OGDEN — Weber State head football coach Jay Hill likes to point out that big games are earned by the teams that play in them.
WSU earned it by beating teams like Northern Iowa and Sacramento State — now ranked No. 4 and No. 6, respectively — by two or more touchdowns. The No. 3 Wildcats (8-2, 6-0 Big Sky) also earned it by shrugging off a late deficit to beat North Dakota.
Montana earned it by pummeling Big Sky teams in the second half and winning by two or more touchdowns three times since getting beat up at Sac State. The No. 5 Griz (8-2, 5-1) are playing their final home game this week.
Thus, they and everybody else are treated to a first-place showdown between two top-five squads when the teams kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday in Missoula, Montana.
Weber State can clinch at least a share of the Big Sky title with a win and might even move to the inside track for the No. 2 national seed in the playoffs. Montana is jockeying for its first conference title since 2009 and is also playing for a high playoff seed.
Series history is drastically lopsided in favor of Montana (40-15) but Weber State has won the last two contests: in 2015, a 24-21 overtime decision in Missoula and, in 2017, a 41-27 win in Ogden. While the two schools have a deep history in the Big Sky, it seems both are never good at football at the same time, and certainly not to this degree.
The Griz are powered offensively by a good passing attack complemented by an above-average run game, which adds up to the league’s second-best scoring offense (38.2 points per game) and third-best mark in average yards (465.4).
Marcus Knight averages a modest 77 rushing yards per game but the sophomore averages 4.5 yards per carry and has punched in 16 rushing touchdowns.
Samuel Akem (85 yards per game, 14.4 yards per reception) and Samori Toure (86 yards per game, 15.6 yards per reception) make a potent receiving duo for Montana, with dangerous return man Jerry Louie-McGee adding a third receiving option.
The big question is who will be throwing them the ball. Senior Dalton Sneed is the guy for Montana but left their Oct. 19 loss at Sacramento State with an injury.
Sneed returned to action last week during a 42-17 home win over Idaho but got banged up and was knocked out of the game. He averages 282 passing yards per game and completes 67% of his passes.
In his place, junior Cam Humphrey averaged throwing 20 of 28 for 255 yards, totaling five touchdowns, in two starts. But last week against Idaho, Humphrey was 6 of 10 for 50 yards and threw two interceptions.
When healthy, Sneed has provided a better dose of mobility, averaging 28 rushing yards per game even when accounting for sacks.
Either way, the Griz have enough to cause plenty of problems.
“They’re very solid at every position on offense,” Hill said. “The quarterback is a senior, he’s played a lot of football. The tight ends are good, the receivers are really good, the O-line is good. I don’t see any real weakness in them. I like the scheme they play. Bottom line, we’re going to have to do a great job stopping the run and defending the throw this game, just like every single week in the Big Sky.”
Still, Montana’s biggest strength this season seems to be in stopping the run. The Griz (117 rushing yards allowed per game) is second only to Weber State (111) in the Big Sky. Statistically, there’s a chance the game could grind to a halt as each defensive line imposes its will.
“They’re very sound defensively. They do a lot of stuff that causes some confusion with some stunting, blitzing. If they’re getting heat on you, they’re going to keep bringing it,” Hill said. “They do good things to disguise coverages. But they’re sound as far as having guys in the box and the coverages, they’re not making anything up. They make you find what they’re doing and do a good job at it.”
Montana is up against it too: Weber State has the best scoring defense (20.7 points per game) and total defense (355 yards per game) in the Big Sky, and averages 36.6 points per game against FCS opponents.
“I think they’re a really complete football team. They’re good on offense, they’re good on defense, they’re good in the special teams area. A lot of that comes from the fact they’re a veteran team, and they also have a very experienced, veteran coaching staff,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “They look big and strong on film, and I just think we’ve got our hands full with a real veteran outfit.”
Saturday’s showdown is the ROOT Sports game of the week as selected by ROOT Sports Northwest, a regional cable network. That means the game will not stream online or on Pluto TV like most other conference games.
Other regional networks in the same family are picking up the game, which means it will air on AT&T Sports Network in Utah. It will also be carried on DirecTV’s Audience Network (channel 239).
As usual, Weber State’s radio call will air on 1430 AM KLO.
ODDS & PREDICTIONS
Sportsbook 5dimes shows Montana as a 4.5-point favorite in the contest. Combined with the over-under of 54.5, the odds suggest a Montana win of about 29-25.
Jeff Sagarin’s famed rating and prediction model ranks all of Division I, both FBS and FCS. Weber State is ranked 90th and Montana 87th (out of 256 teams). His model has the game as a virtual pick ‘em on a neutral field but, with Montana at home, it favors the Griz by just less than three points.