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Cat-Griz Preview: Big Sky title and bragging rights on the line

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Montana's Jordan Johnson throws a pass during a Big Sky football game last month in Flagstaff, Ariz.

111th Brawl of the Wild

Kickoff is 12:05 p.m. at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman

TV: KRTV Channel 2; DirecTV 680; Dish Network 446

Radio: 560 KMON AM

The talk is almost over. The buildup has been immense, and on top of it all winter has arrived just in time.

Now, the Montana State Bobcats and Montana Grizzlies will finally get a chance to settle things on the field when the two rivals meet for the 111th time Saturday at 12:05 p.m. inside Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman.

The Bobcats come into Saturday's game with a perfect 7-0 Big Sky Conference record, and at 9-1 overall. MSU has won nine straight games since its season-opening loss

AP Photo

MSU's Denarius McGhee (right) races by a Northern Colorado defender during a Big Sky Conference football game last month.

at Utah and on top of it all, they are ranked No. 1in the FCS regular season for the first time since 1978.

Montana brings similar credentials to Bozeman. The Grizzlies are 6-1 in Big Sky play, 8-2 overall with one loss also coming to a Division I opponent, Tennessee. UM has won sixth straight games, the Griz have climbed all the way back to No. 7 in the latest FCS Poll and have likely sewn up a record 18th FCS playoff berth in the last 19 years.

And while both teams have already done plenty this season, there's a little matter that will be settled on Saturday in Bozeman – the Big Sky championship. For the second straight season, the Bobcats come to the "Brawl of the Wild" with a chance to win the Big Sky outright. Last year, MSU beat UM 21-16 in Missoula, but Eastern Washington also won on the last day of the season, so the Cats settled for a share of the crown. A win over the Grizzlies Saturday would give the Cats the outright league title as well as a possible No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The Grizzlies can upset the Bobcats Saturday and with it, clinch a share of the Big Sky crown for the 13th time in the last 14 years, as well as earn the league's automatic berth to the playoffs. A win in Bozeman would also likely give Montana a national seed in the playoffs.

So with everything that's always riding on the Cat/Griz game, this Saturday's battle is as heavy with a drama as any game has been in quite some time.

"In the state of Montana you're either one or the other," said Griz head coach Robin Pflugrad of the long-standing rivalry. "As I said last year, the best way to sum this game up is: When I came back here, I did not know if the governor was a Democrat or a Republican, but I did know he was a Bobcat.

"And really, that's the way the state is."

The Grizzlies will certainly be marching into hostile territory Saturday, and the fact they've won the last two times they've went to Bozeman likely will mean little. Not only is the weather expected to be downright awful with highs only reaching the teens and plenty of snow and wind, but the Cats recently renovated Bobcat Stadium, and a school-record crowd of nearly 20,000 is expected to be on hand Saturday.

"The stadium project has definitely helped our football program," said MSU head coach Rob Ash. "And we've helped the stadium project by being successful. This perfect storm, this snowball effect - whatever analogy you want to use - it's been great."

But weather and crowd aside, Saturday's tilt should be a great matchup.

Montana State possesses the No. 1 scoring offense in the league at 39.3 ppg, while the Griz are No. 2 at 33 ppg. UM is the top scoring defense in the conference at 20.3 ppg, while the Cats allow a second-best 22.3 ppg. Beyond those numbers, MSU and UM are first or second in almost every defensive category in the conference, while both are in the top half of the league in almost every offensive category meaning there's no doubt, Saturday is a game of matchups.

Individually, the Bobcats are led by their unflappable quarterback Denarius McGhee, who's thrown for 1,505 yards and 16 touchdowns. McGhee is just a sophomore but he's already beaten Montana once and is a Walter Payton Award Finalist. But MSU has built an outstanding running game too. Sophomore Cody Kirk has burst on to the scene and has rushed for 131.7 yards per game this season. Kirk has gained a whopping 602 yards in his last four games, and with a great backup in Nebraska transfer Trey Robinson, as well as a home run threat at wide receiver in senior Elvis Akpla, along with fellow wideouts Tanner Bleskin and Everett Gilbert. MSU is even more balanced on offense than it was a year ago. The Bobcats have gained 500 yards or more five times this season.

