Chris Willis Montana

UNA coach Chris Willis discusses a call with game officials during Saturday night's loss at Montana. [MASON MATTHEWS/FOR THE TIMESDAILY]

MISSOULA, Mont. — For a half the North Alabama Lions looked at least the equal of the Montana Grizzlies Saturday, playing fast and physical and taking advantage of mistakes for a 17-16 lead.

When quarterback Christian Lopez hooked up with Jakobi Byrd for a 64-yard touchdown — putting the Lions ahead just three plays after they swamped a faked field by the Montana — it was reminiscent of 2018. Washington-Grizzly Stadium is a noisy venue, but the Grizzlies lost their last three home games last season.

The rub was the game went another two quarters in which the Lions, in the second year playing in the Football Championship Subdivision, ran out of gas in a 61-17 loss. A 1,900-mile road trip may have had something to do with it, but everything went wrong.

“First half, you couldn’t ask for it to go any better — I mean, we had the lead,” Chris Willis, North Alabama’s third-year coach, said. “And we had the momentum, and we went into the locker room and the kids were feeling good about everything.

“I’m just as caught off-guard by the way things started the second half — I never saw that coming in any fashion. Either side of the ball, we didn’t have an answer. We couldn’t stop them, we couldn’t move the ball, move the chains, flip the field.”

Montana’s third-quarter possessions ended: touchdown, field goal, punt, touchdown. The Grizzlies got a third TD when Jerry Louie-McGee put together a 74-yard punt return at the 2:51 mark, making it 40-17.

“Hats off to those guys, they’re a good football team,” Willis said. “I thought we hung in there. I thought they wore us down the second half. Their size caught up to us a little bit on the front lines.”

For Louie-McGee it was his third career touchdown off a punt return and oddly enough, his other two came against “north” teams: Northern Iowa and Northern Arizona.

If the game hadn’t turned by that point, that return made it certain.

“That was, I thought, a good punt by our guy,” Willis said. “He kicked it where we wanted, and (Louie-McGee) cut it back against the grain. We seemed to be overloaded to that side and got out of our lanes.

“But those are things we going to have to learn from. We’ll get back to work tomorrow and teach off the film and we got nine more football games to play. We’ve got to learn from this.”

One of the trademark moves for the Grizzlies in head coach Bobby Hauck’s first nine years at the helm was a strong second half. It went missing last season, his first back at the helm after eight years coaching elsewhere.

After Saturday’s game Hauck said he started feeling confident after his team drove to a Brandon Purdy field goal to make it 26-17.

“The defense kind of had them sighted in,” Hauck said. “And I thought it was going to take some more busts like we had in the first half for them to get back in it.”

It didn’t happen. Lopez, who had such a strong first half with 280 passing yards, completed just 4 of 16 second-half passes. He had no completions in the third quarter.

“The third quarter seemed to be the quarter,” Willis said. “It was just deflating. But Christian was trying to make plays, trying to put the team on his back, and sometimes you get caught in situations when you’re down two or three scores — they know we’re going to throw the ball. That changes the way we call our plays.”

Montana had everything working. The 45 second-half points gave them 61, the most scored by a North Alabama opponent. Previously Jacksonville State rolled up 60 on the Lions in 1971.

“They had a good plan in terms of alleviating some of our pressure,” Hauck said of the Lions. “They’re a physical team and they tackle well. We helped them a little bit, probably, and so at halftime we just said, ‘Our stuff’s good; our plan is sound. We just need to play better.’ ”

Griz quarterback Dalton Sneed finished 24 of 38 passing for 269 yards. He also had a 1-yard scoring run in the first half.”

Lopez finished with 320 passing yards, with 103 going to Byrd on six catches.

Defensively D’Andre Hart had eight tackles to lead the Lions. Devonte tole and Brodrick Martin each sacked Sneed; Wallace Cowins recovered a Sneed fumble that blunted a drive to end the first half, and also broke up three passes.

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