By ERIC TABER | Photos by MARK MESENKO
Montana fans may not have known what to expect from their offense Saturday afternoon against North Dakota. After all, the Griz were down to their third-string quarterback Makena Simis after injuries sidelined Brady Gustafson and Chad Chalich.
The Grizzlies went three-and-out on their opening drive followed by another quick punt, some doubts may have started to creep in. But Makena Simis, making his first career start, quickly put those doubts to rest, delivering a perfect over-the-shoulder pass to Ben Roberts for a touchdown on the Grizzlies’ third drive.
His next touchdown pass found Ellis Henderson streaking towards the north end zone, and Simis once again delivered a ball that only his receiver could catch to give Montana their first lead.
As the game went progressed, coach Bob Stitt said that they allowed Simis to make more checks on his own. On his third touchdown pass, the defense forced Simis out of the pocket, but he delivered a well-weighted ball to Henderson, who broke a tackle and found pay dirt on a 63-yard score.
“That was one where I probably could have done a different protection, I didn’t get the best call in there,” Simis said of the play. “John (Nguyen) made a great block, he picked up the dude that was free so I just had to step to the side and I saw Ellis got on top so I just had to throw it out there for him.”
The fourth touchdown pass went to Josh Horner, his first of the season. Simis said they designed the play based off something they had seen, as the quarterback again slipped from the pocket and found Horner all alone in the front of the end zone.
Jamaal Jones got in on the action in the third quarter, hauling in the longest touchdown pass of the game. A short route led Jones just passed the first down marker when he pulled it in, but after a quick move that forced two North Dakota players to collide, Jones sprinted the nearly 60 yards into the end zone for touchdown No. 5.
The final touchdown in the record setting performance came early in the fourth quarter. A play-action pass found Jones in the back of the end zone for a 22-yard score, the sixth of the game for Simis.
The third-string quarterback when the season began, even a confident Simis couldn’t have imagined that he would make this much of a ruckus in his debut.
“It’s pretty surreal, it’s definitely not the way I pictured it,” Simis said. “I was pretty confident I was going to have a good game this week, but it feels pretty good at this point. I’m just happy for this team, we needed to get a big win bad so this is important.”
Simis had two weeks to prepare, as the Grizzlies were coming off of their final bye week of the season. Confidence brewed over those two weeks for the Boise, Idaho native, and he pictured himself having a great breakout performance.
“Last night I was laying in bed, I like to do a lot of visualization stuff, and I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe I can throw for three, maybe run for one,’ but this exceeded my expectations for my first start for sure,” Simis said.
The 42-point performance was the best of the season for the Grizzlies, who have struggled finishing drives this season. The red zone wasn’t a problem today, as five of the six Grizzly scores came from 20-plus yards away.
Simis said that with the looks they were getting from North Dakota’s defense, he knew they had the ability on the outside with Henderson and Jones to break off big plays.
The Grizzlies faced a lot of pressure coming into the game with two home losses already this season. Simis may have been a third string at the start of the year, but he handled the pressure with the confidence of someone who has been ready all year.
“As a quarterback, you have to be confident in yourself,” Simis said. “I knew when I got my opportunity I was going to play well, so that’s just one of those things. It’s important to have that confidence.”
The precision shown by the sophomore on the day, particularly the pass to Roberts, surprised Simis himself, as he said he threw better in the live-situation than he did during practice.
“It’s different than practice. In games, you just kind of let loose,” Simis said. “Honestly, I didn’t make nearly as many good throws like that in practice. Then, on that same play it just kind of worked out. I just shut down, was confident and let the tools I was given physically do the work.”
The six touchdown passes tied a school record held by three of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in Montana. Dave Dickenson did it in 1995, as did his predecessor Brian Ah Yat in 1998.
Jordan Johnson, the Grizzlies’ starter last season, was the most recent, tossing for six scores in 2011. Simis is good friends with Johnson, and said it will be cool to talk to him about it.
The future at the position is uncertain, as coach Stitt doesn’t know what will happen when Gustafson and Chalich return from injury and he doesn’t want to think about it. All he wants to do is celebrate Simis’ historic performance and enjoy the night.