Long before the Cold War and leading up to the Great Depression, the Washington Huskies and Montana Grizzlies were as much on equal footing in college football as the two programs would ever be.
They played in the same conference — the Pacific Coast Conference.
For the first time, the two teams met in Seattle in 1920. Hours before the game, a banner reportedly could be seen at Washington’s home turf of Denny Field declaring it was the “last practice game of the season.”
Led by homegrown and future NFL tailback Stephen Sullivan, Montana won, 18-14.
That Grizzlies victory came 97 years ago. Much has changed since then.
The UW is one of the top programs in the power conference known as the Pac-12. The Grizzlies play a level down (FCS) in the Big Sky Conference.
Yet as the two schools prepare to play for the first time in 66 years Saturday at Husky Stadium, expect Montana to take it right at the Huskies — and a large throng of home-state fans to be in the stadium to cheer them on.
“I would expect to see a lot of maroon here on Saturday,” said UW tight end Will Dissly, the only player from Montana on the roster. “Football is big in Montana, and they have a lot of tradition at that university.”
With all of that said, the seventh-ranked Huskies are heavy favorites in their home opener.
And they expect to be much more up to snuff, especially early, than eight days ago when they pulled away from Rutgers in a 30-14 victory .
“It doesn’t matter what is thrown our way,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “We’ve got to be ready to adjust and adapt right away.”
Unlike Rutgers, because Montana prefers to get up and go in its version of the “Air Raid” offense, it should lend to lots of drives for both schools.
That, in itself, should help quarterback Jake Browning and the UW offense get off to a much different start than what they had at Rutgers.
“We definitely want to play better overall, for sure,” Huskies co-offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith said.
But after talking to key UW offensive personnel all week, you’d think they had just been shut out at Rutgers, and not tallied 23 of the team’s 30 points.
Yes, the running game was held in check: It gained 84 yards on 24 carries.
Yes, Browning wasn’t his usually on-target self in the first half: He completed five of 11 passes for 81 yards — with 51 of that coming on one completion to Dante Pettis.
But in the second half, the UW totaled 271 yards and scored on its first four drives (two touchdowns, two field goals).
“From our side of it, we’ve got to be more efficient on offense and start faster,” Petersen said.
Montana (1-0) at No. 7 Washington (1-0)
5 p.m. PDT Saturday, Husky Stadium, Seattle
The line: Off the board.
TV: Pac-12 Network. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7 FM
Outlook: After watching Rutgers’ grind-it-out approach keep his own high-powered attack on the sideline, Huskies coach Chris Petersen did not hide his enthusiasm for what was coming to town Saturday.
Montana won’t sit on the football. In fact, the Grizzlies, led by transfer quarterback Reese Phillips (381 passing yards, four touchdowns last week against Valparaiso), will sling it all over the field.
“The uniqueness is that it’s 180 degrees different from what we just saw,” Petersen said.
Phillips, a transfer from Kentucky, is in his first season as the starter. He gives the Grizzlies’ offense another dimension with his ability to run.
The one knock on Phillips is that he has been known to turn the ball over – which is music to the ears of the ball-hawking UW secondary, led by cornerbacks Byron Murphy (two interceptions against Rutgers) and Myles Bryant (team-leading three pass breakups).
Against an aggressive Grizzlies’ defense, which led the Big Sky Conference in most statistical categories in 2016, expect quarterback Jake Browning (17 of 30, 284 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) to take his shots downfield to top receiver Dante Pettis.
It will be interesting to monitor how much the Huskies continue to utilizes Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman in the pass game. Both running backs helped spark a second-half turnaround with receiving touchdowns against Rutgers.
This is the first time the Grizzlies have faced a FBS school since 2014 when they nearly upset Wyoming in Laramie. The UW will be the highest-ranked FBS team they have ever faced.
The Huskies are 22-1-1 against Big Sky opponents. Their one loss? To Montana in 1920, 18-14, which happened six weeks before Husky Stadium opened.
The pick: Washington 55, Montana 19.
– Todd Milles, staff writer