Head coach Bob Stitt wasn't the only Grizzly with a stellar debut, though Ben Roberts isn't as new to Division I athletics as his head coach.
The Griz wide receiver played in his first ever college football game Saturday, doing so as a redshirt senior. You may recall the Missoula native returned home this summer after filling his first four years of athletic eligibility with baseball at Washington State.
Roberts was an all-state and record-breaking receiver for Sentinel High back in 2010 but hadn't donned the pads and helmet in almost five years when he enrolled at the University of Montana in a graduate program. It didn't take the 6-foot-4 Roberts long to acclimate.
"It's like he played all his college career," Stitt said of his offseason transfer.
Roberts had only one catch in Saturday's 38-35 thriller, a game that saw the Grizzlies knock off preseason No. 1 North Dakota State in front of a national audience, but his grab was maybe the most memorable of the afternoon.
Quarterback Brady Gustafson faked a handoff and launched a pass to Roberts, who was streaking down the left sideline. Bison safety Tre Dempsey had him blanketed, blocked off against the boundry. Not to be deterred, Roberts leaped reaching over the top of his defender and pulling down the ball at its high point.
He tumbled into the end zone for a touchdown.
"Man, that was exciting to see him do that," Stitt said. "I don't know if he in four years ever had a more exciting play in baseball than what he did today on the football field."
Stitt went back to his new weapon a moment later as Gustafson and Roberts connected on the 2-point conversion to tie the game 21-21 with 6:16 left before halftime.
The Grizzlies didn't have the most reliable kicking game in fall camp. In fact coach Stitt once joked -- or perhaps not -- that his squad would start going for two points after every touchdown if his kickers couldn't get it together.
Well Montana's special teams showed up Saturday.
The Grizzlies got 12 points off the foot of senior kicker Daniel Sullivan, including a 3-for-3 afternoon in the field goal department.
"Sully was kicking the ball great," Stitt said. "He must've not been using them up in practice because he hasn't made anything in practice. He's a gamer. It was awesome to see him come out and strike the ball so well."
Sullivan benefited from solid field position of course, all three of his field goals coming from within a dozen yards of the goal line. But the red zone conversions' loss was the kicking game's gain Saturday.
Sullivan connected from 22, 24 and 28 yards. The 28-yarder brought Montana within four points with 2:47 to play and set up the dramatic finish.
Upon further review
The Griz and Bison both benefited from calls that were reversed upon further review.
Montana took advantage of the first overturned ruling. Trailing 21-13 in the second quarter, Brady Gustafson floated a pass toward Jamaal Jones, who was streaking down the left sideline. Jones made an off-balance catch and at first glance appeared to be well out of bounds. But replays showed that Jones got one toe down inbounds with possession of the ball for a completed catch, setting the Griz up on the NDSU 38.
On the next play Roberts went over a defender to make a spectacular touchdown catch. His catch for the two-point conversion tied the game at 21-21.
NDSU's turn to challenge came in the fourth quarter with the Bison holding a 35-28 lead. Gustafson dropped back to pass and was hit just before his arm started forward. The ball squirted forward and was initially ruled an incomplete pass. But on review it was determined his arm had not started forward, making it a fumble that was recovered by NDSU's MJ Stumpf.
But the Bison's good fortune didn't last. Carson Wentz fumbled the ball back to the Griz minutes later.
The 12th man
Over the last five seasons, North Dakota State has beaten FBS schools Kansas (2010), Minnesota (2011), Colorado State (2012), Kansas State (2013) and Iowa State (2014) on the road.
The record crowd of 26,472 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium rivaled any of those places.
"I thought it was awesome," NDSU quarterback Carson Wentz said. "They were loud just like we expected and it was a great atmosphere. I don’t think that really affected us too much because we prepared like crazy. It was a cool venue.
"It was very similar (to Big 12 stadiums), just as loud as any of those. That’s an awesome fan base here and we knew that coming in. Fun atmosphere for sure."
NDSU coach Chris Klieman admitted the crowd was a factor.
"Credit Montana’s crowd," he said. "I think they took us out of some things. It was really two excellent football teams and it was a playoff atmosphere type game."
Even first-year Griz coach Bob Stitt got caught up in the emotion of his first game inside the friendly confines, at least until kickoff. Coming down the tunnel for the first time was a unique experience.
"It was pretty emotional," Stitt said. "I was trying to put my tough game face on and I was tearing up a little bit. It was really exciting. I've been waiting for a long time to do something like that."