MOSCOW, Idaho — The battle for the Little Brown Stein is nearly here as the No. 16 Montana Grizzlies get set to hit the road for the second straight week and take on the No. 3 Idaho Vandals.
It's a top-20 matchup in the FCS that will be under a national spotlight with kickoff at 8:30 p.m. Mountain on ESPN2, and after losing to the Vandals (5-1, 3-0 Big Sky Conference) at Washington-Grizzly Stadium last year, the Grizzlies (5-1, 2-1) are looking to steal one back in Moscow, Idaho.
It was a stunning loss to Idaho last October when the then third-ranked Griz fell to first-year head coach Jason Eck and crew, but UM head coach Bobby Hauck isn't focusing on last year's result.
"Beyond that I don't think it has much to do with the game," Hauck said. "I mean, you got to prepare for this year's team, and we need to prepare our team completely different set up than a year ago."
But while the Grizzlies don't want to look back, they can use last year's loss as fuel heading into Saturday.
"I remember just having a sour taste in our mouths after the game last year that wasn't a fun game to lose so need to control the game just as they did last year," redshirt junior linebacker Ryan Tirrell said.
"Bringing that effort in practice, letting everybody know how it went last year just to get them going, and I would just say keep the momentum up at practice," junior wide receiver Aaron Fontes said. "Like coach said, execute."
Under Eck, the Vandals have rapidly turned into a juggernaut in the FCS and Big Sky.
Ranked No. 3 in the country, Idaho defeated FBS Nevada earlier this year and also holds wins over Sacramento State and Eastern Washington already, both of which are ranked.
The Vandals possess the most efficient offense in the league and rank second behind Montana State in total offense (443.3 ypg) and defense (297.7).
"I think they're good in all three phases. I think they're a real solid football team," Hauck said. "Offense, defense, special teams, I think they do a good job so they're a well-rounded team, and they're 5-1, we're 5-1, and it's a big game."
Idaho's offense is led by a stable of stars, beginning with preseason offensive conference player of the year in wide receiver Hayden Hatten (tied for first in Big Sky in receiving yards with 430), along with quarterback Gevani McCoy (ranks second in the Big Sky with 1,306 yards and eight touchdowns), speedy receiver and return man Jermaine Jackson, while adding a breakout star in running back Anthony Woods who leads the Big Sky in rushing yards (662) and touchdowns (10).
"I think they have a lot of targets throughout their whole team they can run the ball and throw it," Tirrell said. "I think they have a lot of dynamic people and they should be a good opponent for us."
But defensively, the Vandals are just as sound, and own the top defense against the pass (162.7 ypg) in the Big Sky.
One of the leaders on that side of the ball for Idaho is Helena High grad and redshirt sophomore Keyshawn James-Newby, a defensive lineman who ranks top 10 in the league in tackles for loss (5.0) and sacks (four). He's one of two players with Montana connections on Idaho's roster, as Eureka native Jake Kindel is a redshirt sophomore linebacker for the Vandals as well.
UI's defense is another tough task for UM's offense that saw a breakout performance a week ago in their win over UC Davis.
"We had a good practice last week with good scout look and just kind of bringing more to practice, so I feel like if we do that again this week, just with a little bit more grit to it, just since we've got that bad taste in our mouth, I feel like we could really get things going this week," Fontes said.
It'll be the 89th meeting between these two rivals on Saturday. Idaho holds the all-time record at 56-30-2.
Idaho's quick return to elite status has breathed life back into this matchup that dates all the way back to 1903, and while Montana holds an 11-3 advantage in the meeting since 1991, the Vandals beating the Grizzlies last year for the first time since 1999 brought the Little Brown Stein back to Moscow, and in turn, UI has ascended to the upper echelon of the FCS.
Now, it's the Grizzlies who aim to return the favor.
"In the world of college football, that's a lot of history between two universities, so they're kind of a neighbor to the west a little bit and when you have that history and the proximity, and you see each other in recruiting and everything else it just lends itself to focus on the game," Hauck said.
"I think we just have to mindful that this is a big game for our team, and not look at the past so much but look at the future, and just try to go out and dominate," Tirrell said.