(STATS) - After pulling off a statement win over one of the elites from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, Montana now begins its pursuit of a Big Sky title - something it hasn't won in seven years.
The Grizzlies, ranked sixth in the STATS FCS Top 25, open conference play Saturday on the road against a Cal Poly program picked to finish ninth in the Big Sky. Bob Stitt's team will in no way be taking the Mustangs lightly, however. Not with the way they've struggled to defend their triple option the past two years and not after Cal Poly knocked off a top-10 MVFC team of its own last weekend.
"It's true triple option," Stitt said on his weekly radio show. "You've got to stop the dive, then you've got to stop the quarterback, then you've got to stop the pitch. They'll give some misdirection, and you'll think you've got it figured out, then they'll bring it back inside to the running back going away from the flow. It's difficult, and our defensive coaches have been working a lot of hours getting ready for this."
The coaches have had some extra time to prepare with a week off since a 20-14 victory at then-No. 3 Northern Iowa on Sept. 10. That victory bumped Montana (2-0) up seven spots in the Top 25 and it now enters conference play as the only undefeated Big Sky team. The Grizzlies, picked to finish second in the league, were in a tie for second place in each of the last two seasons and are trying to get back atop the conference for the first time since winning at least a share of 12 consecutive Big Sky titles from 1998-2009.
Similar to last year, the Grizzlies enter their matchup with Cal Poly coming off a signature victory over an MVFC powerhouse. They pulled off a thrilling win over North Dakota State in the 2015 FCS Kickoff only to crumble a week later.
"We've got quite a challenge coming up," Stitt said. "Coming off a big win at Northern Iowa, we've got to be able to bounce back mentally and get ready for another big game. We didn't do a great job with that last year. We had a big win against North Dakota State and come back against Cal Poly a little flat and really laid an egg."
A year ago, Montana had four turnovers and was run over for 330 yards as Cal Poly's Alex Vega made a 49-yard field goal with 4 seconds left for a stunning 20-19 win, snapping the Grizzlies' eight-game home winning streak. In 2014, Cal Poly had 421 yards rushing - the most Montana had allowed since 1998 - in a 41-21 victory.
The Mustangs (2-1) have been prolific as ever on the ground in 2016.
The FCS' top rushing team each of the last two seasons is once again atop the division at 392.3 run yards per game. Junior fullback Joe Protheroe is the key to the attack, leading the FCS with 467 rushing - an average of 6.1 per carry. He was named the Big Sky offensive player of the week after running for a career-high 217 yards and a pair of touchdowns - one on a personal-best 76-yard run - in last week's 38-31 win at then-No. 9 South Dakota State.
"He's physical and he's averaging six yards a carry," Stitt said. "It starts with the dive, you've got to stop that."
The problem is the Mustangs are also finding a lot of success behind their second and third options. Running back Kori Garcia has run for 212 yards and 6.6 per carry while quarterback Dano Graves is at 287 and 6.0.
"We've got speed and we've got execution and hopefully we've got an offense that causes some people some problems," Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said.
Montana also can't just focus on stopping the run because Graves keeps opposing defenses honest with his arm. He has thrown just 31 passes but has a 61.3 completion percentage and is averaging 11.4 yards per attempt. He has touchdown passes of 27, 33 and 57 yards.
"They've got a quarterback that's more than a runner," Stitt said. "He can hurt you in the passing game. We haven't historically been good against their triple option so we've got quite a challenge on the defensive side."
South Dakota found that out last week, as the Mustangs piled up 601 yards of offense - the third time in 10 games they've topped 600. Cal Poly also almost upset Nevada of the Mountain West in the opener, falling 30-27 in overtime.
The Grizzlies haven't been nearly as efficient offensively, turning the ball over four times in a tougher-than-expected 41-31 win over Saint Francis in the opener and totaling 206 yards against UNI - their fewest since 2007.
The 6-foot-7 Brady Gustafson is averaging 6.5 yards per attempt and fellow senior John Nguyen is at 3.4 per carry. Gustafson attempted a career-high 64 passes and threw for 353 yards against Cal Poly a year ago but was also picked off three times.
He'll be facing an improved secondary, as the Mustangs were 12th in the 13-team Big Sky a year ago in pass defense at 287.4 yards per game and are allowing an average of 193.7 this season.
"Anybody can beat anybody so you've better have it strapped up every week cause every win you can get is important," Walsh said. "It starts this week."