MISSOULA — The word defensive can usually describe any matchup between the Montana State Bobcats and Montana Grizzlies, and it can have many different meanings.
On Saturday afternoon, inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium, defensive was a literal term as the No. 2 Bobcats edged the Grizzlies 16-7 in the 112th Brawl of the Wild.
The Cats, the highest-scoring team in the Big Sky Conference, and the Griz, who lead the Big Sky in total offense and rushing, combined for just two touchdowns on a warm, then chilly fall day in Missoula.
But in the end, it was the Cats’ defense which reigned supreme, and helped clinch a share of the Big Sky title for the third straight season at MSU. The Griz meanwhile, suffered the fate of their first losing season since 1985.
“Unbelievable,” said MSU head coach Rob Ash. “The job our defense did was just magnificent. A year ago was a tough day for us because Montana ran the football and got 36 points, and that didn’t sit very well.”
MSU’s defense did do just enough, though the Griz out-gained the Cats by just a few yards of offense.
The biggest moment for the Cat defense came as they were still leading 13-7 with under seven minutes left in the game. MSU had pinned Montana deep in its own territory thanks to a bad decision by UM freshman Ellis Henderson to let a punt roll past him. On that UM series, as was the case for 12 straight offensive possessions after UM went ahead on a first-quarter, 47-yard burst to the house by senior Peter Nyguen, the Cats held firm, not letting the Griz out of the shadow of their own endzone. Three plays later, Montana punted for the 11th consecutive series, and just a few plays after that, a few nifty scrambles by MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee got Cats’ kicker Rory Perez close enough to make his third field goal of the day – a 22-yard boot with 2:22 left in the contest, and one which sealed the game.
“(The Bobcats) came in here ranked No. 2 and we knew we had to play our very, very best to beat a team that has had that much success,” First-year head coach Mick Delaney said. “And we probably played about as well as we can.”
Indeed. The Griz’ defense played by far its best game of the season. Montana held a Bobcat offense averaging 36 points per game to just one TD, and limited star running back Cody Kirk to a scant 55 yards on the ground. But UM also found ways to keep the Bobcat train rolling, with a crucial turnover by senior Dan Moore, two short misses by freshman kicker Rory Perez, as well as a couple of personal foul penalties that were untimely.
“The University of Montana was extremely well-prepared today and played a very, very tough, physical game,” said Ash, who has now presided over back-to-back MSU wins in Missoula. “They came up with some excellent schemes, particularly on the defensive side to stop our run game.
“We were very fortunate to dodge some bullets early. But I’m very proud of our team the way we came back and found some ways to finally run the football at the end of the game.”
If the Griz were good and physical on defense, the Cats were every bit as stout, especially in the secondary. MSU limited UM red-shirt sophomore quarterback Shay Smithwick Hann to under 200 yards and no scores on 45 pass attempts. Hann didn’t turn the ball over, but he missed several chances in the red zone, while the Cats faltered early against UM’s huge offensive line, but stiffened late. Nyguen did finish with his sixth 100-yard game of the season, but Moore was largely ineffective after ripping the Cats for over 100 yards in UM’s 36-10 win last November in Bozeman. Jordan Canada finished with 36 yards on 12 carries, while the Cats held the Griz well under their 250-yard rushing total for the season.
“They started stopping us on first down,” said Smithwick-Hann. “We got into second-and-long, and then third-and-long. It’s tough to move the ball that way.
“They’re talented, man — there’s a reason they’re No. 2 in the nation. Our defense played a great game. Offensively we just didn’t do the things we needed to do to win the game.
“We knew they were big up front and knew they were a physical team,” MSU senior end Caleb Schreibeis said of the Griz after registering 16 tackles. “We just had to weather the storm for a little bit and then let our speed kind of take control.”
But neither team really seemed to be in full control until Perez’ final kick.
MSU put together a solid first drive and Perez put a quick three points on the board. Nyguen,
hampered by an injured finger, gave the Griz their only score of the day, while the Cats fought their way down field one more time, mainly on the shoulders of McGhee midway through the second quarter. McGhee finished off that drive with the Cats’ only TD, a 22-yard strike to Saco's Kruiz Siewing, who broke free in the endzone.
And with a slim 10-7 lead in the lockerroom, McGhee and a momentum-seizing MSU defense made the lead hold up for the final 30 minutes.
