on display in Chattanooga, Tenn.’s Finley Stadium, as both teams’ enter the game playing stingy.

The Grizzlies upset top-ranked James Madison 35-27 thanks in large part to the four turnovers they caused. They also knocked out quarterback Rodney Landers, who entered the game nursing an ankle injury. Montana’s defense hasn’t been a statistical juggernaut, but they’ve been good in the area that counts the most: scoring. The Grizzlies are eighth in the FCS in scoring, allowing only 17.3 points per game.

The Spiders’ defense, meanwhile, has been a statistical juggernaut. Richmond ranks in the top 15 in all defensive categories, and hasn’t allowed more than 20 points since Oct. 11, when they lost 38-31 to James Madison. In their 21-20 semifinal win over Northern Iowa, the Spiders’ defense forced the Panthers to go four downs and out on their final possession, when a first down would have sealed a win. Richmond ranks third in the FCS in turnover margin, which aids its confidence that it can stop any team.

“We have a quiet confidence,” said defensive end Lawrence Sidbury, who leads the team with 16 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. “We don’t give people bulletin board material; we just come out and play our game. That’s how we do things around here.”

Something else that could be a factor is fatigue. Neither Hauck nor Richmond coach Mike London have been shy about revealing how mentally and physically tired their teams are after nearly 20 weeks of football. Hauck likened the FCS playoffs to the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” in which Murray’s character relives the same day over and over.

“We just get up and start preparing for whoever we’re playing,” Hauck said.

The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that Hauck has been hesitant to ratchet down the contact at practice because of his team’s relative youth.

London said that exams have added to all the other mental and physical pressures, but it’s a price his players are willing to pay.

“Everybody’s nicked and bruised,” London said. “But this is it; this is the game.”

Phone A Friend

When London’s phone rang during the CAA’s weekly teleconference Monday, London admitted that it was his son Brandon, who might have been calling to give his father advice. Brandon, who now plays for the Miami Dolphins, was a receiver on the 2006 UMass team that lost the Div. I championship to Appalachian State.

Bergquist also received a call from an NFL player, the night before his team’s win over James Madison. The player on the other end, however, is slightly more well-known than London.

According to the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune, Bergquist received a call from Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who won the 2002 Walter Payton Award as a quarterback at Eastern Illinois. The phone call was made possible by Bergquist’s sister, who shares a mutual friend with Romo.

“He said a lot of nice stuff, including ‘good things happen when you throw to the running back,’” Bergquist told the Tribune.

Of course, Bergquist followed Romo’s instructions, throwing a 27-yard touchdown pass to running back Chase Reynolds in the win.

High Education

Sidbury recently found a way to combine his love of computers and football. For one of his computer science classes, Sidbury designed a program that can predict an opponent’s play call by analyzing the opponent’s play-calling history. Although the program still has a few bugs and hasn’t been used on any of Richmond’s opponents, he received an A.

“It was enjoyable, because we had the whole semester to work on it,” Sidbury said. “And I got to mix football with school, which I rarely get to do.”

Going Camp-ing

The Walter Payton and Buck Buchanan Award announcements are a few days away, but The Walter Camp FCS All-American team was announced last week. Only two players repeated as first-teamers, and they’re both receivers: Cal Poly’s Ramses Barden, and Elon’s Terrell Hudgins. The Southern Conference led the way with six recipients, while the CAA finished second with four. Five teams had two or more players on the team, led by Appalachian State’s three. The other four teams were Elon, James Madison, Northern Arizona and Montana.

The Other Game

There was a third FCS game this past weekend, as Grambling beat Jackson State 41-9 to win the Southwest Athletic Conference title for the fifth time in nine years. Grambling was led by quarterback Greg Dillon, who completed 12 of 17 passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns. Grambling finished the season on a 10-game winning streak after starting 1-2, with losses to Nevada and Northwestern State.