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Montana's Josh Buss sacks Saint Francis quarterback Zack Drayer in the first half of Montana's 41-31 win over the Red Flash.

It only gets tougher from here.

After a 41-31 win Saturday over visiting Saint Francis, a team fresh off a 2,000-mile charter flight that's forced to play with 18 fewer scholarships than the FCS maximum and still gave the Griz about all they could handle, Montana hits the road for two imposing tests.

Northern Iowa and Cal Poly are waiting, the former having just knocked off FBS Iowa State while the latter took FBS Nevada to overtime.

The Griz team that showed up Saturday would have had next to no hope against a Football Bowl Subdivision program, be it from a Power Five conference or otherwise. Those Grizzlies would have needed help beating a top team in the FCS or the Big Sky Conference.

But who knows which Griz will take the field next week or in their games to follow? Was Saturday just a bad outing or the signs of something more?

Well consider this:

Once upon a time, Montana lost a heart-breaker to North Dakota State. No, not last year's drubbing in the playoffs; this was in 2003 when the Bison were still Division II and escaped Missoula with a 25-24 shocker. Yet 15 months later UM was playing for a national championship.

How about the time D-II Central Washington nearly left Washington-Grizzly Stadium with an upset, only to be turned back by a freshman kicker's 42-yarder with 1 second left in an 38-35 thriller? Less than three months later the Griz and Brody McKnight were in another national title bout.

The point is sometimes good teams can have bad -- or even awful -- games. Senior quarterback Brady Gustafson understands it.

"Straight up, flat out did not play to the best of my ability (Saturday). No nerves; I know I can play better going on," said Gustafson, who had three turnovers in the first half versus SFU before scoring five touchdowns in the second.


Saturday was bound to come with some bumps. The Griz are a largely different team than last year's 8-5 squad.

Fourteen of the 22 starters had two or fewer career starts at Montana, sixteen if you count the team's new punter and place-kicker. Fourteen overall were making their first starts with the defense growing even more inexperienced by kickoff with preseason all-Big Sky safety Yamen Sanders out for undisclosed reasons.

The youth showed at times -- a couple false starts from a redshirt freshman offensive lineman, a few missed gaps on defense or on special teams by the team's fresh-faced tacklers -- but the new guys had plenty of flashes to give Griz fans hope.

All three of Gustafson's passing touchdowns marked a first in Griz gear for a receiver. All three came in the second half as the players responded to Saint Francis's approach.

"We saw some things that we could exploit in the first half," said sophomore WR Keenan Curran, who along with Justin Calhoun and Lane Hovey scored through the air. "Went into halftime, made some adjustments and came out firing. We took some shots and we've got the talent on the outside to do that."

Redshirt freshman Jerry Louie-McGee also thrilled fans with his shifty moves, catching a game-high six passes for 60 yards. And redshirt kicker Tim Semenza was 2 for 2 on field goals, including a 46-yarder that was the longest for a Griz kicker since September 2013 (Ben Worst, 50 yards).

And oh yeah, that was Semenza's first-ever college attempt.

Then there was linebacker Josh Buss and safety Josh Sandry, both making their first starts. They combined for 17 tackles and met up at SFU quarterback Zack Drayer for a sack. Buss, another redshirt freshman, had 1.5 sacks in all.

"It was an awesome experience," said Buss, though he admitted to being knotted up with nerves before kickoff. "First, going out there is really nerve racking, I guess. Sick to your stomach and everything.

"The coaches preach if you're nervous, you're not prepared. You've got to be anxious to get out there and show what you got."

The Griz will be anxious to show how much they've grown between Weeks 1 and 2. When the team kicks off against UNI in Cedar Falls, Iowa on Saturday, the Panthers won't be so forgiving. There will be no room for growing pains against a team with true championship aspirations.

"I think it's a great matchup for us early because if you want to be great in the FCS, you're gonna play teams like that once you get into the playoffs," head coach Bob Stitt said.

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