In the aftermath of Montana's 28-25 loss at Northern Colorado earlier this month, the shortcoming that appeared to cripple the Grizzlies as they headed into their annual rivalry game with Montana State, head coach Bob Stitt examined his team's youth in a conversation with quarterbacks coach Andrew Selle.
The two offensive minds added up a mountain of appearances by first-year players. The Griz started nine redshirt freshmen this season. Not played – started.
Selle, once a Grizzly great himself who piloted the 2009 team to a national championship appearance, then made an observation that stuck with Stitt overnight.
How many freshmen did he remember getting significant minutes for the dominant Griz teams of the late 2000s? One. Future NFL cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
"He made the statement that it was really rare for a freshman to even be in the two-deep (depth chart) back then," Stitt said, replaying the conversation.
Though Selle neglected to mention true freshmen like linebacker Jordan Tripp and running back Peter Nguyen seeing the field in that '09 season, his remark regarding young starters stands. Montana was a team dotted by inexperience in 2016 and, accordingly, was one plagued by amateur mistakes. Those nine freshmen combined to start 63 total games for the Grizzlies with the majority of that coming on offense and special teams.
And the Griz regressed from a 7-4 playoff contender last year to a 6-5 team left out of the bracket.
So how did this happen? What has led a group of guys fresh off the high school football field to enter the starting lineup for one of the FCS's most recognizable programs?
It's easy to point the finger at the major event that occurred since players of Selle's era were suiting up – the greatest black eye in modern Montana athletics history. A U.S. Justice Department investigation into the handling of sexual assault cases by the Missoula Police Department and the University of Montana in 2012 led to the firing of head football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O'Day.
Montana imposed its own sanctions on the program after a concurrent NCAA probe found boosters provided impermissible benefits for players. That left the Griz short four scholarships for three seasons.
At the FCS level, where aid packages may be split among more than one athlete, 12 scholarships equate to a ton of bodies on the depth chart.
"That's where our program is right now and it's the fallout of what went down. We knew that," Stitt said. "... At some point you're never going to have to deal with that again."
Between the lost scholarships – Montana returns to the usual 63 for next season – and Stitt's coaching style, which clashed with the personnel that was in place when he was hired in December 2014, the coach needed to hit the transfer recruiting trail hard last offseason. So much so that when the Griz opened fall camp in August, media members were greeted by a lengthy list of newcomers to help familiarize themselves with the fresh faces.
The inventory covered a full page and numbered into the 40s.
Between the youth of the existing roster and the influx of more veteran talent new to Missoula, a getting-to-know you grace period was almost to be expected. And for an offense like Stitt's, where success is predicated on quick reads and an even quicker tempo, players on different pages are quite noticeable.
The issues became most apparent when the Griz faced adversity.
"We played very well when we're ahead and the game's not on the line," Stitt explained. "When we struggled was at times when, man, we've got to have a play. We've got to help those kids and put them in those situations more often so they feel comfortable and they have the confidence."
The air at Stitt's post-season press conference Monday hung heavy with disappointment and desperation just two days after the Grizzlies' season ended in a 24-17 humbling to the Bobcats. In an earnest and compassionate tone, Stitt laid out his intentions to evaluate all aspects of the program in an endeavor to return Montana to its former glory.
He pointed to adaptations in his own coaching style, schematics and play calling even. What he doesn't expect to change is his greater plan at work. After growing pains comes maturity.
Maybe not yet, but soon.
"The plan that we had was to build this thing for sustainability," he said. "It needs to be sustainable over time where every class is really solid and when you graduate a group of seniors you're just plugging in the new guys.
"... We don't want to be playing redshirt freshmen in key roles down the line."
The Griz will still be young in certain places next year, its crop of suddenly experienced freshmen only sophomores after all, and the graduation of 17 seniors doesn't help. The Griz will be young again across the offensive and defensive lines, with the departure of five O-linemen and three D-linemen.
But Stitt spoke highly of the signing class of 2016, the first group that he and his coaches recruited. Despite the need for talent this fall, none of the 25 true freshmen in Missoula saw a second of playing time, saving their four years of eligibility.
Many of them are expected to play large roles come next season, though
"I can't wait to pull the redshirt off of 'em and get 'em out there. There's guys that could have helped us this year, but you don't want to do that when guys are 18, 19 years old," Stitt said. "... It's going to continue to be a lot of young guys and we've got to put them in pressure situations all the time so we feel like they can handle it when they're on the field and it is a close game or we're behind."
Stitt said he understands the pressures to win, and win now, with decades of Montana's fleeting prominence breathing down his neck. As painful as a year like 2016 feels – "Patience is tough, especially in a place like this, because everyone expects a redshirt freshman to come in here and play like Marc Mariani," he quipped – this season was a building block for the future.
The kicking game is a good example, Stitt alluded, and should help ease the anxious minds of freshmen placekickers Tim Semenza and Brandon Purdy. Many kickers get tossed into battle as freshmen – like at UM and MSU this year, Stitt said – but are then forged from the flames by their later years.
The Buffalo Bills' Dan Carpenter, now in his ninth NFL season, made just 64 percent (32 of 50) of his field-goal attempts in his first two years kicking at Montana. Carpenter left Missoula, though, as the career scoring leader in Big Sky Conference and FCS history.
Perhaps buried in this year's youth may be the next Carpenter or Mariani.
"They're going to be around for a long time," Stitt said of 2016's freshmen. "In a few years people are going to go, 'Gosh, Justin Calhoun, it seems like he's been here 10 years. Jerry Louie-McGee, golly he's been here forever.'"