For ten Saturday’s this fall, the Montana State Bobcats and Montana Grizzlies have gone about their own business. And for much of the season, they’ve con
ducted business in very different ways, with the Bobcats riding high, ranked second in the Football Championship Subdivision, while the Grizzlies have suffered through their worst season since 1985.
But those 10 games are over now, and there is only one thing left for the Cats and Griz to do this regular season – meet head on for the 112th time in the Cat-Griz rivalries’ storied history.
On Saturday afternoon, the No. 2 Cats (6-1, 9-1) and un-ranked Griz (3-4, 5-5) will meet in the 112th Brawl of the Wild inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula. Kickoff is set for 1:35 p.m.
The game has a few new wrinkles to it, with the Griz coming into the Brawl un-ranked for the first time since 1990, and in jeopardy of suffering their first losing season since 1985. Meanwhile, the Cats come into Saturday’s showdown the same as last year, ranked high nationally and gunning for a top seed in the upcoming FCS playoffs. MSU is also vying for at least a share of what would be its third straight Big Sky Conference title, while the Griz were out of the conference title race, and the FCS playoff picture before Halloween.
But, as far as the rivalry goes, nothing has changed. Though there’s much more at stake for the Cats, the Griz see the stakes high too, as they’d like to keep the Divide Trophy in Missoula, after taking it out of Bozeman last November with a 36-10 stomping of MSU. The Cats on the other hand, are looking to win two in a row in Missoula for the first time since the 1970’s after they upended UM 20-16 at Wash-Griz in the 2010 Brawl.
So, like in every other Cat-Griz matchup dating back to the first one over 100 years ago, the stakes, and the emotions couldn’t be higher.
“The guys haven’t forgot,” said MSU senior linebacker Jody Owens, referring to last year’s Brawl in which the Griz rushed for 300 yards on the MSU defense. “We have a picture in our locker room from the paper. Nobody’s forgotten what happened, but we just want to come out and play our best and hopefully leave with a W.
“I guess by rankings, yeah, they’re the favorite,” said UM tight end Greg Hardy, a senior from Fairview. “We are definitely disappointed in what our record is. But me, as a senior, this being my last game, this is one more opportunity to show guys that this is what is expected of Montana.
“We are going to fight until the end, win or lose. And hopefully it’s a win.”
For Montana, a win won’t come easy – though the Griz got a bit of good news this week when head coach Mick Delaney announced that bruising senior running back Dan Moore was good to go for Saturday’s game. Moore ran over the Cats to the tune of 100-plus yards last year in Bozeman, and at one point, he was leading the Big Sky in rushing this season before being sidelined with a high-ankle sprain against Eastern Washington back in September.
Moore joins a staunch Griz backfield with fellow senior Peter Nyguen, who has five 100-yard games this season, as well as sophomore Jordan Canada, who averages 78 yards per game, while the Griz lead the league in rushing at nearly 250 yards per outing.
But MSU’s defense is one of the best in the country. The Cats lead the Big Sky in scoring defense (20 ppg), rush defense (88 ypg), and total defense (297 ypg). Owens, along with defensive ends Caleb Schreibeis and Brad Daly, and FCS All-American tackle Zach Minter, have been a stingy group this season, and they’ll no doubt be poised to have a big day Saturday, because, while UM leads the conference in total offense, the Griz’ offense has been somewhat one-dimensional all season.
And UM is starting a first-timer at quarterback in red-shirt sophomore Shay Smithwick-Hann, who took over the starting duties from Trent McKinney several games back. Hann has given the Griz’ passing game life in recent weeks, as he’s been able to spread the ball to solid targets like Hardy, Ellis Henderson, Sam Gratton and Bryce Carver. But this is his first start in the rivalry, and he’s going up against one of the best defenses in the country.
“We’ve got a real challenge on defense and we have a challenge on offense,” said Delaney. “They’re (Cats) No. 1 in the world against the run, pass (second in the Big Sky), total defense, points allowed. We’ve got our hands full.”
