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MISSOULA, Mt. — It was more strange than out of character.

There were a lot of things that went wrong as Northern Iowa fell behind 26-0 to Montana Saturday in its season-opener at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

A veteran-laden offense was completely out of sync, and the defense was caught off guard by the talented, mobile and accurate Grizzly quarterback Dalton Sneed. Special teams wise, the Panthers had a rough time containing the shifty, quick Jerry Louie-McGee.

So, some credit has to go to the Grizzlies in leading to UNI’s first-half misery.

The Panthers were able to recover and more than made a game of it before falling 26-23, but it remains a mystery as what went wrong early and leads to how will that be fixed.

“I’m not sure,” junior tight end Briley Moore said of what happened in the first half. “We weren’t mentally prepared to play a game. Things were there, we just weren’t clicking and were not playing as one. That is what we started doing in the second half.

If there was one area where UNI’s struggles seemed magnified it came at quarterback where senior Eli Dunne had his worst career start.

Dunne misfired on his first eight attempts and finished just five of 20 for 24 yards and an interception. He was lifted in the third quarter after the interception.

The slow start by Dunne was strange. There were a couple of drops on passes that would’ve led to first downs that could’ve helped, but over 17 career starts the 0-for-8 start was way out of character.

Dunne’s worst first half as UNI starter may have been last year against Western Illinois where he started six of 14. But two of those completions went for touchdowns and the Panthers led 14-5 at the halftime.

In fact, that Western Illinois game is the only time Dunne did not complete at least 50 percent of his first-half passes in any career start.

Senior Colton Howell replaced him and led UNI to three long-scoring drives as he completed 11 of 22 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown, a 20-yard thread the needle throw to Nick Fossey for a touchdown that brought UNI to within 26-23 with 3 minutes and 14 seconds left.

“After what happened the last two years, nothing really surprises me,” Howell said of getting the call in the third quarter. “I think going through that makes me prepare like I’m going to be the starter no matter what.”

Howell has made a career out of bailing the Panthers out earning a pair of wins over Indiana State as an emergency starter in each of the past two years, and closing out a win over Missouri State after Dunne was banged up.

Asked after the game whether he had a decision to make at quarterback, Farley wasn’t specific.

“It is whatever my gut tells me and then I make that choice,” he said of replacing Dunne Saturday. “That was best for this particular game. There is not a stadium we walk into that we cannot win. It did not look that way in the first half so we had to do something to flip the table and get back to where we could take this field over.

“So, like I said, it is a choice per day, a choice per game right now.”

If there were two units that stood out it would have to be the offensive line that allowed just two sacks against a Griz defense that frequently blitzed.

“Colton and the O-line are the reasons we came back in that game,” Moore said. “Colton came in and got us going, and there is no shame in Eli there. Eli is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation at any level.

“The O-line, from snap one to the last snap they held up, played hard, played physical and played passionate.”

And after giving up 273 yards in the first half, the Panther defense settled in and allowed just 75 yards in the second half.

The defensive line of Seth Thomas, Hezekiah Applegate, Bryce Douglas and Rickey Neal along with regular substitutes Jared Brinkman, Brawntae Wells and Elerson Smith held the Grizzlies to just 75 rushing yards on 30 carries.

Veteran linebacker Duncan Ferch led the team with 12 tackles, while freshman linebacker Chris Kolarevic also reached double-digits with 10 tackles.

“They got better,” Farley said. “It shouldn’t take us to the second half to get that way. They caught us on our heels. We have to make some internal adjustments, and we did that and started to play better.”

UNI has two weeks to get back in sync as it has a rare second-week bye week before playing at Iowa on Sept. 15.

“If we can play four quarters like we did in that second half, then I have a lot of faith in this team,” Moore said.

TALK ABOUT CRAZY STATISTICS: UNI bobbled and dropped three balls either on carries or receptions against the Grizzlies, however the Panthers never lost a single fumble.

All the credit for that goes to left tackle Cal Twait, who recovered all three of them.

INJURY REPORT: There did not appear to any major injuries in the game other than the normal iced extremities and walking boots for precautionary reasons.

Three players who did not play — wide receiver Aaron Graham, linebaker Jake Hartford and safety Christian Jegen — will remain questionable for the Iowa game.

“None of them are close,” Farley said. “With an open date this week, we will evaluate where they are at this time next week.”

TRUE FRESHMEN: Six true freshman traveled with the Panthers to Missoula and three of them played.

Wide receiver Deion McShane had four catches for 21 yards, with two of the catches going for first downs. He also returned two kicks for 32 yards.

Jevon Brekke and Eric Mooney saw regular duty on special teams.

Wide receiver Sam Ingoli, quarterback Will McElvain and defensive back Shakespeare Williams also made the trip.

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Courier

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