When it comes to the annual Cat-Griz game, if history has taught us anything, records, rankings and home field advantage might as well be thrown out the window.
In fact, the home team hasn’t won a Brawl of the Wild meeting since 2008. The Montana State Bobcats would desperately like to change that Saturday when they host the 113th Brawl of the Wild, not just because of the usual bragging rights and the Divide Trophy which are on the line, but because the Cats are fighting for their playoff lives.
The No. 13 Bobcats (7-4, 5-2) host the No. 5 Grizzlies (9-2, 5-3) in the annual Cat-Griz showdown Saturday in Bozeman. Kickoff inside Bobcat Stadium is set for 12:07 p.m.
Having lost their last two games, including last Saturday’s 22-14 home setback against Southern Utah, the Bobcats are in a must-win situation as far as playoff berth is concerned. Still, the Grizzlies are in a similar situation despite having won three straight games, and having risen to a No. 5 ranking. Many feel a Montana loss Saturday and a Southern Utah upset at Northern Arizona would push the Bobcats and Thunderbirds into the playoffs and knock the Grizzlies out.
Most years, the Big Sky title is on the line in one way or another in the Brawl of the Wild, and though it isn’t on Saturday, as Eastern Washington has already clinched that, the stakes in the Cat-Griz game are as high as ever.
“I think an eight-win season with a win over Montana at the end of the year, who is a very good team, would give us some (playoff) arguing points,” MSU head coach Rob Ash said.
“It’s a one-game season now,” added MSU star linebacker Alex Singleton. “It’s Cat-Griz; it’s a one game playoff. It’s time to go.
“The thing that adds spice is that we’re both playing for our playoff lives,” UM head coach Mick Delaney noted. “I hear the talk the last three or four days that we’re in no matter what. That’s not true. You know Southern Utah plays Northern Arizona. They win that game, they’re in, probably. They beat a Division FBS team. They’re not going to take five Big Sky teams. They’ll take four maybe, but they’re not going to take five. They never have, so we’re battling for our life, and they are too.”
As much as Delaney thinks the Griz must win Saturday, the situation is more dire for MSU, considering how the Bobcats have played the last two games. MSU suffered a beatdown at the hands of EWU two weeks ago in Cheney, Wash., then came the SUU loss, where the Cats had just 18 yards of offense in the first half, and DeNarius McGhee threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. It was a disheartening loss for the Bobcats, and Ash said his team will really need to rally this week.
“We’re pretty banged up and the guys are down, but it’s Cat-Griz week,” Ash said. “We have a chance to win that rivalry game and there’s a lot to shoot for, obviously.”
Of course, there’s no questioning whether or not the Cats will rise to the occasion on Saturday. Playing in front of what is expected to be the largest crowd in MSU history, with McGhee, Cody Kirk, Tanner Bleskin and Brad Daly all being honored on senior day, MSU will be emotionally ready to go.
McGhee, who has thrown for over 10,000 yards and rushed for over1,000 in his career, has had a rough season, as he missed three games due to a shoulder injury, while Kirk is hobbled by a knee injury, but assured the media he’ll be ready to go against the Griz. Kirk has had a big season, averaging 95 yards per game, and has rushed for 1,039 yards and 18 touchdowns. He and junior Shawn Johnson will be critical to MSU’s offensive success Saturday. MSU needs its run game to take some pressure off of McGhee, but Johnson is also hampered by a hamstring injury at the moment.
Offensively, MSU should match up well with a UM defense which has really struggled for much of the season, but has turned up the heat lately. The Griz’ pass defense is ninth in the Big Sky, so if the Cats can get the run game going, the play-action pass should open up, and that means plenty of opportunities for Bleskin, fellow senior Jon Ellis and the speedy Brian Floetketter. It also means once again, Montana’s defensive backs and linebackers will have their hands full.
The Griz’ defense is second in the Big Sky, allowing just 22 points per game, but Montana went through a stretch where it allowed 500 or more yards of offense in four straight games. Fortunately, UM found ways to win three of those four games. UM’s defense is led by linebackers Brock Coyle, a Bozeman native who has 99 tackles, nine tackles for loss and two interceptions in an amazing season, as well as star outside backer Jordan Tripp, also playing in his last Cat-Griz game. Junior defensive end Zach Wagenmann has come on strong lately with five of his team-high nine sacks in his last two games, while defensive backs Matt Hermanson and Bo Tully will play a crucial role one way or another in Saturday’s game.