Indeed, the Griz do have their hands full in what has been a shocking season. UM, amidst so much offseason turmoil, as well as a pending NCAA investigation, has lost heartbreaking games against Northern Arizona, EWU, Southern Utah and North Dakota, all in conference, and all games the Griz held the lead in late in the fourth quarter.
And in all of those games, Montana’s defense seemed to falter late. UM is loaded with talented defenders like linebackers Jordan Tripp and Brock Coyle, who are two of the top tacklers in the conference, as well as defensive end Zach Wagenmann, who leads the Big Sky in sacks with 12. But UM’s secondary is last in the league against the pass, and now the Griz must face the most balanced offense in the Big Sky.
The Cats lead the league in scoring, averaging nearly 36 points per game, which is impressive considering they lead the league in scoring defense as well. Veteran QB DeNarius McGhee has thrown for 2,479 yards and 21TD’s this season, while junior wide receiver Tanner Bleskin of Great Falls, has had a breakout campaign, despite some nagging injuries. A healthy Cody Kirk has also rushed for 760 yards this season and is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games, while Orenzo Davis and Trey Robinson give MSU a three-pronged rushing attack similar to UM’s.
So both teams have some great weapons on offense, both teams have an all-star cast of defenders, and both rosters are chalked-full of players who know what it takes to win in this rivalry.
But in recent years, a stretch in which the home team has lost three in a row, the game comes down to turnovers and the trenches. Montana’s offensive line should hold up well, even against the Cats’ great defensive line, but the Griz have had huge turnover problems this season, as well as some special team’s breakdowns, and if that trend continues, veterans like McGhee and Kirk could make the Griz pay dearly.
Emotion will also play a key role. Many Montana-born players play in this game each and every year, but the rivalry means everything to every player and coach no matter where they were born. That will be no different on Saturday, and it’s usually the team that can control, but also harness their emotions, which comes out on top.
“I can remember when the Griz were on that long win streak,” said Smithwick-Hann, “And the first time they lost (in 17 seasons, in 2002), I just went outside. I was crying, throwing the football against the wall.
“I don’t want any little Grizzly fans to experience that.”
Momentum could also be a factor. The Griz have looked much better in two straight wins over Big Sky bottom-feeders Idaho State and Weber State, and they’ve had an extra week to prepare for the Cats after being off last Saturday. MSU meanwhile, might be playing as well as anyone in the FCS right now, as evidenced by the Cats steam rolling Portland State last Saturday in Bozeman.
So as it should be, the Brawl features two good teams, playing well, going head-to-head with a year’s worth of bragging rights at stake. And for good measure and more drama, the Griz are trying to salvage a rough and uncharacteristic season, while the Cats try to keep surging forward, while also erasing a recent past.
“I think it was a motivator in the offseason for us,” MSU head Coach Rob Ash said of last year’s loss to UM. “You evaluate everything after a loss like that, but really as far as this year goes, we haven’t talked about last year’s game at all.”
Saturday’s 112th meeting between the Bobcats and Grizzlies will kick off at 1:35 p.m. in Missoula. The game can be seen locally on ROOT Sports Northwest.
Montana State Bobcats
6-1 in Big Sky,9-1 Overall
Head Coach: Rob Ash
(6th Season, 48-21)
Cats in 2012
8/30 def. Chadron St., 33-6
9/8 def. Drake, 34-24
9/15 def. S.F. Austin, 43-35
9/22 def. N. Colorado, 41-16
9/29 def. Southern Utah, 24-17
10/6 def. UC Davis 48-41
10/13 lost to E. Washington, 27-24
10/27 def. North Dakota, 55-10
11/3 def. Sacramento State, 20-17
11/10 def. Portland State, 65-30
3-4 In Big Sky, 5-5 Overall
Head Coach: Mick Delaney
(1st season, 5-5)
Griz in 2012
9/1 def. South Dakota, 35-24
9/8 lost to App. State, 35-27
9/15 def. Liberty, 34-14
9/22 lost to N. Arizona, 41-31
9/29 lost to E. Washington, 32-26
10/6 def. N. Colorado, 40-17
10/13 lost to Southern Utah, 30-20
10/20 lost to North Dakota, 40-34
10/27 def. Idaho St., 70-24
11/3 def. Weber State, 24-21