Cats, Griz begin playoff runs at home
The last time the Montana Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats had a bye week, they were on a collision course with each other.
Now both teams come off a bye week having prepped for a brand new season and unfamiliar playoff opponents.
On Saturday, the No. 5 Grizzlies (9-2) will host the No. 15 Central Arkansas Bears (8-3) in Missoula, while the No. 7 Bobcats (9-2) take on the No. 11 New Hampshire Wildcats (8-3) in Bozeman in the Football Championship Subdivision's second round.
And despite the Griz and Cats both being at home and favored this weekend, neither game will be easy.
During the week off, all of the talk surrounding the playoffs as it relates to Montana was about ESPN and television coverage, or lack there of. But ESPN has resolved those issues, at least for this week, offering both games on its GamePlan package.
And now the talk finally turns to the games.
In Missoula, the Griz are back in the playoffs, for the 18th time in the last 19 years to be exact. But Montana hasn't played a playoff game since the 2009 FCS national championship game, a 22-21 loss to Villanova. That was back in December of 2009, so two years have gone by. That's a long drought by UM standards.
Now, after beating the Bobcats 36-10 on Nov. 19 in Bozeman and claiming the Big Sky Conference title, all seems to be right with the Griz again. But don't tell that to Central Arkansas.
The Bears are a potent offense, the Southland Conference runners-up and have won eight straight game heading into Saturday's first-ever trip to Missoula. Montana rides a seven-game winning streak.
The Bears like to throw the ball, and have the quarterback to lead them. Senior Nathan Dick is one of the top passers in the FCS and was a former starter at Arkansas under Bobby Petrino. The Bears run a similar offense to their big in-state counterparts, the Razorbacks, and with a bevy of talented receivers, led by Jessie Gandy and Dominique Croom. They average about 300 yards per game passing, and while Montana is 15-0 in home games against the Southland Conference, the Griz know Central Arkansas won't be a pushover by any means.
And with two powerful offenses going head to head, the Griz defense could tip the scale. Montana has been absolutely dominant in its last three games, allowing an average of 8 points per contest and less than a touchdown per. Montana has also held its last three opponents, Weber State, Western Oregon and MSU under 100 yards rushing, so like in the win over MSU two weeks ago, defense and size could play a key role.
And in both games this weekend, weather and crowd noise will be a factor as well.
"I've heard veteran coaches whom I have talked to in the last 48 hours say that right behind LSU, Florida and Alabama, Montana is right there in the type of atmosphere and crowd noise," said UCA coach Clint Conque. "I am not embellishing that."
While the Grizzlies are back in the playoffs, the Bobcats are hosting a playoff game for the second straight year.
Saturday's game against New Hampshire will give MSU a chance at some much-needed redemption. Not only can the Cats shrug off their loss to the Griz two weeks ago, but they can atone for their fourth-quarter meltdown in the 2010 playoffs at home against North Dakota State. A win over New Hampshire would give the Cats their first playoff win since 2006.
But that win won't be easy.
New Hampshire may have finished fourth in the CAA, but the CAA is the best and biggest conference in the FCS and the Wildcats will be road tested. New Hampshire is a pass-happy offense, much like the Griz are facing against Central Arkansas. Quarterback Kevin Decker was named CAA Player of the Year and the with a huge group of fast receivers, New Hampshire is a quick-strike offense.
But The Bobcats have the same in quarterback Denarius McGhee, WR Elvis Akpla, and running backs Cody Kirk and Trey Robinson, so once again, the game could come down to defense. And despite struggling against the Grizzlies, the Bobcats have a stellar defense, led by Zach Minter, Jody Owens and Clay Bignell. A healthy Brad Daly at defensive end will also help MSU get pressure on Decker.
And another factor weighing in Montana State's favor Saturday is hunger. MSU has been good about responding under head coach Rob Ash, and the loss to the Grizzlies, which took away a possible No. 1 seed and homefield advantage through the semifinals, may have been just what the Cats needed to go on and make a deep playoff run, which they're certainly capable of doing.
Saturday's game between Montana and Central Arkansas will kick off at 12:05 p.m. in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The winner will advance to the quarterfinals against either Northern Iowa or Wofford. The game between Montana State and New Hampshire will get underway at 1:05 p.m in Bobcat Stadium. The winner of that game will move on to face either top-seeded Sam Houston State or Stony Brook.
Notes: Neither the UM game in Missoula or the MSU game in Bozeman are expected to be sellouts. As of Thursday, the Grizzlies had sold roughly 20,000 tickets, while estimates in Bozeman were around 12,000 as of Thursday afternoon. Central Arkansas is making its first FCS playoff appearance. The Bears moved up from NCAA DII five years ago but were only playoff eligible in 2010. New Hampshire last played MSU in 1976, but the Wildcats played Montana in the 2004 playoffs in Missoula.