MISSOULA — This was the Adversity Bowl — a fascinating study in second-half adjustments.
Fans of the Big Sky Conference-leading Northern Arizona football team will tell you Saturday's 17-15 loss at Montana was a joke. That the 18th-ranked Lumberjacks would have won by three touchdowns if their starting quarterback, Case Cookus, hadn't been tossed for targeting in the first quarter.
Hey Jacks, welcome to the Grizzlies' world. They were playing with their fourth-string quarterback and second-string running back. Their "Case Cookus" was lost to a devastating injury almost two months ago.
Plus the Grizzlies' best defensive back, senior game-changer Justin Strong, was sitting out for disciplinary reasons. And the Maroon & Silver were a little short on momentum after stepping in a purple turd at Weber State last weekend.
Say what you will about Montana's embattled leader Bob Stitt, he out-coached the longest-tenured skipper in the Big Sky Saturday. He took a ragtag offense and turned it into a winner in front of a dwindling crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium (the announced attendance of 20,466 was the lowest since 2015).
I told myself I was going to have an open mind as I entered the press box late Saturday afternoon. That I would not harbor any preconceived notions about the Jacks or Grizzlies or Montana's coaching staff.
What I saw in the second half was what we were all sold when Stitt was hired. I saw clever adjustments and a team with heart carrying them out. A team that kept getting up after being knocked down.
Makena Simis is now officially one of my favorite Griz. He didn't start at quarterback Saturday and my guess is that Stitt had no plans of calling 15 pass plays with him under center.
Credit the coach for seeing real early in the game that his third-string signal caller, junior Caleb Hill, wasn't going to cut it in a starting role. Credit the Griz coaching staff for having a solid back-up plan, preparing Simis for what turned out to be the greatest pinch-hitting performance of his football life.
Saturday could have easily gone the other way for the Grizzlies when, with his team trailing 9-7, Simis threw a bad interception midway through the third quarter. A lesser man might have crawled into a shell or started calling for his mommy.
Simis stayed on task. Kept believing in himself. He delivered the biggest throw of the season late in the third quarter, firing a 33-yard strike to Justin Calhoun that set his team up at the Northern Arizona 3-yard line and led to a go-ahead touchdown.
Then Simis, listed as a wide receiver in your program, delivered again in the fourth quarter. He marched the Grizzlies into the Jacks' red zone with help from second-string running back Alijah Lee and Mr. Electricity, wideout Jerry Louie-McGee. Brandon Purdy nailed a real purty 34-yard field goal to give the Grizzlies a 17-9 lead and it proved to be the difference when NAU failed to convert a two-point conversion pass with 50 seconds left.
The older I get, the more I realize life is about adjusting to and/or overcoming circumstances. Nothing ever plays out exactly how you envisioned it. How you react makes all the difference.
Did Stitt save his job Saturday? Only Montana athletic director Kent Haslam can tell you for certain. My hunch is he took a critical step toward saving it, with two must-wins still ahead at home against Northern Colorado and on the road against Montana State.
Regardless of which side of the fence you're on, you cannot deny the Grizzlies showed uncommon heart against Northern Arizona. Add a couple of key contributors that were forced to sit Saturday -- think Strong and quarterback Gresch Jensen -- and the rest of November promises to be an interesting ride.