Every year, the annual rivalry game between the Montana Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats produces plenty of hype and plenty of excitement.
But it’s been a while since the game has had so many implications behind it. On Saturday when the No. 8 Bobcats (6-1, 8-2) and No. 11 Grizzlies (5-2, 7-3) meet inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula for the 110th Brawl of the Wild, there will be much more on the line than just the usual Montana bragging rights on the line.
The Bobcats sit in a first-place tie in the Big Sky Conference standings and have a chance to win the outright league title for the first time since 1984, as well as claim the league’s automatic berth and potentially a top-four seed in the FCS playoffs. With that seed, the Cats could get at least two playoff games at home.
Meanwhile, those types of things are usually what the Griz are gunning for entering the Cat/Griz game, but not this season. Montana needs a win Saturday and an Eastern Washington loss to lowly Idaho State to share a 13th straight league title. And while that scenario is a reach, the Griz at least need a win to extend their record-setting playoff streak to 18 years.
"It's going to be a challenge, no question," said UM head coach Robin Pflugrad. "We have to do everything right and be on top of our game. And I don't think we've played our best game by any means, and I just hope and pray we can continue to keep playing through the rest of the fall."
But in order to do that, and extend their current winning streak against the Cats to five games, the Griz will have to stop the third-best passing attack in the FCS. The Cats average almost 300 yards passing and 36 points per game, and at times this year, freshman quarterback Denarius McGhee has been almost unstoppable. McGhee has plenty of weapons too, including sophomore Everett Gilbert and senior Julius Lloyd, MSU's top two receivers, while the Cats have a 1,000 yard rusher in junior Orenzo Davis, who has had a field day behind MSU’s stout offensive line. Again, things normally reserved for the Grizzlies when they play the Bobcats.
“At times he does not look like a freshman at all," Pflugrad said of McGhee. "He looks like a junior or senior. He might make a few mistakes early in the game, and he kind of saves his best for last.”
While MSU’s offense has had a record-setting season, Montana’s switch from a power running game to a spread-option attack has been a struggle at times. Still, the Griz put up 33 points per game and are ranked 22nd in the FCS in passing behind senior quarterback Justin Roper, who is 7-1 in his career as the Griz starter. UM is finally getting healthy on offense too, and senior Chase Reynolds, Montana’s all-time touchdown leader, had his best game of the season, racking up 175 yards in last week’s win over North Dakota.
But it’s both the Griz’ and Cats’ defense which will likely settle things on what is expected to be a cold and snowy Saturday in Missoula. The two teams have a pair of the top defense in the Big Sky, while both offenses are turnover prone. Montana State’s defensive line, led by Dan Ogden and Zack Minter, as well as freshman linebacker Alexi Grosulek have been workhorses all season long, while the Grizzlies have been stout at linebacker with sophomore Jordan Tripp, as well as in the secondary with junior Trumaine Johnson and senior Erik Stoll.
And it will likely be which defense can come up with enough stops and turnovers that will determine the fate of both the Grizzlies and Bobcats on Saturday.
And with so much riding on Saturday’s tilt, even more than usual in the Cat/Griz rivalry, another exciting affair is certainly in store.
"It means a lot to me," said MSU offensive lineman Mike Person, a 295-pound senior out of Glendive. "It means a lot to every Bobcat fan out there, and every Griz fan there is.
"To be honest, Glendive is a pretty big Grizzly town, and it'd be great for me if we won this one. I haven't beaten them in four tries."
The 110th meeting between the Bobcats and Grizzlies will kick off at 12:07 p.m. Saturday in Missoula. The game will be broadcast statewide on Bresnan, as well as on both DirecTV and Dish Network.
Griz (7-3) vs Cats (8-2)
Saturday at 12:07 P.M.
Game Notes: MSU is ranked third in the FCS in passing, fifth in total offense and eighth in scoring. Montana is 11th in the FCS in total defense and third against the pass. The Grizzlies have beaten the Bobcats four straight times. MSU hasn't won in Missoula since 2002 and last beat the Griz in 2005 in Bozeman. Saturday's game can be seen in Havre on Bresnan Channel 2 and on DirecTV and Dish Network on Altitude.