One year ago, a magical season of Montana State football ended in a disheartening 49-13 loss to the Sam Houston State Bearkats in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals on a hot winter day in Huntsville, Texas.
Fast forward one year and not much has changed as the No. 2 Bobcats (11-2) and No. 6 Bearkats (9-3) are set to meet in the FCS quarterfinals yet again. MSU and SHSU have virtually the same teams which played each other in 2011, give or take a few players. Both teams are as high-powered as they were a year ago, and both are easily capable of winning the FCS title this season, just as they were a year ago.
But in the second meeting between the Cats and Kats in just over a year, one thing will be noticeably different – the location. This time around, Bozeman’s Bobcat Stadium will be the venue as the third-seeded Bobcats play host
to the un-seeded Bearkats tonight at 6. Tonight’s FCS quarterfinal game will be nationally televised on ESPN2.
MSU reached tonight’s quarterfinal game with a dramatic 16-10 win over Stony Brook last Saturday in Bozeman. The win pushed the Cats one step closer to their goal of reaching the national championship game, and though the Cats were excited to beat the Seawolves last weekend, they quickly turned their attention to the Bearkats, who they are all too familiar with.
“It’s great,” MSU junior receiver Tanner Bleskin said after last weekend’s win. “You want to enjoy everything and it’s important to enjoy it, but at the same time, another hot team is coming in here. So we’ve got to move on and take the next step.”
That hot team standing in the way of MSU’s next step – a semifinal berth for the first time since the national championship season of 1984, is SHSU. The Bearkats have had a roller coaster of a season after falling to North Dakota State in the FCS title game last January. SHSU has tough losses to NCAA DI powers Baylor and Texas A&M on its resume, as well as some blowout wins in the Southland Conference. The Kats also had a surprisingly tough time with Big Sky stalwart Cal Poly in their second-round playoff game last weekend, winning a defensive battle 18-16.
And defense may be the key player in tonight’s game in Bozeman. For all of the offensive firepower between MSU and SHSU, the Kats have the third-best rush defense in the FCS, allowing just 83 yards per game. MSU is sixth in that category, allowing just 98 yards per outing. The two teams are also stingy with the points. SHSU allows just 17 points per game, while MSU allows 19.
So tonight’s game could very well come down to who can stop who, and last year, MSU couldn’t stop the Bearkats, who average 275 yards on the ground, and 464 total yards per game. Running backs Tim Flanders, a Walter Payton Award candidate, and Richard Sincere, have combined to rush for nearly 2,000 yards this season, while quarterback Brian Bell is the consummate dual threat. Bell has rushed for over 400 yards this season, and has the ability to go down field with his arm.
So, just like last season, MSU has its hands full with a formidable SHSU rushing attack. But the Cats’ defense could be up to the task this time around. Zach Minter, Jody Owens, Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly anchor a nasty and stingy MSU run defense, which has been playing like a brick wall for the last month.
And though the SHSU defense is as good as any in the FCS, MSU’s offense is even more explosive than the last time the two teams met. DeNarius McGhee is heading towards a Walter Payton Award type season, and he will give SHSU fits with his ability to make plays outside the pocket, as well as throwing to the likes of Bleskin, Jon Ellis and Brian Flottkoetter. And if Cody Kirk can go this week after suffering a knee injury against Stony Brook, and if the MSU run game can find its groove, the Cats will be very hard to stop tonight.
Another the key factor in all of this might just be Bozeman. Bobcat Stadium is expected to be sold out tonight, while the weather is likely to be cold with snow showers in the area. That’s something the Bearkats don’t see much of and it could make a huge difference in MSU turning around last year’s result, and finally getting to the next round of the playoffs.
The winner of tonight’s game will face either Eastern Washington or Illinois State in next week’s semifinals. With a win and an EWU loss, MSU would host the semifinal game.
Tonight’s game will kick off at 6 inside Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman. The game can be seen live on ESPN2.
No. 2 Montana State Bobcats (11-1)
No. 6 Sam Houston St. Bearkats (9-3)
Tonight at 6 p.m.
Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman