It will be a Brawl in Bozeman
Pride and playoffs at stake as Cats and Griz meet for the 117th time
November 17, 2017
One has it, the other is trying to take it away. That's how it always is leading into the annual meeting between the Montana Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats. And ahead of the 117th edition of the Brawl of the Wild, the Bobcats have the Divide Trophy - the Grizzlies want it back.
"We're definitely bitter about that," Montana's Tucker Schye said of the Grizzlies' 24-17 loss in last year's Cat-Griz showdown. "They stole one from us and we're gonna take it back and then some."
After three straight wins in the series, nationally ranked Montana was stunned by a three-win Bobcat team in Missoula last November. It was indeed a bitter pill to swallow for the Grizzlies, and while they're trying to keep a trend going when the 2017 Cat-Griz game goes down Saturday in Bozeman, the Bobcats are going to do everything in their power to keep the Divide Trophy right where it is. Kickoff for the Cat-Griz game is set for 12:08 p.m. inside Bobcat Stadium.
"I don't know that they (Grizzlies) respected us very much a year ago," said MSU head coach Jeff Choate. "And that probably led to the result and the outcome. So I guess if anything else, we've got their attention. Obviously you can tell there's a heightened sense of urgency from the noise that's coming out of Missoula this week than there was a year ago."
Last year is indeed now 364 days in the past. But, this Saturday's game has striking similarities.
Take Montana (7-3, 5-2) for example. A year ago, the Grizzlies were fighting for their playoff lives going into the Cat-Griz game in Missoula. That game turned out to be a disaster for Montana, as the Cats rushed for close to 400 yards and freshman quarterback Chris Murray became an instant star. The loss was Montana's fourth in their final six games, and the Griz missed the FCS playoffs for the third time in the last seven years. Fast forward one year, and Montana, even having won six of its last seven games, is again on the playoff bubble. Many feel that a win over the Cats will be enough to clinch a playoff berth. But, head coach Bob Stitt insists there's nothing similar about this Griz team heading into what is his third Brawl of the Wild.
"We weren't in a good place mentally as a football team in that 11th week," Griz head coach Bob Stitt said. "That's the biggest difference in our team now. We had great talent last year and we got great talent this year but we're in a way different place mentally."
The Bobcats (4-6, 4-3) come into this year's Brawl in a similar place in some respects as well. There will be no playoffs this year for the Cats, and win or lose, they will suffer their third straight losing season. So once again, they will look to end the year on the highest possible note, and that's beating their hated rivals from Missoula, though Choate insists, playing playoff spoiler isn't the motivation for Saturday's tilt.
"This is about Montana State and our players from an internal standpoint," Choate said. "If we start worrying about them (Griz) too much we're going to not be focused on what we need to be focused on. Those are things that you can talk about after the game is over. But for us, this is our seniors' last opportunity to play in front of the home crowd and an opportunity to be a part of a really special game that they'll remember for the remainder of their lives."
The game itself is special, no matter which side of the divide one is on. But, it is complicated, too, because currently, the Cats and Griz are a true contrast in styles, and that should make for an intense, close battle in front of what should be a Bobcat Stadium record crowd.
The Grizzlies are all about offense first. They lead the Big Sky in scoring at 36 ppg, and average over 300 yards passing and 400 yards of total offense. They have a sensational red-shirt freshman quarterback in Gresch Jensen, who has thrown for more than 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns heading into what will be his first Cat-Griz start. Montana's wide receiver group is as deep as any in the FCS, with the explosive Jerry Louie-McGee, Keenan Curran and Justin Calhoun leading the way. UM has also established a stout running game behind a senior-laden offensive line, and the talents of juniors Jeremy Calhoun and Alijah Lee, who have combined to rush for nearly 1,100 yards this season.
"It starts and ends with the quarterback, and I think Gresch Jensen has done a really nice job," Choate said. "They're really good at wide receiver, they have a really good 1-2 punch at running back. And their O-line is a little more nasty and a little more physical than they were a year ago. So it's a big challenge there, in terms of what they do on offense."
And the challenge will be, can a surging MSU defense slow down the Grizzlies much in the way they did last year in Missoula. MSU is second in the Big Sky in scoring defense at 25 ppg, while allowing 403 yards per contest. The Bobcats have a star linebacker in senior Mac Bignell (83 tackles, 12.5 TFL's), but fellow linebacker Josh Hill, as well as defensive tackles Tucker Yates and Zach Wright have been huge for the Cats, who have lost six games this season by an average of just 7.7 points. In the secondary, which will surely be tested by Jensen and his band of talented WR's, safety Bryson McCabe is the anchor, with 79 tackles and one interception.
