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Cats look to stay on track

 

September 29, 2017

AP Photo

The Montana State Bobcats play their fourth straight nationally ranked team when they host Weber State Saturday for their homecoming game in Bozeman. The Montana Grizzlies are on the road, visiting Portland State.

What a difference a week makes.

After the first Saturday of Big Sky Conference football, the Montana State Bobcats and Montana Grizzlies find themselves in two very different places.

The Bobcats, who got off to an 0-2 start, are now 1-0 in Big Sky play and have a dominant road win over defending Big Sky champion North Dakota to their credit. Now, the Cats have a chance to do even more damage, as they host Weber State in a huge Big Sky showdown Saturday in Bozeman.

The No. 20 Wildcats (1-0, 3-1) come to Bobcat Stadium as the fourth straight nationally ranked team the Cats have played this season, and they appear to be perhaps the front runner for the Big Sky title right now.

“I think they’re the best team in the Big Sky Conference right now,” MSU coach Jeff Choate said at his weekly press conference Monday morning. “If we’re handing out trophies today, I think that Weber State would get that trophy.”

Indeed, Weber State is talented and tested. A veteran squad with a dual-threat quarterback and two standout receivers in Andrew Vollert and Rashid Shaheed, the Wildcats present a dangerous offense for MSU’s suddenly stingy defense, led by star senior Mac Bignell to deal with.

But while MSU’s defense will have its hands full, the Bobcats will Weber State’s top-ranked defense a test as well. The Wildcats come into Saturday’s battle allowing just 15 ppg, and they are tops in the Big Sky and fifth in the FCS against the run — which happens to be MSU’s bread and butter.

Yes, the Cats love to run the ball. Quarterback Chris Murray, while truly evolving as a passer, is second in the Big Sky in rushing, averaging 98 yards per game. MSU also got a 137-yard day from true freshman Troy Anderson at UND and Edward Vander is no slouch in the backfield, either. But what makes MSU so dangerous, even against a great run defense like Weber is, the Cats are not one-dimensional. Murray is proving he can beat good teams with his arms, and with Kevin Kassis, Mitch Herbert and Jabarri Johnson making big plays down field, the Cats are going to be a big threat to Weber’s stout defense Saturday afternoon.

And MSU has one more thing on its side — momentum. Weber may be the most talented FCS team to come to Bobcat Stadium so far this season, but the Bobcats, while still young, are making big strides, and a win over Weber would vault them into true Big Sky title contenders.

“(It) seems like it’s been a long time since we’ve had a home game,” Choate said. “I’m looking forward to having them at our house. I do think that’s an advantage for us, and I think our guys will come out with the appropriate amount of energy.”

While the Cats are riding high, Montana (0-1, 2-2) is trying to avoid falling down. The Griz seemingly had Eastern Washington beat last Saturday night in Missoula, but they surrendered 42 second-half points, and watched as EWU set two offensive school records in the second half of a 48-41 loss to the Eagles.

Now the Griz have two straight road games, and neither is a gimme, starting with Saturday’s trip to Portland State (0-0, 0-3). And while the Vikings’ record may not look like much, head coach Bob Stitt knows how tough they really are, as PSU played both BYU and Oregon State, two FBS powers, right down to the wire.

And yet, Saturday’s game will be much more about what Montana does than what PSU does. The Griz haven’t won on the road since September of 2016, a five-game losing streak to be exact. They also have had major defensive issues this season, including against EWU last week. Montana has talent on that side of the ball with Tucker Sheye tearing up the Big Sky and linebackers Josh Buss and James Banks having huge seasons so far. But there’s no doubt, UM has issues that have to be corrected on that side of the ball.

On the other side, Montana freshman QB Gresch Jensen made a sparkling debut against EWU last Saturday night and will only get better as the season goes on. Montana currently is second in the Big Sky in scoring and first in total offense, so the Griz will look to keep that offense rolling at PSU.

But again, no matter how Montana plays, the mind-set is where UM will be challenged the most. The EWU loss, a game Montana led 24-6 at halftime, was a crushing blow to the Griz, but there’s a ton of season left, and a win on the road would certainly get UM headed back on the right path.

"(It) would have been a great victory for our team and a lot of confidence for our players moving forward, but now we do have to move forward to the next week and flush that and understand that we can compete with anybody," Montana coach Bob Stitt said Monday about the loss to EWU "If you take something away, you know you can play with anybody. Now let's just close the deal."

Montana will take on Portland State Saturday at 3 p.m. in Hillsboro, Oregon. The game will be televised on all local SWX affiliates. Montana State’s homecoming game with Weber State kicks off at 1 p.m. in Bozeman and will be televised nationally on Root Sports.

 

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