MISSOULA — The air slowly leaked out of the balloon.

By the start of the fourth quarter, the carnival atmosphere at sold-out Washington-Grizzly Stadium was gone. That along with the 18-point halftime lead Montana enjoyed in its football showdown with 11th-ranked Eastern Washington Saturday night.

It came down to 15 minutes of football with the score knotted at 27-27. The old kings of the Big Sky Conference versus the new kings. An epic struggle, the likes of which hasn't been seen on Hoyt Field in several years.

It didn't happen for the Grizzlies. The wheels on the Buss went round and round as Montana linebacker Josh Buss turned in one of the most heroic defensive performances this sports columnist has ever seen.

But 17 tackles weren't enough.

Eagles QB Gage Gubrud played the half of his life, sparking his team to 42 points in the final 30 minutes. He threw for a team-record 549 yards and his team piled up a team-record 617 total yards.

It was barely enough in a 48-41 win.

My first instinct after a loss like Saturday's is to bring up past Grizzly success stories and question Montana's head coach, Bob Stitt. I'm not doing that this time. You naysayers are going to have to go somewhere else to get your fill of negativity.

What I saw from Montana made me optimistic about the rest of the season. Made me look forward to Gresch Jensen's next start under center.

When was the last time you saw a Grizzly quarterback throw the deep ball or extend plays like Jensen? For that matter, when was the last time you saw a 19-year-old in Maroon & Silver throw for 358 yards?

Please be realistic, Griz Nation.

Montana was up against a battle-tested veteran in Gubrud, whose team came within one freaky play of reaching the FCS title game last winter. The Grizzlies didn't even reach the playoffs in 2016.

This Big Sky Conference race that started Saturday is going to be memorable. Everyone is going to take lumps before it's over and the champion is going to be the team that shows the most resilience.

Look at the facts. Montana State buried league favorite North Dakota on its home field Saturday. Sacramento State stunned Southern Utah, who last week bounced then-No. 21-ranked Northern Iowa.

Yes, Montana is off to an 0-1 start in the Big Sky. Plus that one loss was at home.

But Montana has a mighty good offensive line and Jensen is only going to get better. And the Grizzly defense was stellar in the red zone until it ran out of gas late.

So you can give up on the Grizzlies after one conference game if you like.

I'm sticking with them, anxious to see what they can do at Portland State next Saturday.

Email Bill Speltz at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @billspeltz.

Email Bill Speltz at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @billspeltz.

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