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BIG, BIG BRAWL IN BOZEMAN

So much at stake in 119th showdown between Montana and Montana State

 

November 22, 2019

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Montana's Jace Lewis, right, chases Troy Andersen during the 2018 Cat-Griz game last November in Missoula. The Grizzly defense against the Bobcat rushing game will be a critical matchup in Saturday's 119th Brawl of the Wild. The annual Cat-Griz game kicks off at noon Saturday in Bozeman.

There's never been a time when the stakes aren't high when the Montana Grizzlies and Montana State Bobcats get together. After all, the Divide Trophy and bragging rights for the year are enough to set high stakes.

And yet, every once in a while, the ramifications for a Cat-Griz game go through the roof, and the 119th Brawl of the Wild, set for Saturday at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, is one of those momentous occasions in the long-standing rivalry.

Just look at what's surrounding Saturday's game, which kicks off at noon. and will be televised nationwide.

The 2019 Cat-Griz game is the first time since 2011 that both teams are ranked in the Top 10, with the Grizzlies coming in at No. 3 and the Bobcats at No. 8. Saturday's game is also the first time the Big Sky Conference championship is at stake, as both teams have a chance to at least have a share of the crown this season. Also on the line is playoff seeding.

With both teams locked into the FCS playoffs already, the winner of the Brawl will certainly earn a seed and a bye in the opening round of next week's FCS playoffs, and not only that, but a high seed is at stake for both squads, which would mean home field advantage deep into the playoffs. That's something neither Montana or Montana State has done since the Griz went to the FCS semifinals in 2012.

"It's a big game," lamented Griz head coach Bobby Hauck. "And we're going to try hard to win it."

The Griz (6-1, 9-2) are going to try hard to win, and also snap a three-game losing streak in the series. They come into Saturday's showdown having not won since their blowout victory over the Cats in the 2015 game in Bozeman. That's a long time for a program that once owned a 16-year winning streak in the series. In fact, the Montana seniors, many of whom grew up in the Treasure State, have yet to beat the Bobcats, and Saturday is their last shot.

"I guess it's something that grows a little more every year being here," Corvallis native Jesse Sims said of the rivalry. "I'm excited to go do it one last time."

But for the Griz, there's so much more on the line than bragging rights. With a win Saturday, Montana claims its first Big Sky championship in a decade, and the Griz will do it in just the second year of Hauck's return to Missoula. A win over the Cats would also mean the Griz would be home for the playoffs up until at least the semifinals, and, they would likely avoid North Dakota State's side of the bracket.

Of course, Montana isn't thinking about all of that at the moment. Instead, they're just looking at how to beat MSU for the first time in the last four years. And the main way the Griz can do that Saturday is to stop the run.

The Bobcats (5-2, 8-3) come into the Brawl having rushed for over 300 yards in the last three meetings with the Grizzlies, and they lead the Big Sky in rushing. A healthy Isaiah Ifanse will be huge for MSU, but the Cats have done just fine with Logan Jones, Lane Sumner and part-time quarterback/running backs Troy Andersen and Travis Jonsen. The Cats' devastating run game, which averages 260 yards per outing, has helped sophomore QB Tucker Roving finally settle into his role, and even he will take off and get into the act on occasion.

So, while the Grizzlies come in with the No. 1 run defense in the Big Sky - and are led by All-American Dante Olson's 127 tackles, as well as Sims, junior linebacker Jace Lewis, hard-hitting safeties Josh Sandry, Robby Hauck and Gavin Robertson, and are flying high after shutting down Weber State's run game last week - Jeff Choate and the Bobcats are going to be who they are, and that means they're going to hand the ball off to the runners who have got it done all season long. That includes the amazing Andersen, who, despite making the move to full-time linebacker, has still scored seven touchdowns for the Cats, and who already has five against the Grizzlies in his short but star-studded career.

"In big games, your playmakers have to arrive. Period," Choate said at his Monday press conference. "If you don't have your best guys ready to go compete and make plays for you, that's going to be an advantage for the opponent."

MSU's playmakers will no doubt step up, but Choate also notes that the other big matchup in Saturday's game will be, MSU's stingy defense trying to slow down Dalton Sneed and a Grizzly offense which has been on fire from the beginning of the season, and has shown no signs of slowing down.

