The Montana Grizzlies hosted their first live scrimmage Monday, and the Bob Stitt spread offense returned with kinks to work out.
Senior Reese Phillips, junior Caleb Hill and freshman Gresch Jensen shared reps at quarterback in the midst of a months long battle for the starting position. The offense crawled. Drive after drive felt like walking on glass.
Stitt has had two years in Missoula to recruit the players he wants, run the plays he wants and direct the team in his vision. He debuted with an upset win over North Dakota State in 2015 and was beat by a cellar-scraping Montana State team in the last game of a playoff-less 2016. Now it’s make or break time for the coach.
His contract expires Jan. 31, 2018. Another year without the playoffs could cost him his job. The Griz will enter the season ranked outside the STATS FCS top 25 for the first time since 1991 when they open the season Sept. 2 against Valparaiso. They still don’t know, or at least won't officially say, who will play quarterback.
Stitt’s offense relies on success at the quarterback position. Short, high-percentage passes make up the bulk of the playbook, which allows for a team to operate with one good player, at quarterback, to play the basics really, really well. Efficiently run, the offense is time consuming and tenacious.
“You’ve got to chip away, that’s part of our offense,” junior wide receiver Keenan Curran said. “Chipping away, chipping away and every now and then, you’re going to have a big play.”
Last year's quarterback Brady Gustafson ended his career with 4,849 passing yards, 16th-most in Griz history, and 37 touchdowns. On Sept. 24, 2016 against Cal Poly, he completed a school record 47 passes.
Under Stitt, Gustafson threw the ball roughly 44 times per game. The average school throws the ball between 31 and 32 times per game.
The good news: breakout wide receiver Jerry Louie-McGee leads a star-studded receiving corps featuring Keenan Curran, Justin Calhoun and Sammy Akem. Add in Jeremy Calhoun at running back and a veteran offensive line, and the Griz have one of the top offenses on paper, sans quarterback.
With so much talent on the offense, combined with an all-conference defense, it’s difficult to believe the Griz won’t be contenders in the Big Sky Conference this year. If all goes well, we could see another season of the Stitt spread being run by players he recruited.
But until then, the Griz need a quarterback.