MISSOULA — Their maroon-clad backers made for a mighty electric atmosphere Saturday night, but the Montana Grizzlies aren't winning with mystique like they once did.

That's not a slight. It's just reality. It comes with missing the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs the last three years.

Opponents don't melt in Montana's presence the way they did 10 years ago in coach Bobby Hauck's first go-round in Missoula. They're not afraid to open up the playbook early.

These days the Grizzlies have to prove themselves week-in and week-out against foes that couldn't give a rat's whisker about their past success. North Alabama, for example, didn't look the least bit jittery taking the fight to Montana and building a halftime lead.

Recapturing the old home mystique won't happen overnight. On Saturday the No. 22 Grizzlies compensated with second-half fireworks, showing why they're climbing up the rankings by surging past the cat-quick Lions, 61-17.

There was a time back in 2009 when Hauck's hungry horde just leaned on physically-inferior foes with an intimidating, clock-devouring run game. That part of the offense is under construction, so Montana is tasked with beating the North Alabamas and South Dakotas at their own game with passing, misdirection runs and Dalton Sneed scrambling.

Fortunately for Griz fans, Hauck's offense is solid in all three departments. And they're mostly good on special teams, which has long been regarded as Hauck's strongest suit.

Think about the first quarter Saturday. Montana led 10-7 in large part because of Jerry Louie-McGee's 31-yard punt return, a 19-yard fake punt run by Adam Wilson and a field goal by Brandon Purdy.

Granted, a failed fake field goal late in the first half cost Montana a lead at intermission. But the Griz still finished on the plus side when it came  to special teams, especially when you factor in Louie-McGee's punt returns of 29 and 74 yards for a TD late in the third frame.

Saturday's game boiled down to halftime coaching adjustments and Montana's monster 24-point third quarter. The manner in which the Griz moved the chains and picked off two passes in the period sent 24,033 fans into a frenzy.

When Hauck tells us it's hard to win these days, he's not just blowing smoke. The FCS and the Big Sky Conference are both deeper than they used to be 10 years ago. A lot deeper.

The more Montana wins, the more jittery teams are going to be when they come to Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Beating the Grizzlies in the shadow of Mount Sentinel will become tougher and tougher.

Will Hauck's Griz ever get back to the point where they're 51-6 over a four-year span like they were from 2006 to 2009? Maybe someday. But to believe UM can return to that dominating level soon is to do an injustice to the competition.

So today, be happy the Griz are 2-0. North Alabama is a darn good football team. It's easy to see how the Lions won at Southern Utah last year and at Western Illinois last week.

The old Griz home mystique may not be back completely, but it most certainly made a guest appearance in the third quarter Saturday.

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Bill Speltz is in his 13th year as Missoulian Sports Columnist. He also guides the sports dept., scheduling day-to-day coverage. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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