MISSOULA — With the first game in over a year now in the books for the Montana Grizzly football team, they can now move forward.
Next week's game against Portland State will cap off their two-game spring season, and the Grizzlies have some time to adjust from what they saw on Saturday against Central Washington.
At the end of the day, UM was just excited to be taking the field at all after a 16-month layoff. Montana coach Bobby Hauck has said throughout spring ball how he'd like to see spring games against different opponents become the norm, and Saturday's game lived up to his expectation.
"They were giving me a hard time about my first spring win as a coach so that's something new, don't see a lot of new around here so that's good," Hauck said with a big smile. "I know the guys enjoy it. It was a hell of a good time out there (Saturday). I enjoyed every minute of it."
On the field, the Grizzlies had plenty to be excited about with the triumphant return of Billings Senior grad Gabe Sulser on Saturday.
The 2017 Montana Gatorade player of the year led the Griz in all-purpose yards (162), receptions (four) and receiving yards (62). Sulser began his day by ripping off a 46-yard punt return in the first quarter to set Montana up at Central Washington's 8-yard line.
In the second quarter, after Central Washington trimmed UM's lead to 10-3, Sulser took the ensuing kickoff 54 yards, nearly breaking it for a touchdown down the left sideline. That lit a fire under UM's offense which had stalled on the previous three drives, two of which started in CWU's red zone. Sulser was quickly rewarded for his efforts as quarterback Cam Humphrey hit him for a 13-yard touchdown to give the Grizzlies a 17-3 lead while Sulser scored his first touchdown since Nov. 17, 2018 against Montana State in his true freshman season.
On Montana's next drive, Sulser reeled in two more catches, including a one-handed reception that went for 33 yards as the Grizzlies ultimately scored again to go into halftime up 24-3.
"It'd been so long and my body isn't quite used to this," said Sulser, who credited former Griz receiver Jerry Louie-McGee for a lot of his development as a player. "It's been a long time since I've been actually sore from a game so it feels good to be back. Believe it or not I love that (soreness). It was just really great to get back out there with the guys and I think we were really excited about it."
For Sulser, it was his first time suiting up in a game since Oct. 5, 2019 in his sophomore season, before injury sidelined him the rest of that year.
"We were definitely chomping at the bit to get it back out there and playing," Sulser said. "Obviously some of us, not just me, but there are a few other injured guys that it'd been even longer, so we were ready to go and excited to play."
Now healthy, Sulser added into the mix is just one more play-maker on an offense already filled with talent across the board. Running backs Nick Ostmo and Xavier Harris showcased their ability with larger workloads after Marcus Knight did not play due to injury, while freshman receiver Ryan Simpson also created a lot of buzz in his first game as a Griz.
Humphrey and fellow QB Kris Brown both played well in leading the offense. Hauck did say he wants to see the two of them play more to iron out any mistakes from Saturday, though overall he was pleased with what they both did. Hauck also said he wanted to see the yards and yards per carry increase for Ostmo and Harris, but added that that improvement falls on the entire offensive unit.
Defensively, Montana dominated, with players up and down the depth chart making an impact on a unit that held Central Washington to 178 total yards, 2 for 15 on third downs and just 10 total first downs. Gavin Robertson and David Koppang each grabbed interceptions while Jacob McGourin recovered a fumble in the second quarter.
"There's always stuff that we can work on but I know one of our goals going into the game was to physically overwhelm them and I could see that towards the end of the third quarter at least," Montana junior linebacker Patrick O'Connell said. "I think we did what we wanted to do to them."
Montana welcomes Portland State to Missoula next Saturday, with kickoff scheduled at 11 a.m. That game will conclude Montana's spring season.