The Montana State Bobcats were the No. 1 team in the FCS, they possessed the No. 1 defense in the Big Sky Conference and they had a hostile, record crowd of over 20,000 fans on their side. But none of that mattered to the Montana Grizzlies.
Seventh-ranked Montana turned a 12-7 third-quarter lead into a 36-10 Big Sky Conference championship-clinching win in the 111th Brawl of the Wild Saturday afternoon at a frigid but sunny Bobcat Stadium.
Montana piled up 309 rushing yards against what was the Big Sky Conference's best team against the run. With Dan Moore rushing for a career-high 116 yards and a third-quarter touchdown. Junior Peter Nguyen added a game-high 123 yards and the game’s final score in the fourth stanza.
The Griz outgained the normally high-powered Bobcats, who came into Saturday’s game averaging 42 points per at home, 473-250 in yards and the UM defense held MSU sophomore phenom Cody Kirk to just 45 yards rushing on 11 carries.
"They did a great job," said MSU quarterback Denarius McGhee, who threw for 171 yards and ran for 29. "We didn't execute. I did a horrible job today. When we don't execute that's what happens. I just didn't make the throws, plain and simple.
"It's a rival game, you never know what the score's going to be," said UM senior defensive end Ryan Fetherston. "The Cats played good. We just played a little bit better, and executed, and limited them on big plays — which helped us out, and helped out scoring-wise, too."
Field position played a key role in the first half. MSU kicker Jason Cunningham bounced a short field goal attempt off the right upright on an early MSU scoring chance. Montana kicker Brody McKnight put the Griz up early in the second quarter with a field goal, then twice pinned MSU deep on rugby-style punts. One of those punts put MSU on its own 2-yard-line and the result was a Grizzly 5-0 lead after senior corner Trumaine Johnson forced McGhee into an intentional grounding call in the endzone and a safety. UM made use of good field position again and drove down to the MSU two late in the second quarter. Then on a gutsy fourth-down call, Jordan Johnson threw a TD pass to a leaping Kavario Middelton to put Montana in front 12-0 at the break.
"I was fired up about that," Johnson said of the gamble. "It was pretty well covered and I just tried to put it in a spot where only Kavario would catch it or nobody would catch it."
Even with the shutout pitched by the Grizzlies in the first half, the Cats were nowhere near out of the game, and they showed why right away in the second. MSU opened the third quarter with a :53 drive that ended with a McGhee strike to Elvis Akpla to make the score 12-7. But it was obvious it was Montana’s day when on the first play of UM’s ensuing drive. Johnson hit a streaking Jabin Sambrano on a 79-yard TD pass to put the Griz back in front 19-7. It was the first of three straight unanswered scores by the Grizzlies, which also included another McKnight field goal and Moore’s TD. Moore was playing in his first game in five weeks after suffering a knee injury against Portland State, and while his influence was huge, he credited the Grizzly offensive line for UM’s success against a normally-stingy Bobcat defense.
"When they pulled, they pulled fast," Moore said. "And the holes opened up. They finished blocks downfield and got to the second level, and we just had to make the safety miss. And I think we did that today."
MSU tacked on a Cunningham field goal at the start of the fourth quarter, but Nguyen’s 21-yard scamper with just over nine minutes to play put the game out of reach and gave the Grizzlies a share of the Big Sky title for the 13th time in the last 14 years and the league’s automatic berth to the FCS playoffs.
Montana 0 12 17 7 — 36
Montana State 0 0 7 3 — 10
UM – FG Brody McKnight, 34, 9:10.
Drive: 11 plays, 31 yards, 4:47 time of possession.
Key plays: Jordan Johnson rushes for 4 yards on fourth-and-2 at MSU’s 38, then hits Antwon Moutra for 13 yards on third down to put ball at the Bobcat 18.
UM – Safety, MSU called for intentional grounding in end zone, 6:18.
Key play: Brody McKnight rugby punts the ball down to MSU’s 3-yard line – a 49-yard boot.
UM – Kavario Middleton 2 pass from Jordan Johnson (McKnight kick), 2:15.
Drive: 9 plays, 60 yards, 3:57 time of possession.
Key plays: Peter Nguyen runs three times for 38 yards to start drive, and Dan Moore’s 12-yard run sets up first-and-goal.
MSU – Elvis Akpla 7 pass from DeNarius McGhee (Jason Cunningham kick), 14:07.
Drive: 3 plays, 35 yards, :53 time of possession.
Key plays: John Ellis returns second-half kickoff 39 yards, and a personal foul penalty moves the ball to UM’s 35; McGhee runs 28 yards on an option keeper.
