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Bill Speltz: Montana Grizzlies save face after sluggish half against Dixie State

Bill Speltz: Montana Grizzlies save face after sluggish half against Dixie State

MISSOULA — The anxiety and concern were uniform across the board for Griz Nation at halftime of Saturday's home football game.

For the fans, there were two sentiments: We've got a situation here and please tell me Cam Humphrey's ankle injury isn't too bad.

Humphrey, for the record, is the usual starting quarterback for Montana. The one that led the squad to an earth-shattering road win over Washington and a 3-0 start in September before limping off the field late in a gut-wrenching loss at Eastern Washington last weekend.

Without the redshirt senior, sixth-ranked Montana was a different team Saturday against hapless Dixie State. Griz offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach probably knew going in his offense was going to be limited and he did his best to design a plan of attack that made things simple for redshirt freshman starting QB Kris Brown.

Things got complicated after Brown fumbled the ball away on a sack in the red zone in the first quarter. His confidence was shaken and Dixie State started believing in miracles. The feeling might have blossomed even more had Trailblazer starting quarterback Kenyon Oblad not overthrown his wide-open receiver in the end zone late in the first period. The Griz caught a break.

In the end, Montana played better in the second half and emerged with a face-saving win, 31-14. The crowd was thinner than usual — either because of assumptions about the outcome or apathy after last weekend's loss — and the 10-0 score late in the third frame was a surprise.

This game was about Griz players other than the quarterback making plays so the team could avoid a devastating loss. Players like wide receiver Samuel Akem, who kick-started the offense and helped Brown's fragile psyche by catching a ball thrown behind him in the second period, leading to Montana's first points. And running back Xavier Harris, who had 119 yards on 29 carries.

For all that went wrong in the first half Saturday, at least Montana had a 3-0 lead. It was something the team could feel good about in the locker room after finishing the second quarter with an ill-advised fake field goal attempt from close range that fueled the Trailblazers' upset hopes even more.

Fortunately for Montana, its defense was stout again — just as it has been all season except for that fourth quarter in Cheney, Washington.

Some are going to look back on Saturday's game and say, well the Griz had a lot of players injured. Phooey. Every team has its share of injuries this time of year, including poor little Dixie State.

You learn on the fly and leave the excuses for someone else. Rosenbach knows that as well as anyone. He deserves big credit for helping Brown help himself in the second half with deft play calling.

Credit might also be disbursed to Dixie State coach Paul Peterson for helping Montana's cause, going for it on fourth down from his own 33-yard line late in the third quarter. Peterson can do whatever he wants and roll the dice at his discretion, but as Griz fans, keep that in mind when you look at the final point spread and the fact the play led to a Griz touchdown.

Montana's best friends right now are its trainers — hopefully they can get Humphrey and wide receiver Gabe Sulser back on the field soon — and its relatively tame schedule to finish the regular season. After hosting Sacramento State next Saturday, the team plays at Idaho and hosts Southern Utah before hitting the road for games at Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona. The one scary game on the November slate is at home against Montana State on Nov. 20.

Whatever expectations you may have had after Montana's win in Seattle, you might want to slow your roll now. Washington is 2-3, with its only wins coming over Arkansas State and Cal. And Montana had trouble shaking winless Dixie State for almost three quarters Saturday.

Please tell me Humphrey's ankle injury isn't too bad. 

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 15 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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