"They (Cats) just don't give up big plays," Stitt said. "Their secondary is very disciplined as far as not giving up those big plays and their scheme allows them to do that. They're gonna make you earn it and they tackle well. There's a lot of good things going on on their defense and they've played great defense all year."
While a young, but battle-tested Cat defense will have its hands full with Montana's up-tempo pass-happy offense, the Grizzlies will be charged with stopping the Big Sky's best running game, and the league's most dynamic playmaker in Murray, who has rushed for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns on the season. Overall, with a stable of backs that include Nick LaSane, Edward Vander and two-way freshman star Troy Andersen, the Cats are averaging 243 rushing yards per game. And while MSU's passing attack has struggled at times, even with a bevy of talented receivers, including Mitch Herbert, Kevin Kassis and Jabarri Johnson, the Griz know full well that stopping the Cats on the ground, and finding some way to slow down Murray, something they had no answer for last year, is Saturday's biggest challenge.
"It's a good offense. I wouldn't say they're super explosive or anything, but ... they can control the ball," Schye said. "They run the ball well. That quarterback, he's pretty good. He's a good player."
For some of this season, Montana's defense had trouble slowing down just about every opponent's offense. But, in the last three games, that's all changed. Starting with the second half of a loss at Weber State, the Griz have allowed just three offensive touchdowns, so they're certainly trending the right way. Montana is strong against the run, too, allowing just 230 yards per, and they're one of the top red-zone defenses in the Big Sky, and that could bode well against a Bobcat squad which has struggled to put points on the board this year. MSU comes into the game ranked 11th in the Big Sky in scoring offense at just over 24 ppg. Montana is also tops in the Big Sky in sacks and tackles for loss, and has 24 takeaways to boot.
The Griz defense, led by Schye, star linebackers Josh Buss, James Banks and Connor Strahm, who all have over 80 tackles a piece this season, will also be playing with a chip on its shoulder Saturday, after what Murray and company did to them last year in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
"They're (Griz) not the same defense they were last year," MSU senior offensive lineman Dylan Mahoney said. "This game is totally different because when you watch film you're seeing some stuff but then come Cat-Griz it's totally different. They're a good team. They're a very good team. You have to capitalize on every single opportunity that you can in order to beat a team like this. You can't play a perfect game, but you've got to play a near-perfect game."
No it will be impossible for either team to play the perfect game because neither the Cats or Griz are perfect. Both teams have flaws, both are still trying to find their way through a rebuilding process. Neither is ranked in any FCS poll, and the Big Sky Conference title won't be decided by the Brawl again this year.
However, none of that changes the fact that the rivalry is the biggest game in every player and coach's life. There's nothing like the Cat-Griz game, and emotions will again be running high. It's simply a special day, and the team that usually handles the emotional side of the rivalry itself, which is the 18th-oldest rivalry in all of college football, usually plays the best and usually takes the Divide Trophy home.
This year, the Grizzlies, who haven't lost in Bozeman since 2005, want to take it back up I-90 and put it inside their brand new Champions Center. The Cats want to make sure it stays right where it is. And the records, the FCS playoff picture, winning seasons, losing seasons, it's all out the window.
Saturday is simply about Bobcats versus Grizzlies.
"It means a ton, like Tuck (Schye) said, we've been watching this game for a long time now," Montana WR and Great Falls native Josh Horner said. "We know how important it is for the state of Montana and to all the people who live here. Just an honor to go out and be able and say that you were a part of this game. It means a lot.
"In the state, you get to this point in the season, it really is everything," Stitt said. "You play all season and you get to this game and the previous games kinda get wiped out. You're not gaining anything from the first 10 games going into this game because for our fans and everybody involved, you gotta win the ball game. It is very, very important in our state. We've prepared for a long time mentally for this thing and physically, but more mentally. I think our guys are really gonna be ready to go and play great football."
"Last year, that was really fun being able to do that over there, and then bring the (Great Divide) trophy back to Bozeman. That was awesome," Mahoney said. "It was probably one of the highlights of my life and my college career. It's going to be an honor to play in that game - it always is every year. So I'm hoping to go out on a high note.
"It's an indescribable feeling," he continued. "You just don't know until you've done it."
Saturday's 117th Brawl of the Wild kicks off at 12:08 p.m. inside Bobcat Stadium. The game will be televised nationally on Root Sports.
Montana Grizzlies (6-3, 5-2) at Montana State Bobcats (4-6, 4-3)
Saturday, 12:08 p.m.
TV: Root Sports
See Cat-Griz Game Day