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Cats, Griz both at home


November 3, 2017

AP Photo

The Montana Grizzlies have a must-win game with the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks Saturday afternoon in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.

The Montana State Bobcats are on a roll. The Montana Grizzlies are trying to get back on one. And each team has just two games left before they meet in the annual Brawl of the Wild.

Both the Grizzlies and Bobcats are home this Saturday, but each faces a very different test.

The Griz (5-3, 3-2) come into Saturday’s late-afternoon game against No. 17 Northern Arizona (6-2, 5-0) trying to rebound from a stinging loss at Weber State, a game which not only cost Montana its last shot at the Big Sky title, but also, possibly its second starting quarterback this season. Star freshman QB Gresch Jensen went down late in the game against the Wildcats, with what appeared to be a head injury, and his status for the game against the red-hot Lumberjacks, winners of six straight, is in doubt. If Jensen, who was leading Montana’s offense to the top of the Big Sky can’t go, then Caleb Hill will get the nod. Hill was brought in as a junior college transfer in the offseason.

But while Montana’s offense has a big question mark this week, the Griz’ defense will again be the focus, considering who they’re facing. NAU is a balanced and potent offensive team, led by one of the best QBs in the country in junior Case Cookus. And while star WR Emmanuel Butler is out for the season, the Jacks have the explosive Elijah Marks, while running backs Cory Young and Joe Logan have combined for more than 1,000 yards this season.

However, NAU isn’t just good on the offensive side of the ball, the Jacks are also stout on defense. They are among the Big Sky leaders in takeaways this season, while Montana limps into Saturday’s game having committed five turnovers in its 41-27 loss at Weber, which caused the Griz to fall back out of the Top 25 and put its playoff hopes in serious peril.

So, with perhaps the best team the Griz have seen outside of the Washington Huskies, coming to Missoula Saturday, the Griz find themselves in familiar territory of late — with their backs against the wall.

"I think our backs are against the wall now in a sense, and we need to handle what we went through last year and apply it to this year," said right tackle Mike Ralston. "We need to come out strong against NAU and keep that good momentum we had going from the first half of the season and keep it going. We've been through a lot as a team, and I think the more we face those scenarios, we handle them and get the chance to face them again — just the maturity and the experience of having done it before — we know how to go about it better this time around."

The Montana State Bobcats’ backs have been against the wall since the start of the season, thanks to a brutal schedule. And while the schedule doesn’t get any easier, the young Cats (4-4, 4-2) have won two straight and three of their last four.

But again, things don’t get any easier. After beating Idaho State 28-14 last Saturday, the Cats look ahead to a non-conference game with Kennesaw State this Saturday in Bozeman. When the game was scheduled, Bobcat fans may have thought the Owls would be a potential cupcake game, but not now. Kennesaw comes into Bobcat Stadium ranked No. 25 in the FCS and on a seven-game winning streak.

The Owls sit atop the Big South Conference standings, and in many ways are like the Bobcats.

“They’re a very good football team. They’re kind of your standard triple-option team,” MSU’s second-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “You know they’re going to have an advantage in time of possession.”

No, MSU may not run the triple-option like the Owls do, but the Cats like to control the time of possession, eat the clock and run the ball, with quarterback Chris Murray leading the way. MSU has also leaned heavily on Nick LaSane since his return from suspension, and he’s responded, while Edward Vander, Logan Jones and Troy Andersen get their touches, too.

On the other side of the ball, MSU’s defense just keeps getting better, even while dealing with key injuries. The Bobcats rank second in the Big Sky in scoring defense, third in total defense and second against the run. The Owls on the other hand, lead the Big South in scoring, total defense and rushing defense, so again, both teams want to play the game the same way.

“(Kennesaw State plays) low-scoring games for the most part.” Choate said. “Their defense has been tremendous. I want to say they’re giving up less than 300 yards per game in total offense. … On paper, that’s the best defense that we’ve played all year.”

MSU does have advanatages though. The Big Sky is a much deeper league than the Big South, so the Cats have seen some potentially better opponents. They also have Murray, who is proving to be a nearly unstoppable playmaker, especially on third down. And lastly, they have Bobcat Stadium. The weather is supposed to be snowy and cold Saturday, and likely no player on the Owl’s roster, as Kennesaw hails from Georgia, has played in conditions like that.

And while Choate wasn’t exactly happy with the timing of the game, he’s not looking past the Owls, and is excited for the challenges they present to his Bobcats, who are not out of the Big Sky Conference and FCS playoff race just yet.

“I’m glad that we’re playing a team as good as Kennesaw State,” Choate said. “If you want to make some noise in November, you’ve got to play good teams, and you’ve got to have the ability to win some of those games.”

Saturday’s game between MSU and Kennesaw State kicks off at noon inside Bobcat Stadium. The game will be televised on all SWX Affiliates in Montana. Saturday’s showdown between Montana and Northern Arizona in Missoula kicks off at 3:30 p.m. and will televised nationally on Root Sports.


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