Last week, Montana and Montana State fans were wondering if they would even get to see their favorite team’s Football Championship Subdivision second-round games on TV. Now, there are no worries for each team’s quarterfinal contests.
Tonight in Missoula, the fifth-ranked Grizzlies (10-2) will face the third-ranked Northern Iowa Panthers (10-2) at 6 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, in a game which will be televised in prime time on ESPN. ESPN will also televise the seventh-ranked Montana State Bobcats (10-2) road game at top-ranked Sam Houston State (12-0), which will kick off at 10 a.m. Saturday morning in Huntsville, TX.
And while national TV exposure is nice, there’s much more at stake for the Bobcats and the Griz.
Tonight’s game in Missoula is a rare night affair, since Washington-Grizzly had never had permanent lights. But it’s also a chance for the Grizzlies to advance to the semifinals. And Montana has been on quite a roll, winners of its last seven games, including a 41-10 thrashing of Central Arkansas last Saturday in Missoula.
In that game, the Griz rushed for 250 yards, which is the seventh straight game they’ve gone for 200 yards on the ground. UM’s defense also limited UCA to just 25 yards rushing and as a unit, the Montana defense, led by recently named FCS All-American’s Trumaine Johnson and Caleb McSurdy, as well as a total of 11 seniors, has now allowed an average of 9.8 points per game over its last four.
But Northern Iowa brings danger on both sides of the ball, as well as a past with Montana. That past includes a 1-3 overall record and an 0-2 mark in Missoula. It also includes such controversies as current UNI head coach Mark Farley refusing to exchange game film with the Griz for the 2011 semifinals, as well as a UNI player being ejected for punching Montana’s Dave DeCoite in the groin area in that same game.
But history is history and this Panthers’ squad cares about just one thing – winning in Missoula. UNI has as balanced an offense as the Griz have seen all year. The Panthers are led by QB Tirrell Rennie, who has thrown for 13 TDs and run for nine. He leads the Panthers in rushing, but can also throw it efficiently, having thrown just three INT’s all season long. UNI also has a good freshman running back and an offensive line that rivals the Griz’ in size. UNI’s defense is also one of the best in the country, led by Buck Buchanen Award nominee Ben Boothby (DL). UNI’s only losses this season came at the hands of Iowa State and North Dakota State. The Panthers lost to the NCAA Division I Cyclones by 20-19. UNI beat Wofford 28-21 in a thriller last week in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
But as good as the Panthers are on defense, and as many playmakers as they have, Rennie is the key according UM head coach Robin Pflugrad.
"Cam Newton," he said. "A shorter Cam Newton."
A win under the lights in Missoula would give the Griz a semifinal berth, as well as the chance to sit back and watch the Bobcats take on the Bearkats Saturday in Texas. The winner of that game will face the winner of the UM/UNI game next weekend for a trip to the FCS title game.
MSU comes in with a 1-1 record all time at SHSU, and the Bobcats have plenty of Texas connection with a bevy of key players hailing from the Lone Star State, including starting quarterback Denarius McGhee.
The Cats are also riding high after last Saturday dramatic, 26-25 win over New Hampshire in Bozeman. The Cats had to get a Steven Beathley INT and a blocked PAT to escape the Wildcats, but now will bring their high-octane offense to Sam Houston.
The Bearkats have steam rolled teams throughout the season, going undefeated in the Southland Conference and winning their regular season games by an average of more than two touchdowns per. But they struggled with Stony Brook at home in last week’s second-round and they probably haven’t faced a defense the caliber of MSU’s yet this season.
Still, offense is key for the Bearkats. SHSU runs the pistol offense with speedy QB Brian Bell at the helm. Receiver/running back/quarterback Richard Sincere is also a dangerous player for the Bearkats, who also have the top-ranked rushing defense in the country. SHSU is only allowing an average of 18 points per game and they’ve held seven opponents under 100 yards rushing this season.
"(The Bearkats) are very good on both sides of the ball and they force the issue by attacking you," Montana State head coach Rob Ash said. "They get teams on their heels with their speed so it's a very challenging scheme on both sides."
But as good as Sam Houston is, as good as Northern Iowa is, both the Grizzlies and Bobcats have a real chance to not only win this weekend, but to then meet in the semifinals, as both teams are playing that well right now.
Tonight’s game between the Griz and Panthers kicks off at 6 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Saturday’s game between MSU and SHSU kicks off at 10 a.m. M.S.T. at Brower Stadium in Huntsville, TX.