MISSOULA — When it came to taking care of the ball, on a day when conditions were anything but favorable, the Montana State Bobcats were perfect.
The Montana Grizzlies weren’t.
On a day when wind chills dipped below zero and snow swirled around Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the eighth-ranked Montana State Bobcats did just enough to beat the 11th-ranked Montana Grizzlies 21-16, and make a little history in the process in the 110th Brawl of the Wild here Saturday afternoon.
Not only did the Bobcats win inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium for only the second time since the stadium was constructed, but they sewed up a coveted Big Sky Championship on their biggest rival’s home turf. With Saturday’s win, the Bobcats (9-2) shared the Big Sky title with Eastern Washington, but earned the league’s automatic berth into the FCS playoffs.
"It's the best feeling I've had," said MSU’s freshman quarterback, Denarius McGhee, who was 11-for-18 passing for 138 yards. "We're on top right now. We have to continue to work toward the next team, but we'll celebrate this win for a couple days."
But as well as MSU played, The Grizzlies, donning all black uniforms with old-school copper lettering and numbering, as well as new-look helmet style, made getting to the top less than easy for a time for the Cats.
After MSU scored three straight touchdowns in the first half, eventually leading 21-14 at intermission, the Griz settled in for a fight. The Bobcats’ offense, ranked third in the FCS, looked unstoppable in the first, but the Griz’ defense looked the better unit in the final 30 minutes, holding the Cats to a season-low 56 yards.
However, 21 points turned out to be enough for MSU to walk out victorious, as the only second-half scoring came by way of a UM safety after an errant MSU snap on a punt rolled out of the back of the endzone in the third quarter. The two points made the score 21-16 with plenty of time for Montana to keep pushing forward on offense.
And while the Griz did rack up 250 yards in the second half, it was not to be as they turned the ball over three times in the third quarter, including fumbles by Gerald Kemp and Chase Reynolds, both inside the MSU 2-yard-line. In all, the Griz committed four turnovers, as Justin Roper also threw two interceptions, including a crucial one in the third period as the Griz were driving again for a possible go-ahead touchdown. Montana was also just one-of-five inside the red zone Saturday, and on a day when the Griz stymied MSU’s explosive offense, and perhaps the Big Sky’s MVP in McGhee, the turnovers were even more crucial.
"We talk all year about takeaways," said MSU coach Rob Ash, who gained his first coaching win against UM in four tries. "Our guys work at it. We think about it all the time. As the other team gets closer to the goal line you keep thinking, ‘We've got to find some ways to get these guys stopped.'
"The issue was not effort or the will to win," said Roper. "We didn't hang onto the ball. I threw an interception. Maybe a lack of focus at certain times was the knock today. Not effort or scheme, or how we played."
And not hanging on to the ball perhaps overshadowed UM’s best offensive performance of the season. The Griz out gained the Bobcats 374-278, including totaling 259 yards on the ground, 180 by Reynolds.
But still it wasn’t enough as MSU started the game like gangbusters, scoring TDs on McGhee passes to Tanner Bleskin and Julius Llyod in the first quarter, on a pair of monster, clock-consuming drives. Orenzo Davis racked up 140 yards on the ground, including a highlight-reel, 17-yard second-quarter TD run, a score that proved to be the game-winner.
"They're a tough combo back there," Montana defensive lineman Tyler Hobbs said of Cat mainstays McGhee and Davis. "It took a little time to get used to what they were doing offensively.
"We didn't start as fast as we like to. As the football game went on we did get stronger, and we did figure out what they were doing."
And while the Grizzly defense was figuring things out in the first half, the offense was doing what it could to answer the Cats blow-for-blow.
Reynolds took UM’s first play from scrimmage 59 yards to the house to even the game at 7-7 early in the first, and Roper scored on a perfect read-option play later in the quarter to tie things at 14-14. But the Griz could never find the endzone after Roper’s run. Instead, they had to watch MSU celebrate a hard-fought and dramatic rivalry win on a bone-chilling day in Missoula.
"I hadn't had a team win in the rivalry," said Ash. "In order to have a rivalry, both teams have to win once in a while. Otherwise it's too one-sided.”
And unlike in recent times, it will be the Cats who will move forward from the rivalry game and into the FCS playoffs on a high note. On Sunday, the NCAA gave the Bobcats the No. 4 overall seed in the upcoming FCS playoffs. The Cats will await the winner of this Saturday’s Robert-Morris/North Dakota State winner.
Montana meanwhile, is out of the FCS playoffs for the first time in 17 years. The Grizzlies were not selected as an at-large team on Sunday morning.
After the loss to the Cats, while the Griz didn’t know their fate yet, first-year head coach Robin Pflugrad chose to pay tribute to his seniors and honor all of the hard work his players have put forth this season, rather than lament on the future of his club. The UM seniors had never lost to the Bobcats.
"Our message was really about the senior class and how much class they bring to the program," he said. "The contributions they made to this place and the wins they brought to Montana football. The effort level, that's what they take with them the rest of their lives, whether they have a chance at another game or not.
"However, they're going to move on in life," he added, "and I want them to think about the effort they gave this place, and their effort today. I hope they realize that. I don't think it'll sink in for a while, but I hope they understand that."