To borrow a college dude colloquialism, Montana’s football team spaced out the second half Saturday.
It stormed to a 17-point lead and figured Northern Arizona was as dead as Julius Caesar.
It happens sometimes. You begin to assume and then relax a little bit and can’t recapture the magic. Next thing you know you’re on the wrong end of a 41-31 score and reporters are asking why.
Nothing anyone says is going to constitute a logical explanation. You compete in sports long enough, you’re bound to blow a lead.
For something so radical to happen at Washington-Grizzly Stadium took almost all in attendance by surprise. Maybe even Northern Arizona coach Jerome Souers, though he’d never admit it.
I can still see Griz running back Dan Moore barreling into the end zone early in the second quarter, knocking Lumberjack defensive back Lucky Dozier into next week. Lucky dusted off what was left of his dignity and headed to his bench with his Jacks trailing, 24-7.
Then weird stuff started happening for a Griz team that hadn’t dropped a homecoming tilt since “Achy Breaky Heart” was on the charts. Montana’s momentum went up in smoke.
Moore fumbled the ball away twice. Grizzly freshman quarterback Trent McKinney lost his focus, at one point throwing an off-balance, against-his-body pass that fluttered like a goose with a moose head attached. The pass resulted in one of his three interceptions, two of which were recorded by – surprise, surprise – Lucky Dozier.
Sometimes life, and football, are mysteries wrapped in a riddle.
“The biggest thing I noticed is when we were way down, I looked to my left and my right and everybody was still in the game,” Dozier said afterwards. “Our coaches, they prepped us very well and we were very confident in our game plan. They had the confidence in us like we were up 80-0 or something.”
The second half was a blur of offensive gaffs and lots of defense for the Griz. At one point I counted eight Montana defenders with their hands on their hips, trying to catch their breath on a smoky, somber afternoon. NAU possessed the ball twice as long as UM in the third and fourth frames.
So it goes. All the good stuff that happened to UM in the first 17 minutes is suddenly forgotten.
The Griz are no longer the dominant team in the Big Sky Conference. They've had three coaches in the past four years and mental mistakes have become a weekly issue.
On Saturday Peter Nguyen fielded a punt inside his 10-yard line and fumbled the ball away. He was back in to field the next punt, which never would have happened three years ago under former coach Bobby Hauck.
Hauck would have had Nguyen on the bench for the rest of the game. He ruled with an iron fist and made players accountable for their mistakes. Those players didn't smile as much, but they didn't lose as much either.
This season isn’t over by a longshot. The Grizzlies, as much as anyone else, remember what happened last year when their team started 2-2 and responded with a nine game win streak.
“It’s a journey,” said Tripp, a third-generation Griz who addressed his team after Saturday’s game. “You’re going to hit some bumps along the road and how you respond to adverse things is what makes the difference between a good or average team and a great team.
“Coming off a loss like this and going to Eastern Washington (Saturday), you up everything. You crank it up and keep going. You don’t want this feeling again.”
For Montana's sake, I hope it learned a valuable lesson against NAU. The fact it stings is a good thing.
The Griz have the talent to make major noise. But until they learn to stay engaged for 60 minutes – something they’ve done only once in four games – their efforts will be muted.
Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or email@example.com.