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MISSOULA — Boy, it sure went south in a hurry for the Montana football team Saturday.

As in fell off a cliff. Spit the bit. Giddy-up done gone.

Griz fans, don't feel like the Lone Ranger after watching your team squander an 18-point halftime lead in a 49-21 home setback to sixth-ranked UC Davis. Understand that comebacks are the Aggies' specialty — they rallied from two TD's down to beat Idaho State two weeks ago and erased a 10-0 deficit at Cal Poly last weekend.

The upshot is that yours truly is going to wear the clown outfit for Halloween again this year after picking the Grizzlies to win in last Sunday's column. What you may not have realized is I actually picked the Griz to win the first half, which they did in impressive fashion, 21-3.

That line was inexplicably cut out of last week's column. Darn editor.

Seriously though, what you saw Saturday was a heroic effort by Montana's defense for three quarters. And an equally heroic effort by quarterback Dalton Sneed and Montana's Toyota Prius offense, which managed to take a 21-13 lead into the fourth quarter against an opponent with a Ford Mustang offense.

The Grizzlies were unable to follow through and they're probably not going to make the playoffs now. Life is full of little disappointments, then you take a dirt nap.

If you want to sulk about Montana's collapse, go ahead. As for me, I feel blessed to be a part of this thing they call Griz Nation.

Saturday's first half was a marvelous mixture of hustle and heart by the players, clever game-planning by the coaches and crowd noise that gave me the goosebumps. The Aggies' long-time beat writer confided late in the first quarter that Davis had never experienced anything quite like that atmosphere. And that includes its trip to Stanford earlier this season.

So thoroughly flummoxed were the Davis players and coaches in the second quarter, they were flagged for three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in one series. For a while there, the team-fan dynamic the Grizzlies had going at Washington-Grizzly Stadium was unlike anything I've experienced in years.

"We came out and we put the heat on early in the game," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. "First half, it was a lot of fun  ... At halftime, we said that’s what Grizzly football ought to look like was the first half.

"We just didn’t sustain it." 

If Montana was ever going to beat Davis, it needed to convert more on third and fourth down in the second half. The Griz needed that first down late in the third quarter, leading 21-6 on fourth-and-1 at the Aggies' 33-yard line.

They didn't convert, unfortunately. Then Davis cut its deficit to 21-13 roughly two minutes later. Montana later failed to convert on third-and-short near midfield with 12 minutes left, then Davis went 83 yards for a go-ahead touchdown and Sneed suffered a painful strip sack and ...

You don't want to know what happened after that.

In retrospect, what we saw Saturday was a gifted, supremely confident Davis team against a Grizzly team clinging by a thread to its winning tradition of the past. This wasn't about a dumb play call or a pass drop or a lack of conditioning. This was about one team having superior talent and the other trying to win on guts and guile.

I still like Sneed. And running back Jeremy Calhoun and wideout Samuel Akem. And linebackers Dante Olson and Josh Buss and safety Robby Hauck.

There's just not enough of those dudes on the Montana roster right now. Consequently, Montana has to play with the sustained emotion and intensity of "Rudy" just to stay with a team like Davis. That stuff will only get you so far before you get exposed.

Montana has road games the next two weeks. After watching the team pour everything it had into Saturday, I'm worried about next weekend at Southern Utah. Then Idaho comes the following weekend and you know the downtrodden Vandals will be up for that one in Moscow.

At this point it's all about the rivalry with Montana State. The Cats will come to town on Nov. 17, determined to earn their third straight win over Montana.

But if the Grizzlies play the way they did for the first three quarters Saturday, they're going to beat the Cats. In fact I'll predict it right now.

Of course if you put that prediction in one hand and my black lab Wilson's lawn droppings in the other, they weigh the same.  

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Bill Speltz is the Deputy Sports Editor of the Missoulian. Email him at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com.

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