In the second half, McGhee, who’s not beaten the Griz twice in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, including in front of Saturday’s record crowd of 26,210 made big plays with his feet and his arm, including avoiding several sacks, a sure safety and some good short passes under a relentless UM pass rush. McGhee finished the day 26-of-47 for 247 yards, with one interception, a pass picked off by UM sophomore Matt Hermanson just before halftime. He also made the Griz pay for not getting him to the ground, rushing for 46 yards. MSU sophomore Brian Flotkeotter had a breakout day. The Laurel product caught seven balls for 84 yards. UM senior tight end Greg Hardy led the Griz with four catches for 74 yards.
“DeNarius is a tremendous athlete,” said Delaney. “He gets outside the pocket and we knew that. We still held him under wraps enough to win this football game. We just came up a little bit short.
“We saw on film watching him that he’s a strong quarterback,” said UM linebacker Brock Coyle, who finished with a game-high 19 tackles. “He breaks contain a lot. We got him a couple times, but he’s a good player. (You’ve) got to give it to the guy. But we rallied well. We just couldn’t get him down I guess.”
Montana (5-6) came close to getting him down several times Saturday, just like the Griz came close to so many other things, both this season, and against the Cats. But as they walked off the field for the final time in 2012, the landscape of Grizzly football, and FCS football in Montana seemingly changed at that instant. UM is missing the playoffs for the second time in three years, while the Griz will have to regroup after nearly three decades without a losing season, and the specter of an NCAA Investigation still looming.
“If you would’ve told me in 2009 – we went undefeated and to the national championship – that we’d be 5-6 my junior year, I’d have said you were crazy,” Griz linebacker Jordan Tripp, who had 13 tackles said. “They (the Bobcats) finished out, they won, they’re going to the playoffs as probably a No. 2 seed.
“Best of luck to them, but it’s about us — and what we’ve got to do to get better and make this right.”
Actually, the Cats (10-1) are back in the playoffs as the No. 3 seed. The 2012 FCS field was announced Sunday, and the Cats will host either Stony Brook or Villanova in a second-round game Dec. 1 in Bozeman. It’s been a great ride for MSU, and one which was kept going by Saturday’s gutsy road win in the toughest environment in the FCS.
“We have an unbelievable senior class,” said McGhee. “They work hard and lead this team, and we were able to get a win.
“They said, ‘We would not be denied today.’ They said, ‘We will not walk out of here without a win.’ And I guess we willed our way to a win today.”
Montana St. 3 7 3 3 — 16
Montana 7 0 0 0 — 7
MSU — FG Perez 42, 5:22.
UM — Nguyen 47 run (Lider kick), 2:04.
MSU — Kr.Siewing 16 pass from McGhee (Perez kick), 7:54.
MSU — FG Perez 38, 6:51.
MSU — FG Perez 22, 2:32.
A — 26,210.
First downs 20 18
Rushes-yards 36-107 38-168
Passing 247 190
Comp-Att-Int 26-48-1 24-44-0
Total yards 354 358
Return Yards (-3) 15
Punts-Avg. 9-43.3 8-37.1
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 8-40 4-45
Time of Possession 32:01 27:59
RUSHING — Montana St., Kirk 22-55, McGhee 10-46, Robinson 1-5, O.Davis 2-1, Team 1-0. Montana, Nguyen 13-112, Canada 12-36, Counts 1-12, Moore 2-7, Smithwick-Hann 9-1, Team 1-0.
PASSING — Montana St., McGhee 26-47-1-247, Team 0-1-0-0. Montana, Smithwick-Hann 24-43-0-190, Hardy 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING — Montana St., Flotkoetter 7-84, Ellis 4-49, Kr.Siewing 4-41, T.Bleskin 4-29, Kirk 3-28, Gilbert 2-7, Robinson 1-11, O.Davis 1-(minus 2). Montana, Hardy 4-74, Kemp 4-40, Henderson 3-16, Carver 3-14, S.Gratton 2-14, Warren 2-7, Moore 1-12, Canada 1-9, Counts 1-6, Saylor 1-4, Nguyen 1-(minus 3), Poehls 1-(minus 3).
U A T
Caleb Schreibeis 4 12 16
Jody Owens 5 7 12
Darius Jones 5 4 9
Brad Daly 1 7 8
Deonte Flowers 4 3 7
Na’a Moeakiola 1 6 7
Sacks by-yards lost
Caleb Schreibeis 1-9.
Jody Owens 1-0. Cole Moore 0-1.
Missed field goals
U A T
Brock Coyle 2 17 19
Jordan Tripp 1 12 13
Matt Hermanson 6 3 9
Sean Murray 3 5 8
John Kanongata’a 2 6 8
Sacks by-yards lost
Josh Harris 0.5-1, Zack Wagenmann 0.5-2.
Matt Hermanson 1-0.
Missed field goals
Chris Lider 23 (WR), 37 (WR)