UNA defense

Assistant coach Cordell Upshaw talks to the defense during the first half Saturday against Montana. [MASON MATTHEWS/FOR THE TIMESDAILY]

Chris Willis admitted that even though North Alabama led Montana 17-16 at halftime of Saturday’s game, he had an uneasy feeling about the second half as he headed toward the locker room

For starters, he felt like the Lions had missed at least two opportunities to score points and have an even bigger lead heading to the third quarter.

He also pointed out that UNA’s two touchdowns had come on big plays and the Lions weren’t exactly moving the ball up and down the field on the Grizzlies.

In the aftermath of what turned out to be a 61-17 loss to then-No. 23 Montana, Willis called it a “weird” game.

“Except for the opening drive, everything was a big play,” Willis said of the first half. “We drove right down there and threw an interception. We missed on opportunities – there was a touchdown we missed. We got the ball to the 2 and had to settle for a field goal.”

Willis said he thought the Lions had dodged a few bullets – they sniffed out a fake field goal and a 2-point conversion play but also allowed a successful fake punt that led to a field goal.

“Montana felt like they didn’t play well in the first half, that they got away from what they do” he said. “That they should just line up and ‘big boy’ us.”

And that’s exactly what happened. With each second-half score, the partisan crowd of 24,000 that was subdued in the first half, grew more and more raucous.

Montana gained momentum early after halftime and when it was over, had scored 45 unanswered points to turn a close game into a rout.

Willis said the mood was upbeat at halftime.

“Everybody was in a good mood. We were happy but no overconfident,” he said. “We felt like we had made it through the big production of 24,000 fans.”

The game shifted quickly in favor of Montana, and it started with the third quarter kickoff.

“The feeling was let’s make them earn it or get a three and out,” Willis said. “What do we do? We kick it out of bounds. They get it on the 35 and it’s not just that they are moving the ball, but they are doing it with ease. We weren’t stopping them at all.”

What adjustments did Montana make to fuel the 45-0 run in the second half? Willis said none.

“They ran the same stuff offensively and defensively in the second half,” Willis said. “The difference was in the first half they made enough mistakes to keep us around.”

UNA gained 335 yards on 35 plays in the first half. In the second half, it ran 30 plays for 66 yards. The Lions punted five times in the second half and turned it over three times - not a recipe to beat a Top 25 team on the road.

“When you play a Top 25 team on the road in an atmosphere like that and are in position like that at halftime, you have to sustain that,” Willis said. “You have to respond when they score. Against Western Illinois we were able to respond. We couldn’t do it against Montana. They looked like a team that went in at halftime and got chewed out. They came out (mad) and wore us down.”

UNA’s defense was on the field for 89 plays.

“In the second half, it was almost like, ‘Somebody make a play,’ instead of it being a group effort,” Willis said. “We were worn down.”

Willis said after dissecting film of the game, it’s up to the Lions to learn from the loss and then put it behind. That shouldn’t be a problem with Alabama coming to Braly Stadium for the first time since 1996.


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