MISSOULA — Ahead of the season, Montana football coach Bob Stitt believed his Grizzlies would fare better than the previous year.
His job was on the line, after all.
“We've made a lot of progress and we've only been there two years," Stitt said in July.
The pieces were coming together.
Reese Phillips emerged as the starting quarterback in preseason camp. The stout offensive line came together with four veteran seniors. The cupboard was full with talented wide receivers and running backs, including Keenan Curran, Jerry Louie-McGee, Justin Calhoun, Jeremy Calhoun and Washington State dropdown Alijah Lee.
The linebacking trio of James Banks, Connor Strahm and Josh Buss appeared to be the best in the country. The defensive line was plum with talent, including second-year transfers David Shaw and Brandt Davidson. The defensive backs unit was full of youth, but still had talented players in Justin Strong, Josh Sandry and Ryan McKinley.
But after the dust settled and the smoke cleared, going 7-4, losing to Montana State and being out of the playoffs wasn't enough. Two days after dropping the Brawl of the Wild, Montana dropped Stitt.
There are no excuses when it comes to football. But for a third straight season, Stitt's offense leaned on depth at signal-caller.
Phillips started three games before going down with a grisly leg/ankle injury that relegated him to a golf cart, crutches and a scooter for the rest of the season. Redshirt freshman Gresch Jensen stepped up before missing a game due to a concussion. Third-string quarterback Caleb Hill got a start against Northern Arizona, but Stitt & Co. turned to emergency quarterback Makena Simis to lead them to victory.
Two other seniors — defensive lineman Brandt Davidson and safety Mick Delaney — were lost due to season-ending injuries as well.
One of Stitt's preseason goals was to deal with adversity better than the year before.
"I want our guys to stick together," he said in July. "You have adversity all the time off the field, on the field, in games. When it happens, you stick together and you try to right the ship.”
Consider that goal achieved.
Before Phillips was carted off the field, the entire team made its way over to see off their senior leader.
The team rallied around Phillips, Davidson and Delaney.
Curran came out of the tunnel with a No. 11 flag in honor of Phillips, his roommate and friend. The three raised the No. 37 flag together on Senior Day. They rarely missed a practice and still went to team meetings to give back in differing ways.
Due to Montana's late-season struggles in 2016, the Grizzlies were tabbed to finish sixth in the conference.
“Hopefully the final poll is a little different than the preseason," Stitt said after the rankings came out.
It wasn't. In fact, Montana finished precisely where it was picked to end the year — sixth, albeit in a tie.
The Grizzlies' conference season started out with a tall task — Eastern Washington. Under the lights in prime time, Montana raced out to a 24-6 lead. It all came crashing down in the second half. The Eagles posted 42 second-half points for the comeback victory.
The loss didn't send Montana into a downward spiral. The Grizzlies rebounded, winning the next three games against teams that finished in the bottom five of the league.
Rather than starting out strong and finishing slow against Weber State, Montana did the exact opposite in Ogden, Utah. The Grizzlies dug themselves into a hole they couldn't climb out of, dropping a top-25 matchup on the road.
At that point, Montana needed to win out to make the playoffs. The Grizzlies got close.
Aided by Case Cookus' ejection and the sheer grittiness of Simis, Montana willed out to win over No. 9 Northern Arizona. The Grizzlies powered over Northern Colorado with ease.
It all came down to the last play of the last game.
Fourth-and-10 at the Montana State 28-yard line. Curran ran a route on the right side of the field. Jensen locked in on his junior star, throwing a bullet his direction. But a Montana State defender broke up the pass to send Bobcats and their fans alike into a frenzy, while sending Grizzlies and their fans into a depressive stupor.
So close, but not close enough.
And with that, the has curtain closed on the Bob Stitt era at Montana. Who will be Montana football's 37th head coach? Will that person meet expectations?
Only time will tell.