Turnovers will play a big part in Saturday’s game. UM is an FCS best +16 in turnover margin, and the Griz have picked off nine passes this season. MSU is pretty good in turnover margin too, as the Cats are a solid +4.
“It all starts with (quarterback) DeNarius McGhee. He’s arguably one of the best Bobcats of all-time,” Coyle said. “He makes plays in the pocket, outside of the pocket, both with his arm and his legs. The same goes for (running back) Cody Kirk. He’s had a great career over there. He’s a tough running back and an extremely hard worker. I have a lot of respect for him.”
The MSU defense will be called upon Saturday, too. Just like the Griz, MSU has been up and down on that side of the ball, but there’s no question, the Cats can shut teams down. Daly is the heart and soul of the Bobcat defense. He’ll likely be the second straight MSU player to win the Buck Buchanen Award, as he’s already got an astonishing 16 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss to go with 61 stops. Singleton has a Big Sky best 100 tackles, while MSU’s secondary is speedy and greedy, led by cornerback Deonte Flowers and hard-hitting safety Steven Bethley, two more seniors playing in their final game at Bobcat Stadium.
So, UM, led by junior quarterback Jordan Johnson, who has 27 TD passes against just four interceptions this season, will have its hands full against a fast and physical MSU defense. The Griz’ offensive line will be a big key, because if they can give Johnson time, and keep Daly away from him, then that will get star wide receivers Ellis Henderson and Jamaal Jones involved down field, while the running game, led by Jordan Canada, who has 14 TD’s on the season, and the return of Travon Van, who’s missed the last four games with ankle injury, can really start to work its magic, just as the Griz did when they piled up over 300 yards against MSU in 2011, when they won 36-10 in Bozeman. Henderson could be the difference though. He has 14 receiving TD’s, he’s a threat to return kickoffs and punts the distance, and he’s been a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses all season long, as he’s had two game-winning TD catches already this season.
“We want to run the ball because we have to run the ball,” said Delaney, whose team is 3-0 in November. “If you’re going to be a successful football team at the end of the season, I think, in going into the playoffs you’ve got to be able to run the football.
“Defensively, they’re very similar to what we do,” he continued. “Their defense is very physical. They’re a good solid defense. They run to the ball and play hard. Again, there’s a lot of similarities between what they do and what we do on both sides of the ball. So the team that makes the least mistakes and doesn’t turn the ball over usually wins this game.”
Of course, emotion will play a big part in Saturday’s game, as it always does when the Cats and Griz collide. Take last season for example. Montana had nothing to play for when the Cats came into Missoula, and the Griz, who struggled to a 5-6 season, put up a valiant fight before losing 16-7 in a defensive slugfest on a warm day at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Yes, the game means so much to the players, and nobody on either side wants to lose to the other. But this year’s game has a whole new twist as both teams are desperate to solidify a playoff berth. The Griz could end up with a Top 8 seed and have a first-round bye should they win in Bozeman, while the Cats will just scrape into the playoffs with a win over their hated rival, but will still likely get a home game next week due to the bidding process.
“It’s been an awesome rivalry to be a part of. It’s why you play football,” Coyle said. “I feel like I’ve got a very good appreciation for this rivalry growing up in Bozeman and seeing it from that angle.
Montana sophomore wide receiver Ellis Henderson, right, leads a high-powered UM offense into Saturday's Cat-Griz game in Bozeman.
“Now, playing for the Grizzlies, it’s huge. For me to go down to Bozeman and play my last regular-season game in Bobcat Stadium in my hometown, it means everything to me. I’m trying to make sure I’m ready to seize the moment and play my best.
“It’s a one-game playoff, do-or-die as far as we’re concerned,” said Kirk. “The Cat-Griz game just got a little bigger. We’ve got to win to get in the playoffs.”
The battle between Montana State and Montana will kick off at 12:07 p.m. Saturday at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman. The Game will be televised nationally on Root Sports NW with a pregame show set for 11 a.m. M.S.T. Weather is unlikely to play a factor in Saturday’s game. Predicted high at kickoff in Bozeman is 37 degrees with temperatures rising into the 40’s, with lights winds and plenty of sunshine.