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Griz, Cats still have a lot on the line

 

November 10, 2017

AP Photo

Montana's Jerry Louie-McGee scores a touchdown last week against Northern Arizona. The Grizzlies host Northern Colorado in their final home game Saturday in Missoula, while Montana State takes its turn against Northern Arizona, traveling to Flagstaff to face the Lumberjacks.

For the Montana Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats, seven days is all that stands between them and the 117th Brawl of the Wild. But with so much riding on the season, neither team can afford to think about the other right now.

The Grizzlies (4-2, 6-3) are literally fighting for their playoff lives, and after a revenge win over Northern Arizona last Saturday, which made national news for NAU QB Case Cookus’ ejection for targeting, the Griz look to get another revenge win this Saturday when they host Northern Colorado (1-5, 2-6) on senior day at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

And while the Bobcats, which would be yet another revenge game for the Griz, are looming now, Montana is focused on the Bears, who beat UM in Greeley, Colorado, during the Griz’ disastrous end to the 2016 campaign. And they’re only focused on the Bears.

"Obviously I think the whole team, everybody thinks about what happened last year, how the season ended," Montana wide receiver and return man Jerry Louie-McGee said. "We're gonna go into this game like any other game: full speed. We're not gonna overlook them.”

While the Griz certainly benefited from Cookus’ ejection last weekend in Missoula, they have their own quarterback dilemma. Star freshman Gresch Jensen was knocked out of the Weber State game two weeks ago and didn’t pass concussion protocol last week. That left Griz head coach Bob Stitt with third-stringer Caleb Hill and senior tight end, but former quarterback Makenna Simis. Simis ultimately led the Griz to the win over NAU rushing for 103 yards in the 17-15 victory. But, Montana certainly hopes that Jensen can return and with him bring back the Griz’ high-powered offense which was leading the Big Sky Conference before his injury.

“Whoever is at quarterback, we need to come out and score points,” Stitt said. “We need to move the ball again and get the offense going. We need to pick up where we left off last week, especially defensively. Our defense is playing so well, they’ve only allowed one touchdown in the last six quarters. We need to keep that momentum going.”

Montana’s offense shouldn’t have any trouble doing so, as UNC has one of the statistically worst defenses in the Big Sky Conference. On the other side of the ball, the Bears also rush for just 98 yards per game, and are playing now with backup quarterback Connor Regan. They do have explosive players in running back Trae Reik and wide receiver Hakeem Diggs, but overall, Montana’s defense, led by Buck Buchanan nominee Josh Buss, should be ready for anything the Bears have in store.

And again, after what happened to the Griz last year at UNC, Montana will be fired up for Saturday’s home finale, and will certainly not be thinking ahead to Cat-Griz game.

"We're gonna go into it our best and prepare,” Louie-McGee said. “We're gonna play with a little chip on our shoulder. We know what happened last year. We're ready to go."

The Bobcats (4-2, 4-5) will also need to be ready because they’re traveling to Flagstaff to take on an angry No. 24 NAU (5-1, 6-3). Given what happened to Cookus last week, MSU head coach Jeff Choate expects the Lumberjacks to be excited for Saturday’s showdown with MSU inside the Walkup Skydome.

“They’re going to have a sour taste in their mouth and they’re going to be excited to play on Saturday. We’ll head down to Flagstaff and see what we can do,” Choate said.

NAU, led by Cookus and wide receiver Elijah Marks, who combine to form one of the best offensive attacks in the country, will put MSU’s defense, which is second in the Big Sky in scoring and fourth in total defense, and led by linebackers Mac Bignell and Josh Hill, to the test. But the Jacks also have a stingy defense, which is led by star safety Kameron Johnson, and not only will last week’s loss to the Griz be motivation, but the Jacks are also in a battle for a Big Sky title and the FCS playoffs, and they can’t afford a slipup in their final home game.

The Bobcats, however, are an angry team right now, too. In a non-conference home tilt last Saturday in snowy Bozeman, MSU lost to nationally ranked Kennesaw State, 16-14. And while the MSU defense did all it could to slow down the Owl’s triple-option attack, the Bobcat offense struggled mightily.

Quarterback Chris Murray continues to lead the Big Sky in rushing, and will likely go over 1,000 yards for the season sometime during Saturday’s game, but if MSU is to have any chance against the potent Lumberjacks, it cannot be so one dimensional. The Cats are second in the Big Sky in rushing, but are 12th in passing, and just 11th in the league in scoring at 23 points per outing.

So for MSU to beat the Jacks, which would then still give them a long-shot chance at sharing the Big Sky title and posting a winning season, the Cats are going to have to produce more offense, which is easier said than done against a stout NAU defense. And more offense is something MSU is focused on this week.

Saturday’s game between the Lumberjacks and Bobcats starts at 5 p.m. in Flagstaff, Arizona, and can be seen on DirecTV’s Eleven Sports. Montana’s finale home game, Saturday against Northern Colorado, kicks off at 1 p.m. and will be televised nationally on Root Sports. Next week’s Brawl of the Wild is set for noon at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman. The Havre Daily News will have wall-to-wall coverage of the annual Cat-Griz game, starting in next Tuesday’s sports section.

 

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