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Griz fans had their pick of bad omens early last Friday night. On the opening drive of the Football Championship Subdivision title game, the Richmond Spiders converted a third-and-15 on a quarterback scramble that included at least two missed tackles by the normally reliable Griz defense. That same drive ended with a perfectly executed fullback pass, a trick play that allowed the Richmond quarterback to stroll into the end zone.

And things didn’t get much better when Montana took its first possession—sturdy field general Cole Bergquist was quickly hobbled by the mother of all charley horses, the speedy Richmond defense ran circles around UM’s heralded offensive line and the team’s freshman kicker missed a gimme field goal that could have stopped the early bleeding. Whether you were watching with the diehards at Red’s, The Broadway or The Press Box, or playing fair-weather fanatic with the hipsters at the Badlander, Griz fans everywhere sunk a little in their maroon and silver before ESPN2 went into its second commercial break.

Call it a beat-down or a bad night, but the better team won. Griz fans who remember how the season began may take some solace in the fact that this shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, it was head coach Bobby Hauck who introduced his young and mostly inexperienced squad to a Caras Park pep rally back in August, cautioning the crowd that this would be a transition year. Three players then got caught in a now annual off-field infraction. A few weeks later Division II Central Washington came within a field goal of upsetting the Griz at home and conference rival Weber State embarrassed UM in Ogden. The same no-name secondary, undersized linebackers and backfield by committee that Hauck warned us would take some time to gel made the Griz look more like a Northern Colorado team than a national championship contender.

That’s when an amazing thing happened for humbled fans of the home team: The 2008 Griz turned into the most likeable squad in years. Scrappy and smart, opportunistic and unflappable, plucky locals like Drummond’s Chase Reynolds, Havre’s Marc Mariani, Billing’s Shawn Lebsock, Dillon’s Chris Dyk and Missoula’s Palmer brothers banded together to pile up prideful victories. UM’s complete dismantling of top-seeded James Madison in the playoff semifinals proved to be the culmination of a remarkable maturation process. Did the team peak one week too early? Perhaps. But what’s cool to realize is that you could say they peaked an entire season too early, and that made 2008 a heck of a lot of fun. ?

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