Josh Ayers

This story was posted at 8:33 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 4.

Bobby Hauck has been telling anyone who will listen that his team isn’t all that great.

“I didn’t vote for us,” the head coach of the Montana football team said of his Grizzlies, ranked sixth in this week’s Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) coaches poll.

Among the reasons for such modesty could be that the Grizzlies lost 14 starters from a year ago, or that – according to Hauck – they could play as many as 20 freshmen when they open their season at No. 11 Cal Poly at 6:05 p.m. Saturday in Alex G. Spanos Stadium.

Mustangs head coach Rich Ellerson isn’t buying it.

“He’s a sandbagger,” Ellerson joked of Hauck, who helms a team that’s made a record 15 playoffs in a row and reached five national title games during that span, highlighted by championships in 1995 and 2001.

The two former Pac-10 Conference defensive assistants have had more than a few opportunities to get to know each other in recent years.

Although Cal Poly trails the all-time series 1-11, that lone victory came on the watch of Ellerson, who’s 1-3 against the Grizzlies since Hauck took over in 2003. The three losses were by a combined 13 points, and, along with the victory – a 35-21 win in the first round of the 2005 playoffs – all took place in Missoula, Mont.

Since the teams’ last meeting in 2006, however, Cal Poly has undergone a major identity shift.

Then, the Mustangs relied upon essentially one running back while priding themselves on stalwart defenses spearheaded by three consecutive NFL-bound winners of the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the best defender in the FCS ranks.

They enter Saturday’s contest coming off of a 29-27 win at San Diego State that made them the only FCS outfit to topple a Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) counterpart in college football’s opening week. In the process, Cal Poly racked up 483 yards of total offense, including 263 on the ground.

Unlike two years ago, though, when now-senior running back James Noble carried the load exclusively, the Mustangs’ triple-option attack not only confuses the opposition, but also diversifies the duties.

Three Mustangs carried at least 11 times Saturday, gaining between 40 and 89 yards apiece as Cal Poly carved out a 16-minute time-of-possession advantage.

Meanwhile, Cal Poly senior wide receiver Ramses Barden, recently named to the watch list for the Walter Payton Award (given to the FCS’ best offensive player), reeled in seven catches for a game-high 161 yards and a score.

The combination could yield up to 700 yards of total offense Saturday, according to Hauck, who even called Barden a potential first-round NFL draft pick.

“I don’t know (how to stop the triple option),” Hauck said. “We’re trying. They’re hard to get ready for – one, because they have a scheme that’s difficult, and two, because they’re talented.

“We’re getting better at it, but we can’t simulate it with our scout team,” he added of the “pick-your-poison” system. “We don’t have the types of players they have.”

If indeed Cal Poly races ahead, the Grizzlies’ comeback ability will likely hinge on their offensive line, which returned four starters from last season (when Montana went 11-1), has no one shorter than 6-foot-4, nor lighter than 295 pounds and is likely better than that of the Aztecs, Ellerson said.

“They have some big boys,” laughed Cal Poly senior linebacker Fred Hives II, 5-10, 200 pounds. “It’ll definitely be a challenge for us because we’re traditionally a smaller team.”

And Montana may have no reason to enter with the underdog mentality its coach is touting, after idling the first week.

“I would consider it an advantage for them,” said Hives II, who collected a team-high 10 tackles and a sack at San Diego State. “We’ve only had a week to prepare for them, and they’ve had all summer and training camp to prepare for us.”

Ellerson, who called last week’s win “ancient history,” certainly didn’t seem to neglect preparing for Montana, which brought back pivotal seniors in quarterback Cole Bergquist and safety Colt Anderson, a Buchanan Award hopeful.

Anderson, however, is one of just three Grizzlies returning on defense.

“They’re going to have some new faces on defense, but they’ve got some tough hombres up front who’ve played a lot of football for them,” Ellerson said.

That kind of tenacity, the Grizzlies hope, could help them force and capitalize on Mustangs miscues.

Last week, those included: a false start at the Aztecs 1-yard line leading to a field goal instead of a touchdown; committing four additional penalties costing 45 more yards; surrendering 352 yards and three touchdowns through the air; losing a fumble; converting just two of 13 third-down tries and neither of a couple fourth-down ones; allowing three sacks; and missing a field-goal attempt.

“There’s a laundry list of things we have to do better to have a chance this week,” Ellerson stressed. “We did enough things (last week) poorly to lose every football game we ever play in.”

Notes: Hauck said the Grizzlies are as “healthy as (they’ve) been coming out of camp.” . Cal Poly surpassed San Diego State in this week’s Jeff Sagarin NCAA Football Ratings, coming in at No. 103, five slots above the Aztecs. Montana is ranked 89th. . Barden is 38 yards from becoming Cal Poly’s all-time leader in career receiving yards (eventual Buffalo Bill Kamil Loud had 3,144 from 1994-97). . Although the game is considered Cal Poly’s most high-profile home match-up this season, student-body attendance may not reflect that, as class is out of session and doesn’t resume until Sept. 22. . The game will be broadcast on ESPN Radio 1280 AM and televised on BigSkyTV.org.

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