One year into their return to the Big Sky, the Idaho Vandals are starting to get the hang of this regional rivalry thing.
Idaho already owns wins this year over Eastern Washington and Idaho State, teams that clobbered the Vandals in 2018. Next up for Idaho (4-5, 2-3 Big Sky) is today’s battle for the Little Brown Stein at Montana (7-2, 4-1), which drilled the Vandals 46-27 in Moscow last year.
The one difference — Idaho’s wins over EWU and ISU both came at the Kibbie Dome, where the Vandals are 4-1. Idaho still needs to prove it on the road, where it is 0-4.
“They’re really well-coached. These coaches at Idaho know what the heck they’re doing, so they’ll have their team ready,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “We know they spent time on us in spring ball and fall camp, so they’ll be well prepared, they’ll be fired up to play this weekend in Missoula, and we know that we’d better be the same.”
Montana has played the last two weeks without injured starting quarterback Dalton Sneed, who threw for 220 yards and three touchdowns last year at Idaho, and also ran for 129 yards and a score in a game the Griz led 36-6 at the half.
This week, the Vandals aren’t sure if they’ll face Sneed or junior backup Cam Humphrey. The former Boise State walk-on led the Griz to wins over Eastern Washington and Portland State, passing for 511 yards and five TDs in the two wins.
“The backup’s played well the last two weeks,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said. “I’m not sure he can run it as well (as Sneed). He can throw it. He stand more in the pocket. They have more designed runs when Sneed’s in there.”
Whoever’s in there has three talented receivers to throw to in fifth-year senior Jerry Louie-McGee (48 receptions, 418 yards, 3 TDs), the former Lake City High star and the all-time leading receiver at Montana; as well as juniors Samuel Akem (56 catches, 822 yards, 5 TDs) and Samori Toure (46 receptions, 730 yards, 6 TDs).
McGee went to Montana as a walk-on, but impressed Griz coaches enough early to earn a full-ride scholarship following his first (redshirt) season.
“They like to throw deep,” Petrino said. “We can’t let the receivers have big plays. We’ve got to limit them, and not just let them run free.”
Petrino said the Griz are a better running team this year than last year, led by Marcus Knight, who has rushed for 745 yards and scored 14 touchdowns, 13 on the ground.
Montana linebacker Dante Olson, who was third in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award last year, leads the Big Sky with 107 tackles. Idaho sophomore linebacker Tre Walker is second with 103.
Montana, ranked fifth in the FCS coaches poll and sixth in the media poll, needs to keep winning to remain in the hunt for a playoff berth.
Today’s game will mark Idaho’s first visit to Missoula since 2003, and the Vandals’ first Big Sky game at Montana since 1994.
The Little Brown Stein has resided in Missoula since 2000, when the Griz beat the Vandals 45-38 in Moscow. The Stein was inspired by the Little Brown Jug trophy that goes to the winner of the Michigan-Minnesota game each year. Montana has won the Stein in nine of the last 11 meetings. Idaho’s last win over Montana was in 1999, which was also the Vandals’ last win in Missoula.
The teams have played six times since Idaho left the Big Sky after the 1995 season, and today’s game will be just the second meeting since 2003.
“This has been a big game in these parts for decades, for a long time,” Hauck said. “They’re playing well. They had a big win last weekend against Cal Poly, they had a tough loss to Weber State, and they beat Idaho State fairly handily, so they’ve been playing really well lately.”
Temperatures are predicted to be in the high 40s at game time, with a slight chance of precipitation.
If it does snow, the Vandals say they’ll be ready.
“In the winter we do our agility work outside, 6 a.m. in the snow,” Petrino said. “That helped us in the bowl game (on a December night in 2016, in Boise, vs. Colorado State).