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No. 4 Montana, No. 7 Sacramento State set for top-10 showdown under the lights

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Posted at 5:30 PM, Nov 03, 2023

MISSOULA — Last weekend, No. 4 Montana (7-1, 4-1 Big Sky) welcomed winless Northern Colorado to town, but this Saturday it's the exact opposite as the Grizzlies are set to host one of the top teams in the entire FCS in the Sacramento State Hornets in what will be a top-10 matchup at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. on Saturday with the Montana Television Network carrying the broadcast.

Offense has been Sac State's calling card over the years, and this season, the No. 7 Hornets (6-2, 3-2 Big Sky) once again rank among the Big Sky's best in scoring (third, 32.8 ppg), and total yards per game where they rank second with 433.8 per game.

"They've got a pretty broad spectrum in terms of personnel groups," UM head coach Bobby Hauck said. "I think the quarterback (Kaiden Bennett) is a really dynamic player. He can run it, he can throw it, they've got some big-bodied guys that can catch the ball down the field and their rushing numbers are awfully good as well so they are balanced attack and they're going to be hard to stop."

Along with Bennett, true freshman quarterback Carson Conklin saw his first game action in Sac State's 51-16 win over Idaho State last weekend where he threw three touchdown passes. Bennett currently leads the Hornets in rushing yards with 407 total and also is fifth in the Big Sky with 1,667 passing yards to go with 12 passing touchdowns and six interceptions.

Devin Gandy (28 catches, 375 yards, three touchdowns), Carlos Hill (26 receptions, 371 yards, three touchdowns) and Jared Gipson (21 receptions, 367 yards, two touchdowns) lead the Hornets' receiving core, along with All-American tight end Marshel Martin IV (22 receptions, 193 yards, one touchdown) who is a do-it-all weapon for the Hornets.

Behind a veteran offensive line — the Hornets ranked tied for third in sacks allowed with just 10 all year — running backs Elijah Tau-Tolliver (41 carries, 225 yards, five touchdowns) and Zeke Burnett (23 carries, 209 yards, one touchdown) have carried the load in the backfield while typical starter Marcus Fulcher (56 carries, 225 yards, four touchdowns) has missed time due to injury. Back Ezra Moleni has also rushed 62 times for 265 yards on the year but did not play against ISU.

Defensively, the Hornets rank in the upper half of the league in scoring (23.8 points allowed pre game) and yards (fifth, 359 allowed per game). Linebacker Armon Bailey (69 total tackles, 3.5 for loss) and safety Cameron Broussard (55 total tackles, two interceptions) have been two of the team's leaders along with defensive linemen DeShawn Lynch (4.5 sacks), Jett Stanley (four sacks) and Mason Brosseau (three sacks) as Sac State ranks tied for fourth in sacks this year with 18. Linebacker Brock Mather and safety Kylen Ross each have two interceptions this season as well as the Hornets rank second in the Big Sky behind Montana (13) in interceptions with 10 on the year.

But after tough losses to Idaho and Montana State earlier in conference play, Sac State needs a statement win with the playoffs around the corner, and Montana in its way.

"We're always excited to play a ranked opponent that will really test us and it's nice to have it out in front of our fans this time," junior wide receiver Junior Bergen said. "It's November, it's getting cold, they are going to show out and be loud and we're just excited for all of that."

The Hornets have been one of the most successful programs against the Grizzlies, having won three straight contests against UM, including the last meeting in Missoula in 2021, to go with victories in Sacramento in 2019 and 2022. Under former coach Troy Taylor, now at Stanford, the Hornets have won three straight Big Sky regular-season titles coming into the season.

And that fact isn't lost on this year's Grizzly team.

"You definitely got to think about it just for motivation, and you're going to be motivated any game, but just knowing they've beat us the last few years definitely lights a fire under me and I know it lights a fire under the rest of the team," senior linebacker Braxton Hill said. "So just knowing that, but at the same time we've got to focus and prepare whatever the game plan is going to be."

"We've got to prepare like we do every week," Bergen added. "We've got a lot of mature guys on this team who prepare really well, and so we've just got to make sure we just attack it just like every other week and just know that we've still got a little left from last year."

Running the Hornets this year is first-year head coach Andy Thompson, a former Montana Grizzly who played at UM from 1999-2003, and was coached by Bobby Hauck his senior year.

Thompson has guided the Hornets to more success after the departure of Taylor, including a win over Stanford earlier this season, and for Hauck, it's fun seeing his former player become successful in his first stint as a head coach.

"Well thank goodness he's the only one that's a head coach," Hauck said referring to his former players in the coaching ranks. "There's a lot of years going by, but Andy has done a good job. It's always fun to see guys, whether it's coaching high school football, coaching at the collegiate level, that have been part of our program and watching what part of how we do business they take with them and you can see a lot of that."