The struggles Montana has endured this season are altogether foreign to a program that’s won 16 Big Sky Conference crowns, claimed two FCS national championships and made five other title game appearances since 1993.
At 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the league, the Grizzlies are in the midst of their worst season in 20 years. But morale remains high as they prepare for this week’s game at North Dakota.
“I think the mood would actually surprise people,” said senior tight end Greg Hardy, a Fairview native. “Our mood is right where we need it to be. Winning is such a big part of playing football at Montana, but it truly is the guys in that locker room — the guys who have been raised in a good enough household who know not to give up.
“This is a good reality check for our football program. And I think these next four games will really give us an idea and hopefully show people that no matter what our record is we will never give up. I think that’s an even deeper tradition here. Guys are excited to play when you come off a loss. You’re excited to get out there and have a chance to get a win.”
The crux of Montana’s problems lies in its turnovers, the lack second-half adjustments, ineffective red-zone defense and a general inability to put together four consecutive quarters of quality football.
We saw it in their breakdowns against Northern Arizona, Eastern Washington and, most recently, Southern Utah last week. The Griz were seemingly in control of those games — they held second-half leads in each — but let them slip away.
Entering Saturday’s game at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D., the Grizzlies look to reverse a trend that’s seen them turn the ball over a league-high 18 times and be outscored a combined 73-32 in the third and fourth quarters of their four losses.
The latter statistic represents a significant U-turn. The Grizzlies have always been a second-half team: In the previous five seasons, Montana outscored opponents by a combined 304 points in the third quarter and 207 points in the fourth.
To boot, Montana and Holy Cross (of the Patriot League) remain as the only two teams in the FCS that have yet to stop an opponent inside the 20-yard line. Opponents are 20 for 20 in red zone trips against the Griz.
Under first-year coach Mick Delaney, Montana is below .500 seven games into the season for the first time since 1992.
“It’s not just one thing,” Hardy explained. “Football is a game of inches, and it just seems like we’re losing those inches. A ball doesn’t bounce here or a ball doesn’t bounce there, or we get a 15-yard penalty that sets a drive back. It all accumulates early in a game and hurts you at the end.
“What are we doing wrong? There are a number of things. We have to come out and put a second half together. That really has been our Achilles’ heel. We’ve got to come out and be as dominant as we are in the first half. Turnovers play a huge role in why we haven’t been winning football games.
“We’ve just got to put four quarters together. If we do that we’ll be a very hard team to beat for anybody. I guess we’ll see this weekend. We get another opportunity to try to put it all together.”
NOTES: Montana defeated North Dakota 27-17 in their last meeting on Nov. 13, 2010 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula. … UND is 64-14 in 11 seasons at the 12,283-seat Alerus Center, and went 10-0 there in the Division II playoffs before transitioning to Division I in 2008. … The game will be broadcast regionally on Root Sports. Kickoff is Saturday at 1:30 p.m.