Turn back the clock to November of 2012. Montana had just lost to rival Montana State at home, which gave the Grizzlies a 5-6 record, their first losing season in a generation. It was then that coach Mick Delaney issued a bold promise, saying:
“The Griz aren’t going anywhere. This is as far as we’ve ever went away, and we’ll be back -- quickly. This is a group of young guys that will come back and be an outstanding football team.”
That confidence laid a foundation. True to Delaney's guarantee, Montana returned to relevance this season, rolling up a 10-2 regular season record and earning a first-round bye to the FCS playoffs. The Grizzlies showed incredible resilience along the way, winning a number of games in dramatic fashion in the fourth quarter or overtime (see: Cal Poly, Sacramento State, South Dakota).
The Griz entered the season with high hopes, particularly with the return of quarterback Jordan Johnson. Johnson was forced to miss the 2012 season while fighting -- and overcoming -- dubious sexual assault charges, but he came back in a big way with more than 3,300 passing yards and 32 touchdowns to establish himself as an elite quarterback on the national level (more on that later).
The season ended sooner than the Griz would have liked, with a 42-35 home loss to Coastal Carolina in the second round of the playoffs. But it was a wild ride, one that put Montana back among the top teams in the country. Here's a look back at some of the highs and lows of the 2013 Grizzlies:
WHAT WENT RIGHT
• For years, a major characteristic of Montana's success was its ability to find ways to win. No matter the coaching staff, no matter the personnel, no matter the scenario. In 2013, that moxie re-emerged. It started in Week 8 at home against Cal Poly, when Jordan Johnson found TE Clay Pierson for a short touchdown pass with 12 seconds left to force overtime, then found Ellis Henderson with a 23-yard TD in the extra session that held up as the winner in a 21-14 victory. A week after a near-comeback versus Eastern Washington, Johnson hit Henderson again for a 25-yard TD in overtime for a wild 51-48 win at Sac State. Then, the following week, Henderson, who emerged as the most clutch player on the team, struck again with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with roughly 90 seconds remaining against South Dakota to clinch a 31-27 victory. There's no doubt resilience was the key characteristic of the Grizzlies this season. And it made the difference in a 10-win campaign, as opposed to, say, a 7-5 record and out of the playoffs for the second straight December.
• Much was made of the Grizzlies' inconsistency on defense, and it absolutely was. But the ability to create turnovers i many ways made up for it. Montana finished the season plus-18 in turnover margin, which led the Big Sky Conference by far and ranked second in the FCS. The Griz hadn't seen turnover numbers like that since the Bobby Hauck era. A lot of it had to do with the offense protecting the ball, but Montana's D finished with 32 takeaways (16 fumble recoveries, 16 interceptions), the seventh-most in the nation. LB Brock Coyle had a Big Sky-best five forced fumbles. Eight players had at least one interception -- Jordan Tripp, Bo Tully and Nate Harris tied for the team lead with three. Tripp, a senior LB and one of the more disruptive forces in the league, had three fumble recoveries, which helped him establish a new career school record. Finishing on the plus side of the turnover ledger unquestionably helps teams win. The Griz were minus-2 in 2012. A 20-takeaway swing this season made a humongous difference.
• Johnson was welcomed back to the team with open arms and somehow managed to put the emotions and turmoil of the previous year behind him (how, I'll never know). Sometimes a great quarterback makes all the difference. Amazingly, Johnson had thrown 17 touchdown passes before serving up his first interception. He finished with just five picks in 13 games, and had an efficiency rating for 154.7, more than 20 points higher than his total from 2011. Adjusting to a more under-center offense after spending virtually all of his high school and previous college career in the shotgun, Johnson played like one of the best QBs in the FCS. He proved he could be an efficient play-action passer, throw the ball with accuracy down the field, make plays in the clutch ... and take a beating. It helped having a strong running game, particular with 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Canada. Going forward into next year, the Griz have to be ecstatic to have Johnson coming back for one more go-round.
WHAT WENT WRONG
• The defense started out playing pretty well. But by midseason it began leaking like a strainer and was downright awful at times. Montana gave up more than 1,100 yards of offense and 12 TDs in back-to-back games against Eastern Washington and Sacramento State, which led bewildered defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak to comment: "I know the defense is ticked. We’re definitely frustrated and disappointed. This time of the year we should be playing our best football and we’re not." If it weren't for the offense, that swoon might have cost UM a playoff berth. The defense seemed to stabilize in wins against Weber State and Montana State, but it didn't hold. Poor tackling was the culprit on so many big plays, and it reared its ugly head again in the loss to Coastal Carolina. Pass defense has been an issue for two straight years now. The Grizzlies returned 10 starters to the D from the previous year, which makes its performance that much more perplexing. What will it look like next year with so many new faces in the starting lineup?
• If you can't consistently make field goals -- or if you don't even have the confidence to try them in key moments of games -- you're going to run into trouble. Montana coach Mick Delaney clearly had no confidence in freshman PK Ben Worst or sophomore backup Chris Lider in the second half of the season. Worst won the kicking job from Lider early in the year, and even made a 50-yarder against Oklahoma Panhandle State. Worst has enough leg to make field goals in the 40-49-yard range -- he was a respectable 6 for 10 from that distance during the regular season. But Worst missed five of his final eight tries, including three in a row to end the season. The lack of confidence hurt the most against Coastal Carolina, when Montana decided against mid-range field goal attempts and opted to go for it on fourth down twice early in the game. They came up empty both times, and the Chanticleers turned around and scored touchdowns to build a lead. We'll have to wait and see what the kicking game looks like next year, but it should be a big priority of the Griz coaches to straighten things out this offseason.
• The Grizzlies prided themselves on discipline throughout the year, and were one of the fewest penalized squads in the Big Sky. But that went out the window at the end of the year. The trend started during the game at Montana State, when RB Jordan Canada broke loose for an 8-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to seal a 28-14 victory. Canada, though, was subsequently flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for signaling "shhhhh" to the crowd as he went in the end zone. Innocent enough, right? Well, it was a sign of things to come. In the second quarter against Coastal Carolina, Ellis Henderson got an unsportsmanlike flag for flipping the ball into the face of a defender after a short kick return. The Griz were pushed back to their 8 yard line, and then went three-and-out. Later, Jamaal Jones was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for excessive celebration after a 72-yard TD catch brought UM to within 42-35. That allowed CCU to start its next drive at the 35 (and far enough away from the crazies in the north end zone at Washington-Grizzly Stadium). The Chants converted three first downs and ran out the clock for the victory. Zack Wagenmann also had a late-hit penalty that aided Coastal Carolina on a touchdown drive in the first half. CCU, by contrast, took one penalty the whole game. They didn't seem like a huge deal at the time, but dumb fouls added up to kill Montana at the end of the year, and that wasn't their identity in the regular season.
• “We fought and battled and it’s so hard and emotional right now to be thinking about the guys that are leaving, the 11 seniors. This team has accomplished a whole lot through the last two years really. We’re proud of them. Obviously you’d like to always have things turn out the way you want but that’s not always the way it is. We did not play well enough the first half (against Coastal Carolina) to put ourselves in a good enough position. We had to fight from so far behind.” -- Mick Delaney