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Ford named Newcomer of the Year as 14 Griz earn All-Big Sky honors

03 Dec 2021 | 06:50 | Football

With an FCS-best eight interceptions this season, cornerback Justin Ford earned one of the league’s marquee individual awards and six Grizzlies earned first-team All-Big Sky honors, as the conference rolled out its end of year awards Tuesday.

Ford was named the Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year while a total of 14 Grizzlies earned All-Big Sky honors, including six first-team selections – tied for the most in the league, and the most for the Grizzlies in one season since 2011.

On Monday, Ford and UM linebacker Patrick O’Connell were named finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award, presented annually to the FCS defensive player of the year.

In his first season as a Grizzly after arriving from Louisville, the junior has been one of the most dominant defensive backs in all of Division-I football, going on an unprecedented streak with eight interceptions in eight-straight games.

Ford’s eight picks are not only the most in FCS football, but in FBS and D-II football as well. In addition to interceptions, he also ranks third in the nation in total passes defended and is second in the Big Sky and top-15 in the FCS in fumbles recovered.

He added to that total Saturday when he scooped up a Montana State fumble recovery and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown. It was his second defensive touchdown of the season following a 26-yard pick-six against Southern Utah.

Ford ended the regular season as Montana’s No.8 overall tackler with 38 total stops and has registered a stat in nearly every defensive category with two TFLs, one sack, 16 pass deflections, one QB hurry, and one forced fumble. His eight interceptions currently rank him fourth in Montana history in single-season INTs.

O’Connell, who was named Big Sky Defensive Player of the Week on Monday in addition to being named a finalist for the Buchanan Award, leads the Big Sky in sacks as a junior and enters the postseason third in the FCS total sacks as well.

The native of Kalispell earned first-team All-Big Sky honors alongside Ford Tuesday after leading the Big Sky total sacks with 13, getting in on at least one in 10 of UM’s 11 games to date. He also ranks third in the league in both tackles for loss and forced fumbles and is ranked No. 8 in the conference in total tackles.

Against Montana State, he posted a game-high 11 tackles with 1.5 sacks for an MSU loss of 11 yards and one QB hurry. Following Saturday’s game, he now ranks No. 10 in career sacks with 19.5 and is top-15 in career TFLs with 29.

Safety Robby Hauck rounds out the first-team All-Big Sky picks for coordinator Kent Baer’s defense after a second-straight season as one of the top tacklers in the conference with 107 to date. He was a second-team all-conference pick in 2019.

Hauck’s selection gives the Grizzly defense three first-team picks, each of which going to juniors. All three played a key part in Montana’s suffocating defense this season that is has put up the second-best scoring defense in the nation, allowing an average of just 13 points against it over 11 games. They also helped UM to an FCS-best five defensive touchdowns scored and were part of the No. 3 red zone defense in the FCS as well.

The Grizzlies’ special teams was equally as stifling this season, with the UM punt team leading the FCS in net punt yards at 44.39 – a total that would slot in as the fourth-best in FBS football as well. The UM kickoff team led the league and ranked fourth in the FCS in return yards as well with an average of 27.35, and kickoff return defense slotting in second in the league.

As such, the Griz had three more first-team All-Big Sky selections on special teams, none of which are seniors.

Freshman punter Brian Buschini was a first-team pick after making a statement in his first year as a Grizzly, finishing the year as the No. 1 punter in the FCS. The Helena native’s school-record 46.7 yards per-punt average also puts him among the top-10 punters in all of Division-I football.

Malik Flowers returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns early this season before teams just flat quit kicking to him. The junior is now tied for second in Big Sky history with five career kickoff returns for a touchdown, and was named a co-first-teamer with Weber State senior Rashid Shaheed, who set a new NCAA record with seven kick returns for a score.

Rounding out the first-team picks for Montana is freshman Trevin Gradney from Billings who made several big plays on the UM special teams with five solo tackles and one TFL this season.

Senior tackle Conlan Beaver was named second-team All-Big Sky for a second time in his career, after also repeating as the team’s Paul Weskamp Award winner for outstanding offensive lineman on Sunday.

Sophomore defensive tackle Alex Gubner picked up the first all-conference honors of his career with a place on the second team. Gubner finished the regular season as Montana’s seventh-overall top tackler with 37 stops, eight tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble as well.

Senior linebacker Jace Lewis also landed on the second team with 84 tackles this season – the third most on the team. He’ll finish his illustrious career at UM in the top-10 in career TFLs with 14.5 this season and in the top-25 in career sacks with 4.5 on the year.

Sophomore guard Hunter Mayginnes made seven starts in his first season at Montana to become Montana’s only third-team all-conference selection as well.

Picking up All-Big Sky honorable mentions for the Griz were junior receiver Mitch Roberts, freshman tight end Cole Grossman, and senior defensive ends Joe Babros and Justin Belknap.