MISSOULA, Mont. — The last time Makena Simis played quarterback for Montana, he threw for a school-record six touchdowns. That was two years ago.
Simis was called on again to take snaps for the Grizzlies Saturday, this time heavier and stronger, and used his size to scrap for yards against Northern Arizona.
“It’s weird how things come full circle,” Simis said.
“But I just wanted to embrace it and really just be there to get the ball to the guys who needed to make plays and, when I was asked to make plays with my feet, what I wanted to do was not hold the team back.”
Simis had 101 yards rushing on 19 carries and Jerry Louie-McGee had a 48-yard punt return for a touchdown to help Montana beat Northern Arizona 17-15 on Saturday to snap the Lumberjacks’ six-game win streak.
“Upon contact I don’t think I got knocked back once today,” Simis said. “I was always falling forward. Just to use that in my favor when our game plan is to use the quarterback run, just pound them with the run game, I think that’s big.”
Simis, a redshirt senior, moved from quarterback to receiver after the 2015 season but came into the week as the backup quarterback. He entered the game after the first drive and was 6-of-15 passing for 44 yards with one interception.
“I had the idea this was going to be the situation. I had been taking reps at quarterback all season…so I was comfortable with all this stuff. What I do know is I know the offense pretty well and know where people are supposed to be, so I felt pretty comfortable in that sense.”
Northern Arizona’s Stone Smartt scampered around the edge, dove and touched the pylon for a 2-yard touchdown that made it 17-15 with 50 seconds left. On the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt, he rolled right and had a wide open receiver in the back of the end zone, but threw behind his target.
Montana (6-3, 4-2 Big Sky Conference) recovered the onside kick to seal it.
In the first quarter, Smartt replaced quarterback Case Cookus, who was ejected for targeting on a block downfield.
“You can talk about them losing their starting quarterback early, which is one of those things, because we were on number four,” Montana head coach Bob Stitt said. “These things happen, and I like our number four.”
The Montana defense had seven sacks and, after Cookus left, allowed just 278 total yards. Northern Arizona (6-3, 5-1) came in averaging nearly 461 yards, and more than 35 points, per game.
“It was gritty, gutsy, shows the character of our football team,” Stitt said. “It wasn’t pretty at all, but it feels so good.”
Northern Arizona: It’s not every day that a quarterback is on the wrong end of a targeting penalty. In fact, the NCAA, per Montana sports information, said it had no way to check whether or not it has ever happened.
Just as Northern Arizona threatened to score on back-to-back drives, star quarterback Case Cookus lowered a shoulder into Montana linebacker James Banks on the near end of a wide receiver reverse. The referees confirmed the targeting call, and Cookus was ejected, furiously taunting the Missoula crowd of 20,000 as he left.
Cookus’ departure had a noticeable effect on the NAU offense.
The ‘Jacks ran the ball 52 times, compared to its average of 34 attempts per game this season, for 179 yards.
“For us, losing Case Cookus that early in the game was an awful lot to come off of,” NAU coach Jerome Souers said. “Stone Smartt, the true freshman, he’s a very talented young man. We have high hopes for him and he’s improving every week, but it might’ve been an awful lot to ask of him to come in and perform the way that we needed him to.”
Montana: The Grizzlies were without their first- and second-string quarterbacks, and the pass-happy Grizzlies struggled to do much through the air. Makena Simis, the starting H-receiver on opening day, replaced third-string QB Caleb Hill on Montana’s second possession to be the Grizzlies’ fourth quarterback of the season.
“The offense is going to feel the confidence from the quarterback,” Stitt said. “I didn’t feel like he came out and did that, and we weren’t going to wait.
“This guy’s done it for us before, and Caleb’s a good quarterback, but we’ve got have a quarterback we can ride, and Makena was something else. Have a 100-yard day and not play the position for a couple years — I don’t know how many performances can match what this guy did.”
Montana’s quarterback problem will be its biggest challenge as the Grizzlies try to squeeze into the FCS playoff picture and avoid a late-season unraveling. Jensen could return next week against Northern Colorado after a concussion took him out of last week’s game against Weber State.
“We knew Gresch wasn’t going to go early, and we were hoping that he’d be OK, but you can’t rush something like that,” Stitt said. “It was really full speed ahead with these guys (Hill and Simis) and the game plan. We didn’t have to change a lot of our stuff…Makena’s been running these plays for a long time.”
Northern Arizona hosts Montana State
Montana hosts Northern Colorado, which upset the Grizzlies last season