MISSOULA — When Bob Stitt was hired by Montana in the winter of 2015, he promised to bring an up-tempo offense that would light up the scoreboard in ways Montana fans hadn’t consistently seen in two decades.
It’s unlikely the program’s 36th head coach envisioned winning many games on the strength of his defense and special teams. Yet that’s exactly what happened on Saturday in front of 20,466 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
With its top two quarterbacks relegated to the sideline with injuries, Montana ran its second-fewest plays under Stitt, benefitted from an early ejection, scored on a punt return and then outlasted Northern Arizona’s last-ditch effort and walked away with a 17-15 win.
“It was just gritty (and) gutsy. It showed the character of our football team,” Stitt said. “It wasn’t pretty at all, but it felt good.”
Stitt’s sentiment was confirmed by the reaction in the Montana locker room after the Grizzlies improved to 4-2 in Big Sky Conference play, 6-3 overall and kept their playoff hopes alive. The postgame noise emanating from Montana’s new digs temporarily overwhelmed the press conference and gave voice to the relief the Griz felt after a disheartening 41-27 loss at Weber State a week ago that put the team in a precarious situation with the ninth-ranked team in the nation coming to town.
Montana was without Gresch Jensen, the redshirt freshman quarterback who had taken the reins of its prolific offense when senior Reese Phillips went down in non-conference play. UM held out Jensen after he suffered a concussion in the 41-27 loss to the Wildcats. Without the redshirt freshman, Montana first turned to junior college transfer Caleb Hill and then to Makena Simis, a quarterback turned H-back turned quarterback who tossed a then-school-record six touchdowns in a game in 2015.
With Simis in charge, the Griz ditched their drop-back passing attack for a game plan that kept the ball on the ground for 45 of the their 60 offensive snaps. A bulked up Simis — after changing positions, the senior is up to 235 pounds — toted the ball 19 times for 101 yards, often barreling into the fight at the line of scrimmage as the Griz struggled to gain yards in anything more than small bits.
It replicated the dilemma Northern Arizona (6-3, 5-1) faced midway through the first quarter. With a chance to take an early two-possession lead, the Lumberjacks lost momentumt with the ejection of quarterback Case Cookus for a targeting penalty.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quarterback get a targeting foul,” Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Souers said.
Even without their quarterback, NAU hung around. Trailing 17-9 following Brandon Purdy’s 34-yard field goal with 4:21 left in the game, NAU methodically moved down the field behind true freshman backup quarterback Stone Smartt. A holding call on UM safety Evan Epperly moved the ball to the Montana 18. Six plays later, Smartt went around the right end for a 2-yard score, cutting Montana’s lead to 17-15.
Souers, in his 20th and final year as NAU’s head coach, called a timeout to set up the two-point conversion. Smartt rolled right and had Wallace Gonzalez open in the back of the end zone, but threw it behind him. The Griz breathed a major sigh of relief.
“It was a huge win for our football team,” Stitt said. “ … I had a great feeling we were going to get an unbelievable effort out of our team this week. We had a really nice game plan — the offensive assistant coaches put a nice game plan together to be able to be able to use the talent of Caleb and Makena and we just knew Makena was the guy who was going to take us where we needed to go.
“Defensively we needed to have a great day — we knew that.”
That was likely the belief of both coaching staffs coming into Saturday, but it became a little less dangerous for both defenses with two of the conference’s premier quarterbacks on the sideline.
Once Cookus angrily left the field both teams were in similar situations: Montana labored behind an offense that took nearly an entire half to complete a pass while Northern Arizona called on a quarterback whose name wasn’t even on the roster given to reporters before the game.
Though Smartt, the No. 2 QB on the depth chart, was able to drive the ’Jacks 65 yards for a touchdown staking them to a 9-7 halftime lead, neither offense could fit the profile of typical pass-happy Big Sky teams. By halftime the four quarterbacks — Cookus, Hill, Simis and Smartt — were a combined 10 of 25 for 88 yards, a score, six sacks and an ejection believed to be the first of its kind since the NCAA adopted the ejection-for-targeting rule in 2013.
While the stats for the quarterback quartet were bizarre by any standard, they fit in nicely with a strange first half.
Both offenses entered Saturday as two of the most prolific scoring machines in the country, but couldn’t come close to replicating their previous production. Northern Arizona went three-and-out four times in the first half, while Montana couldn’t produce a drive that traveled more than 34 yards and scored its only touchdown on a punt return.
Trailing 3-0 late in the first quarter, Jerry Louie-McGee fielded a punt at the Montana 48, eluded a few tacklers and went up the gut for his first punt return touchdown since the highlight-reel return he had against Northern Iowa last fall.
Montana adjusted its scheme, preferring to keep the ball on the ground with its third- and fourth-string quarterbacks operating the offense. Hill directed the Grizzlies’ opening series and promptly moved backward 15 yards before he gave way to Simis.
“It’s weird when you haven’t done it in two years. I think that was pretty visible with some of my throws and stuff like that” said Simis, who completed his first pass with just about 6 minutes remaining in the opening half and finished 6 of 15 for 44 yards and an interception. “What I do know is I know the offense pretty well and I have a pretty solid command of knowing where people are supposed to be. So I felt pretty comfortable in that sense.
“Really it was our O-line did such a good job. Our defense — that was one of the most gritty performances I’ve seen out of our defense since I’ve been here.”
Once Cookus gave way to Smartt, Montana appeared to ratchet up its pressure. It continually harassed Northern Arizona’s athletic 6-foot-4 rookie quarterback chasing him down for seven sacks and several tackles for loss, perhaps none bigger than when Chris Favoroso dragged Smartt down for a four-yard loss on a designed run one play before Tucker Schye registered a fourth down sack.
The two stops again put an end to any momentum the ’Jacks tried to muster. Montana had just used a fumble recovery that helped set up Alijah Lee’s 1-yard touchdown to put the Griz up 14-9 with 4:47 left in the third quarter.
Northern Arizona responded, quickly driving the ball down the field on two Smartt runs that picked up 16 and 17 yards, respectively. But they got no more thanks to the defensive effort.
Montana preserved its hopes of returning to the postseason. With three losses, the Griz are among three teams tied with Eastern Washington and Montana State for fourth in the league standings, one game behind three teams — NAU, Weber State, Southern Utah — tied atop the conference standings at 5-1. Montana hosts Northern Colorado next week before its season finale in Bozeman the following week.
Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.