The Montana State Bobcats and Montana Grizzlies have two different missions this weekend, but both teams will find life on the road more than difficult once again.
The Grizzlies (0-2, 2-3) are now in do-or-die mode for the first time this early in a Big Sky Conference football season since anyone cares to remember. Meanwhile, the No. 2 Bobcats (2-0, 5-0) are trying to escape a brutal two-game road stretch unscathed.
And neither team will have it easy on Saturday.
The Griz are reeling, coming off back-to-back heartbreakers at the hands of Northern Arizona, and last Saturday night’s collapse at No. 7 Eastern Washington. The Eagles stormed back in the final 2:19 to erase a nine-point Grizzly lead and send the Griz to a devastating second straight Big Sky loss, 32-26.
The loss to Eastern dropped Montana out of the FCS Top 25 for the first time in 14 years and puts the Griz in a four-way tie for last place heading into Saturday’s road game at Northern Colorado (0-2, 1-4). What’s worse, Montana will be without the Big Sky’s second-leading rusher, senior Dan Moore, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of last Saturday night’s game. So to say Montana is a wounded bear right now would be putting it mildy.
“We’re not happy about it, nobody likes where we’re at right now,” Griz head coach Mick Delaney said at Tuesday’s UM press conference. “But we can’t do anything about that now. We have to go on and have a good second half of the season. And we have to be ready to play well at Northern Colorado. I know we’ll play well on Saturday.”
Playing well hasn’t been Montana’s problem this season. It’s been turnovers and finishing games. Despite what looked like a sure win in Cheney, Wash., the Griz fumbled twice inside the five-yard-line and also missed an extra point. Montana’s one of the top teams in the FCS in rushing and in total offense, but the Griz are last in the Big Sky and 116th in the FCS in turnover margin and that won’t win many close games in the competitive Big Sky Conference. The Griz pass defense has also been a huge issue. Montana did well to slow down Eastern for three quarters, and the Griz limited the Eagles to just 99 yards rushing, but freshman QB Vernon Adams threw for 355 yards and the Griz gave up huge pass plays in the fourth quarter.
And now comes Northern Colorado, a perennial Big Sky doormat. But this year’s Bears’ team is different in that, it has one of the best run defenses in the Big Sky, led by FCS All-American linebacker Clarence Bumpas. The Bears also have a dynamic passing quarterback in Seth Lobato, who’s near the top of the Big Sky in pass effencicy. Factor in a two-game losing streak, and a nasty weather day in Greeley, Colo., and Montana is going to have a rough time breaking out of its current funk.
UM also has a lot of pressure on it right now considering the Griz have six games left and likely need to get at least five wins in order to become playoff eligible.
Being playoff eligible isn’t something the Bobcats have to worry about, but MSU has had problems of its own as of late despite a perfect 5-0 start. Like Montana, the Cats have been a little turnover prone, and they got a huge scare at Southern Utah a week ago. However, over the last several games, MSU’s veteran offense, led by the dynamic DeNarius McGhee has been able to overcome mistakes and turnovers, and win games late. The Cats did that last week by edging SOU 24-17.
Now the Cats will have another tough road test on their hands before returning to Bozeman to host EWU on Oct. 13 in what will likely be the game of the year in the Big Sky. On Saturday night, the Cats will be in California to take on a wildcard UC Davis quad which is looking to make a name for itself in its first year in the Big Sky.
Last week, the Aggies (1-1, 2-3) won their first-ever conference game by blasting Weber State 37-13, and the Aggies have an outstanding QB in Randy Wright, who averages 235 passing yards per game, but is also a threat to run. Wide receiver Jonathen Perkins is also dangerous with the ball in his hands, and is the leading kick returner on the Big Sky.
But one thing about playing on the road, MSU can rely heavily on its stingy defense. The Cats are nearing the top of the Big Sky against both the run and the pass, and last week’s return of nose tackle Zach Minter was huge. However, MSU will be without defensive end Caleb Schreibeis this week after he was suspended one game by the Big Sky for an illegal hit at SUU last weekend.
And the Cats also have some history to draw on. The Aggies return 15 starters from a team that MSU dismantled 38-14 in a non-league affair last year in Bozeman. So once again, MSU is the favorite in a tough road game, but with the huge Eastern game looming, MSU needs to guard against a letdown Saturday night.
The game between MSU and Davis will kick off at 5:05 P.M. M.S.T. Saturday night. The game can be viewed live on Root Sports, which is available in Havre to all Optimum Cable subscribers, as well as on DirecTV and Dish. Saturday’s game between Montana and Northern Colorado will also be broadcast live on Root at 1:30 p.m.