"He's a young man that makes the whole thing go," Choate said of Sneed, who despite missing two games with injury, has thrown for 2,525 yards and 19 scores. "You talk about all these component parts, but he's a courageous leader, you can just tell that. He's a tough kid, built thick in the lower body, hard to bring down in the open field, accurate passer, very strong arm, and he has that confidence, that swagger you can kind of just see."

Sneed and UM star receivers Samori Toure and Jerry Louie-McGee, along with star running back Marcus Knight have been a handful for every defense that has come across them this season. The Griz are averaging nearly 40 points per game and are among the Big Sky leaders in total offense.

However, as good as the UM offense has been, even when Sneed went down and Cam Humphrey took over, the Bobcats have been equally as good on defense, and that matchup might be the biggest key to Saturday's showdown.

With Andersen on defense, and the return of Josh Hill at linebacker, the Cats are good, but senior defensive end Bryce Sterk, and senior safety Brayden Konkol on the back end, make MSU's defense special. The Cats are second in the Big Sky in both scoring defense, allowing just 22 ppg, and total defense, where they allow just under 400 years per outing, so there's no doubt, MSU is as staunch as it gets when it comes to defense, and with a sold-out, loud Bobcat Stadium crowd behind them, the Cats are hoping to be the only team this season that can say they shut down the high-flying Grizzly attack.

"They'll pressure you, man you some, mix front, they bring the corner some," Hauck said of MSU's defense, led by Sterk who has 11 sacks and close to 20 tackles for loss.

Of course pressure is also part of the equation in the Cat-Griz rivalry, and there will be plenty of it Saturday, and Choate, who's team will be making their second straight playoff appearance, regardless of the Cat-Griz outcome, recognizes that.

"There's going to be a lot of emotion in pregame (and) guys are going to have to manage that. You almost have to just have that release. Just get it out so that you can go focus and stay in the green zone as we like to call it from a mental preparation standpoint and not go to red," Choate said. "There's going to be moments when things get heated, but both of these programs are class programs and we'll settle it between the white lines the way it's supposed to be, and it will be a good game."

There's no denying it will be a good game. The Brawl hasn't seen both teams come in playing this well in a quite some time. The visiting Grizzlies haven't lost since an Oct. 19, setback at Sacramento State. The Bobcats haven't lost since a trip to North Dakota to open November. Both teams are among the league leaders in most offensive and defensive categories, and between them, they have four players up for either the Buck Buchanan Award or the Walter Payton Award this season.

On top of that, both squads have been efficient. The Bobcats are plus-eight in turnover margin, which is second-best in the Big Sky, and the Griz are right behind them at plus-seven. Both teams have excellent special teams units, and kickers Tristan Bailey and Brandon Purdy could end up being called upon to win the game. Both teams have outstanding, veteran head coaches, and, when you factor in good weather in the forecast, the 119th meeting between the Grizzlies and Bobcats is shaping up to be one for the ages - and that's crazy to think, considering how the Cats edged the Griz on a last-second fumble in what was one of the most shocking endings to a Cat-Griz game ever, last November.

"It's probably going to be a game of momentum swings like it kind of seems to always be," Choate said.

Momentum and a simple matter of, who wants it more. After all, this is it - it's the rivalry in the FCS, one of the best in college football - and it means so much to so many, from every corner of the state. But it doesn't mean more to anyone than the players who are playing in it this Saturday.

"Every Montanan is either a Cat fan or a Griz fan," MSU senior OL Mitch Brott, who hails from Billings, said to 406 Sports earlier this week. "If you can go out there and beat the other team, it just lights up half the state. When you're out on the field, you're playing for you but you're also playing for half the state. That's just something to be really proud about."

The 119th Brawl of the Wild kicks off Saturday at noon inside Bobcat Stadium. The game will be televised nationally on Root Sports.

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Montana senior Jerry Louie-McGee runs with the ball during the 2018 Brawl of the Wild last November in Missoula. The Griz and Cats meet in Bozeman Saturday, with both ranked in the Top 10 for the first time since 2011. The Cats are riding a three-game winning streak, and seniors at Montana, like Louie-McGee, have never beaten MSU.

Cat-Griz 2019

#3 Montana Grizzlies (6-1, 9-2) at #8 Montana State Bobcats (5-2, 8-3)

Saturday, Noon

Bobcat Stadium

TV: Root Sports

Twitter: Twitter/Havredaily

 

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