"That particular team is one, two or three in every major statistical category, (and) I don't know if that's ever happened before," Pflugrad said. "That's usually led by the quarterback, and he's done a great job. He's not running the ball as much, but again, with that offensive line and those two running backs, he probably doesn't have to."

But MSU has been every bit as good defensively. The Cats' defensive line is led by junior tackle Zach Minter, while defensive ends John Laidet and Brad Daly have been outstanding. MSU leads the league in sacks with 38 while Montana is a distant second with 29. Linebackers Clay Bignell and Jody Owens are also big players for an MSU defense which is surrendering just 16 points in home games this season.

The Grizzly defense is no slouch either.

Montana starts 10 seniors on the defensive side of the ball, including linebacker Caleb McSurdy, who's been among the FCS' leading tacklers all season long. Fellow linebacker Alex Shaw is starting his fourth Cat/Griz game, while defensive ends Ryan Featherston and Bobby Alt have been in three such Brawls. Up the middle is where Montana is really good, as well as at corner. Bryan Waldhauser, Tyrone Duncan and Ben Hughes are all all-conference candidates, while Trumaine Johnson is perhaps the best corner to ever play at Montana. Johnsonw ill make his fourth straight start in a Cat-Griz game Saturday, but it's been the play of fellow senior Houston Roots, who has a team-high four interceptions, which has made the Grizzly defense more versatile this season.

On offense, Montana's spread look has gained momentum as the season has progressed. The Grizzlies looked to have started to a peak in a 45-10 walloping of Weber State on Oct. 29. In that game, sophomore QB Jordan Johnson threw six touchdown passes, tying a school record, while senior wide receiver Jabin Sambrano caught four of them, also a UM record.

Just as it was for McGhee last November, this will be Jordan Johnson's first Cat-Griz start and his play will be crucial if the Grizzlies are to have a chance to pull the upset on the road. But Johnson will also need help from the stable of talent around him. Running backs Peter Nyguen and Jordan Canada are two of the fastest players in the Big Sky, along with Sambrano, but Montana's senior-laden and huge offensive line will also have to lead the way, as will receivers like Sam Gratton and Antwon Moutra. Star tight ends Greg Hardy and Kevario Middleton as well as all-around athlete Gerald Kemp could also play key roles in Saturday's game.

The biggest factor however, will be turnovers.

The Grizzlies coughed up for of them last year in Missoula, negating UM's stellar second-half defensive shutout. Montana has cut way down on the turnovers this season, but the Griz have yet to see a defense of MSU's caliber. MSU on the other hand, has had more trouble with turnovers this season than the Cats did a year ago.

Perhaps an even bigger factor in the game could be the kickers. MSU's Jason Cunningham and UM's Brody McKnight are both seniors and both are considered NFL prospects and both have the leg to make long field goals in terrible weather conditions. The foot of one or the other could easily determine the outcome of Saturday's huge game.

And the rivalry itself will be a factor.

Emotions always run high, with more than 80 Montana-born players expected to see action Saturday afternoon. But with so much riding on this one game, and with the Cats playing in front of a huge home crowd, there's no doubt the atmosphere will be electric for MSU and hostile for Montana. In many Cat-Griz games in the past that's meant something – but on the flip side, the last two Brawls have been one by the road team.

Still, both teams are looking at a destiny-type season and Saturday's game will have a long-lasting effect on what happens into December.

"It's been incredible when you think about it from 2007 until now," said Ash. "The academic improvement of our team has been monumental. We've gone from a 6-4 team to having a nice winning streak in this conference, and it's dove-tailed with the stadium improvement."


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