Defense leads Griz in final scrum

MISSOULA — It looked like a repeat performance from a few days ago at the University of Montana’s third and final scrimmage of spring drills, as the defense once again dominated most of the action Thursday night in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

The defense racked up seven sacks by six different players, picked off two passes, and held the offense to 190 total yards (97 rushing and 93 passing) in the scrim, which featured about 60 plays and lasted around 50-plus minutes.

In last Saturday’s annual spring game, the defense had seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two sacks, and had a pair of tackles in the end zone for safeties.  In that game both the offense and defense had opportunities to score, and the end result was a 24-6 “win” by the “D.”

“The defense really does look good,” said third-year Griz head coach Mick Delaney.  “Being in this game as many years and coaching as long as I have, the bottom line is that team’s with a great defense have an opportunity to win national championships.

“It’s really, really fun to watch how the defense is flying around right now,” Delaney said.  “I think they’re tackling better, and they’re going to the ball and making plays, where before a lot of times those balls were falling on the ground.  Those kids have improved a bunch.

“Coach (Aric) Williams (who coaches the cornerbacks) and (Jake) Cookus (safeties coach) have just done a tremendous job with our secondary,” Delaney continued.  “Up front, our five, six linebackers – I am really happy with them.  (Junior linebackers ) Kendrick Van Ackeren and Herbert Gamboa are really good football players, and then the young guys are coming along.  As I’ve said, I think our defensive front is as good an any at our level of football.  I think we are ahead of schedule on defense at this point.”

Three redshirt freshmen were the tackle leaders today, led by linebacker Tucker Schye, who had a scrimmage-high 8 tackles and a sack.  Redshirt frosh nose tackle Nate Bradley and linebacker Connor Strahm had four stops each.  Juniors defensive backs Jake Dellaserra and Nate Harris had one pick apiece.

It should be noted that missing from last night’s scrimmage were starting senior quarterback Jordan Johnson, along with senior running back Travon Van, redshirt freshman halfback Treshawn Favors, and returning senior starting halfback Jordan Canada saw limited playing time.

Johnson was held out to give quarterbacks Shay Smithwick-Hann, a senior, and Brady Gustafson, a sophomore, more on-the-field opportunities.

Smithwick-Hann completed 5-of-9 passes for 51 yards, while Gustafson was 5-of-12 for 42 yards, and each player threw one interception.  Tight ends Jordan Harper and Cooper Sprunk had a scrimmage-high with two catches each.

A bright spot on offense once again was sophomore halfback John Nguyen, who had 15 carries for 84 yards, and his 39-yard run was the longest play of the day.  Last Saturday Nguyen rushed 16 times for 107 yards, and had a 39-yard touchdown carry.

“Johnny is really a good player,” Delaney said.  “He took a little bit of a beating tonight, but he really played well.  I didn’t want Jordan Canada (he had five carries for 14 yards) to have 25 carries, that’s completely unnecessary in the spring, so Johnny had a little more duty than he probably should have.”

“Were are going to be fine on offense,” Delaney said.  “We’re sluggish a little bit now and we’ve put in more than we will use during the season, and we limit the things that we are doing on offense each week.  We wanted to give Shay and Brady a few more turns tonight, because we know what JJ (Johnson) can do.”

There were no touchdowns scored, and field goal kickers Harrison Greenberg, Chris Lider, and Ben Worst were a combined 10-of-15.  Worst was the most accurate, making 4-of-5 tries, while Greenberg and Lider both made 3-of-5 attempts.

“Overall, I am really excited to get into the summer program and getting ready for fall,” Delaney said.

TACKLE LEADERS: Tucker Schye: 8; Nate Bradley: 4; Connor Strahm: 4; Herbert Gamboa: 3; Tyrone Holmes: 3; Ryan McKinley: 3; Zach Gratton: 3; Nate Harris: 3; Zack Wagenmann: 3; Kendrick Van Ackeren: 3; Zach Peevey: 3.
SACKS (7): Peevey: 2; Bradley: 1; Holmes: 1, Schye: 1; Trevor Rehm: 1; Wagenmann: 1.
INTERCEPTIONS: Jake Dellaserra: 1; Harris: 1.
PASS BREAK-UPS: Holmes: 1; Chris Parker: 1; Rehm: 1; Van Ackeren: 1.

OFFENSIVE STATS (no touchdowns scored)
PASSING: Shay Smithwick-Hann 5-9-1 – 51; Brady Gustafson 5-12-1 – 42.
RUSHING: John Nguyen 15-84, Jordan Canada 5-14, Gavin Hagfors 7-(-1).
RECEIVING: Jordan Harper 2-28, Jamaal Jones 1-10, Nguyen 1-11, Hagfors 1-7, Austin Carver 1-7, Ellis Henderson 1-12, Canada 1-4, Cooper Sprunk 2-14.
FIELD GOALS (10-of-15): Ben Worst – Makes: 24, 38, 40, 42. Misses: 49. Chris Lider – Makes: 24, 38, 40; Misses: 42, 49. Harrison Greenberg – Makes: 24, 38, 42; Misses: 40, 49.
PUNTS: Stephen Shaw 3 for a  40- yard average.