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Cats, Griz face mighty challenges

 

September 8, 2017

AP Photo

The Montana State Bobcats have a huge home-opener Saturday night as they welcome third-ranked South Dakota State for their annual Gold Rush Game in Bozeman.

The Montana Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats are trading places this week. Kind of.

Montana opened its season last Saturday with a 45-23 win over FCS Valparaiso in Missoula, while MSU suffered a 31-0 loss in Pullman to FBS No. 24 Washington State. This week, the roles will be reversed as the Grizzlies travel west to take on FBS No. 7 Washington, while the Cats come home to host South Dakota State.

However, while the Cats are back playing an FCS rival, their home opener will not be nearly as easy as the Griz' was last week.

On Saturday night, MSU (0-1) plays host to No. 3 South Dakota State (1-0). The Jackrabbits are a perennial FCS power and beat the Cats in an epic snowstorm playoff game four years ago in Bozeman. So, MSU's annual Gold Rush Game will be a tough one, no doubt.

"(South Dakota State is a) really, really good football team," head coach Jeff Choate said. "(They're) very different than Washington State, but this is a real-life outfit.

"Not only are they a veteran team, they're fresh," Choate said. "They didn't have to play a full game, and they have two extra days to prepare. They've got good leadership and continuity, so I think those are all things that stand out."

What also stands out to Choate is the fact that the Jacks have some of the best offensive weapons in the FCS, including senior WR Jake Wenieke and QB Taryn Christion. With Eastern Washington star Cooper Kupp now playing in the NFL, Wenieke is probably the most explosive WR in the FCS, while Christion is a true dual-threat quarterback with loads of talent. The Jacks' passing game also features the top tight end in the FCS in Dallas Goedert, while the running game is equally as talented behind a massive offensive line.

So, MSU's defense will be challenged, but the Cats showed plenty of promise on that side of the ball in their loss at Wazzu. Mac Bignell and Grant Collins had a big game, and limiting one of the best Pac 12 offenses to just 31 points was a win. However, it will be MSU's offense which will need to come alive Saturday night.

Sophomore quarterback Chris Murray completed just five passes last Saturday, and MSU's young running game got little traction as the Cats totaled just 131 yards of offense against the Cougs. And while SDSU's defense will not be as talented, fast, or strong as Wazzu's was, the Cats know they need to be much better offensively this week and the rest of the season.

"I think we have to push the envelope in that area, and we've got to continue to make strides," Choate said. "This is the maturation of this group. Week 1, get hit in the mouth. Week 2, another great opponent. But we have to make progress.

"It's not just Chris and our receivers, it truly does start up front. We've got to feel confident that we can protect these schemes (and) these are the things that we can do well with this group up front. That will allow us to really find out who we're going to be on the offensive side of the ball."

Also Saturday night, it's Montana's turn to play up. And while MSU had its hands full with a Pac 12 opponent, the Griz will have an even bigger challenge in Husky Stadium.

Washington is coming off a 2016 Pac 12 title and a trip to the College Football Playoff. The Huskies return Heisman Trophy candidate Jake Browning at quarterback, Dante Pettis at wide receiver and a slew of speedy prospects on offense. Washington is also known to have one of the biggest and most physical defenses in the FBS, despite sending four defenders off last year's team to the NFL.

And yet, the Griz, who struggled at times to put away Valpo last week, are excited for the opportunity, knowing full-well how good the Huskies are.

"They're a little bit better than Adams State and some of the teams I've coached against in the past," head coach Bob Stitt joked at his weekly press conference Monday. "That's what's fun about it. ... They're the No. 8 team. They're very good. 

"You can't miss an opportunity for your football team to get better schematically and mentally. To go against the best, that can't do anything but help us. To be able to line up, go toe-to-toe with those guys and see what you can do because they're very, very good."

Montana will look to move the ball offensively behind senior quarterback Reese Phillips and star receiver Jerry Louie-McGee. The tandem combined for over 400 yards and four touchdowns last week. But where the Griz will really be challenged is on defense. Montana struggled to contain the big play last week, and with starting safeties Justin Strong and Josh Sandry injured, and the Griz having to go up against Browning and the Husky aerial attack, UM could be in for a long night in Husky Stadium.

The game between Montana and Washington will kick off at 6 p.m. M.D.T. in Seattle. The game is televised only on the Pac 12 Network. Montana State's battle with SDSU also kicks off at 6 p.m. inside Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman and can be seen on all Montana SWX affiliates.

 

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