In a span of 14 plays of their heart-wrenching 48-41 loss to Eastern Washington on Saturday night, the Montana Grizzlies were reminded of their past and present, while possibly receiving a glimpse into their future.
Making his first start since he was a senior at Auburn Mountainview High School two years ago, Gresch Jensen threw a third-quarter interception that Eastern Washington cashed in a few moments later for a 50-yard touchdown to erase Montana’s once comfortable lead.
But as his coaches and teammates expected of him, Jensen returned to the field to guide a 10-play drive that gave Montana its last advantage of the night.
For a moment it was exactly what Montana — and the more than 25,000 maroon-clad fans that returned the roar to Washington-Grizzly Stadium — expected with Jensen behind center. For two years, the program seemed to be in a holding pattern with a few quarterbacks who could run head coach Bob Stitt’s up-tempo system, but never seemed to be the general the offense needed.
Before Jensen ever threw a maroon jersey over his pads he wasn’t exactly anointed savior by the program’s rabid, championship-thirsty fan base, but he was hoisted upon a lofty pedestal. With Jensen’s commitment in hand, Montana called off its search for its successor to Brady Gustafson — the Griz had found their quarterback of the future.
Jensen could run. Jensen could throw. Jensen knew Stitt’s system. He could process information like he was a football-computing software some nerd had expertly designed in his dorm room. As Gustafson finished up his two-year run as Stitt’s QB last fall, the stories of Jensen’s meticulous preparation started to filter out. So too did the accounts of how he and the young receivers the Griz were going to pin their future to carved up the first-team defense when they were just supposed to be scout team players.
It didn’t happen the way it was supposed to, but four games into his redshirt freshman season, Jensen became Montana’s starting QB. Though Stitt was still dealing with the disturbing injury that sidelined Reese Phillips, the fifth-year senior who won the starting quarterback job entering the 2017 season, Montana’s third-year head coach wasn’t concerned that he was about to hand over the reigns to Jensen.
“His skill set and his mindset is what we want to recruit,” Stitt said of Jensen as the Griz prepared for Eastern Washington. “We are excited to put him out there.”
Jensen’s debut started ominously, a three-and-out that included a bad read and a couple below average throws. But before long Jensen had the Griz on the move with 17 first-quarter points that staked Montana to a lead over the 11th-ranked team in the nation.
After not throwing the ball more than a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage in his first two drives as Montana’s starting quarterback, Jensen started tossing darts over the top of the Eastern secondary. He hit Keenan Curran for a 66-yard completion to set up the Grizzlies’ first touchdown. He then connected with Justin Calhoun for 47 more. Between those completions and after were a few shots down field that perfectly tracked to their intended targets. They didn’t all go for receptions, but they all hit their mark, none more spectacularly than the 44-yard Hail Mary Jensen tossed to Calhoun to end the half with the Griz up 24-6.
“It’s from my receivers,” Jensen said of the confidence he had in taking every shot he could. “I just want to give them a chance. Keep attacking it.”
By half Jensen was 9 of 18 for 199 yards and the score. He finished 25 of 49 for 358 yards, two scores and the ill-advised pick. And when the game was on the line late in the fourth, Jensen didn’t look his best, throwing four straight incompletions during the Grizzlies’ penultimate and perhaps most important drive. Most important, he completed the night 0 for 1, as in zero wins and one loss as Montana’s starter.
“This is going to drive him crazy,” Stitt said of his young quarterback, who sat silently to his coach’s right looking like he was still processing his first collegiate start.
Jensen’s effort, which impressed Eastern linebacker Ketner Kupp and his head coach Aaron Best, went for naught in the wake of Montana’s disastrous defensive effort. And that could be the case going forward. Regardless of what Jensen and Montana’s offense can do, it may never be enough if the defense can’t keep opposing teams out of the end zone. It’s a question that remains unanswered — it’s one of a few areas in this program that remain uncertain.
As for the Grizzlies’ search for their quarterback of the future, that seems a little more assured.
Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.