UM – Jabin Sambrano 79 pass from Johnson (McKnight kick), 13:49.
Drive: 1 play, 79 yards, :18 time of possession.
UM – FG McKnight 33, 10:05.
Drive: 7 plays, 34 yards, 1:58 time of possession.
Key plays: After a short MSU punt, Nguyen runs 12 yards and Moore rumbles 22 to put the Griz in the red zone.
UM – Dan Moore 37 run (McKnight kick), 5:37.
Drive: 7 plays, 64 yards, 2:52 time of possession.
Key play: Sambrano makes a nice catch of a 6-yard dart from Johnson, converting third-and-5. Moore scores two plays later.
MSU – FG Cunningham 38, 14:16.
Drive: 9 plays, 58 yards, 2:57 time of possession.
Key plays: A roughing-the-punter penalty gives MSU a first down at its own 32; McGhee then hits Akpla for 48 yards down to UM’s 20; UM’s Ryan Fetherston stacks up a third-down swing pass to Tray Robinson for no gain.
UM – Peter Nguyen 21 run (McKnight kick), 9:28.
Drive: 11 plays, 91 yards, 4:48 time of possession.
Key plays: Johnson runs for 12 yards on third down, giving the Griz a new set of downs at their 21; Johnson hits Greg Hardy for 27 yards, and a 19-yard run from Moore sets up Nguyen.
First downs 24 13
Rushing 18 5
Passing 6 6
Penalty 0 2
Third-down efficiency 8-18 1-13
Fourth-down efficiency 3-3 0-1
Total yards 473 250
Plays 78 60
Average gain 6.1 4.2
Rushes-yards 47-309 27-79
Average per carry 6.6 2.9
Yards passing 164 171
Comp-Att-Int 15-31-0 16-33-0
Sacks by-yards lost 3-15 0-0
Return yards 4 24
Punts 2-4 3-24
Interceptions 0-0 0-0
Fumbles 0-0 0-0
Kickoff returns 4-19.0 6-22.5
Fumbles-lost 0-0 2-1
Punting 6-42.5 6-37.7
Penalties-yards 7-90 3-20
Time of possession 33:54 26:06
Peter Nguyen 19-123
Dan Moore 15-116
Brett Kirschner 4-37
Jordan Johnson 4-27
Beau Donaldson 2-7
Jabin Sambrano 1-2
Antwon Moutra 1-(-4)
Comp Att Int Yds
Jordan Johnson 15 31 0 164
Jabin Sambrano 4-96
Kavario Middleton 3-15
Greg Hardy 2-27
Bryce Carver 2-8
Antwon Moutra 1-13
Sam Gratton 1-9
Peter Nguyen 1-(-4)
U A T
Caleb McSurdy 7 1 8
John Kanongat’a 5 3 8
Alex Shaw 5 1 6
Trumaine Johnson 3 2 5
Donny Lisowski 3 1 4
Sacks by-yards lost
Trumaine Johnson 1-3, Bryan Waldhauser 1-1.
Missed field goals
Cody Kirk 11-45
DeNarius McGhee 8-29
Everett Gilbert 2-4
Tray Robinson 6-1
Comp Att Int Yds
DeNarius McGhee 16 33 0 171
Elvis Akpla 6-113
Cody Kirk 3-19
Tray Robinson 3-2
Tanner Bleskin 1-15
Steven Foster 1-12
Everett Gilbert 1-7
John Ellis 1-3
U A T
Joel Fuller 9 5 14
Jody Owens 8 5 13
Deonte Flowers 5 3 8
Darius Jones 5 1 6
Zach Minter 4 1 5
Clay Bignell 3 2 5
Caleb Schreibeis 2 3 5
Sacks by-yards lost
Missed field goals
Jason Cunningham 37 (hit upright), Cunningham 58 (blocked)
Attendance: 20, 247 (MSU Record)
Weather: 14 degrees, sunny and calm at kickoff
Up Next: Montana has a bye in the first round of the FCS Playoffs, then will face either Central Arkansas or Tennessee Tech in the second round on Dec. 3 in Missoula; Montana State has a bye in the first round of the FCS Playoffs, then will face New Hampshire in the second round on Dec. 3 in Bozeman.
Final Big Sky Conference Standings
Montana 7-1 9-2
Montana State 7-1 9-2
Portland State 5-3 7-4
Eastern Washington 5-3 6-5
Weber State 5-3 5-6
Northern Arizona 3-5 4-7
Sacramento State 3-5 4-7
Idaho State 1-7 2-9
Northern Colorado 0-8 0-11