CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) _ In winning 21 straight games over two seasons, Montana’s passing attack has been nearly flawless.
But one bump in the road came in last year’s Division I-AA title game against Marshall. The Thundering Herd’s front four sacked then-Montana quarterback Dave Dickenson 10 times and held the Grizzlies to 281 passing yards.
Montana is back to try to defend the title it won 22-20 over the Herd that day, and again faces Marshall in Saturday’s championship game at Huntington.
Three of Marshall’s four starting defensive linemen return; the fourth, Will Edwards, is out for the season with a knee injury.
``Marshall has great D linemen, by far the best we’ve faced this year.″ said Montana offensive lineman Jeff Zellick. ``They have basically everybody back, another year of experience under their belt. ... I don’t know if we can stop them. But we can try to slow them down.″
Slowing Billy Lyon, John Duncan, B.J. Cohen and Ricky Hall might be all that’s needed for Grizzlies quarterback Brian Ah Yat.
He has thrown for 4,677 yards in Montana’s 14 games this season, including 1,062 yards and nine touchdowns in the playoffs.
``He’s a guy who does a good job in terms of pressure,″ said Marshall defensive coordinator Kevin Kelly. ``He’s a good athlete. He’s also very strong in terms of if you get a grasp on him, he can wiggle his way out of it. So that’s a concern of ours.″
Receivers Joe Douglass, Mike Erhardt, Raul Pacheco and Josh Paffhausen work in concert with Ah Yat for quick-hitting catches, with much of the yardage coming on their running after the ball arrives.
Zellick says Montana’s offensive line, intact from a year ago except for one player, has improved significantly. And Marshall’s Duncan agrees.
``From what I’ve seen of them, they’re probably the best offensive line we’ve faced this year,″ Duncan said. ``That means we’re going to have to play our best game. If Ah Yat stands in the pocket without any pressure, he’s going to pick us apart.″
But what if Marshall can stifle Ah Yat and his receivers?
``We’re not going to live and die by the run, because that’s not what we do,″ said offensive coordinator Brent Pease. ``If they get to Brian and shut down our passing game, that’s probably going to be a long day for us.″
Zellick, and most other opposing linemen for that matter, see Lyon, a 6-foot-5, 292-pounder, as the heart of Marshall’s defense.
Yet Lyon had only one sack against Montana last season, while Cohen had three and Edwards and cornerback Jayson Grayson had two apiece. Lyon is second on the team in sacks this year, with eight to Cohen’s nine. And Duncan, who has played six fewer games because of a leg injury, already has five.
Lyon is often double-teamed, and Duncan calls him ``one of the most dominant linemen″ in all college football.
``What Billy needs to do is (occupy two Montana defenders) and let the rest of us get all the glory,″ Duncan said.
Actually, Duncan may be just as important. When he went out with his injury, about the same time Edwards went down, teams started throwing junk defenses at Lyon.
``That created some problems for us,″ Marshall defensive coordinator Kelly said.
But now Duncan is back for the playoffs.
``I think the success we’ve had has been predicated by our front four,″ Kelly said.