The feeling was unmistakable, standing on the edge of something so great and terrifying. Equal parts apprehension and exhilaration, we shared a moment of perfect silence and still. Then, the walls began to move. – Unknown
And so it begins. Year 150 of college football in America is the 122nd year of college football in Montana. Since 1897 the Bobcats and Grizzlies have been on the gridiron playing a game that runs deeper in this state than the mines of Butte. And finally, it’s time to play again.
Six homes games; That’s what you get in a college regular season. In Montana, that’s two nice summer days, three perfect fall afternoons, and, if it goes the way it should, regardless of what the calendar says, the first day of winter will be a Saturday in mid-November which the thermometer says zero, but Montanans know, is the hottest day of the year.
But stories, aren’t stories if you only read the ending. Getting to The Brawl (and beyond) is great drama because of the journey taken to get there. The first steps made by players and coaches on dark, frozen fields in March can make the first game of the season feel like a culmination as much as a commencement. For the fans though, Saturday is Christmas and the start of another yearning ascent to glory.
Montana State enters this season with something they have never had under Jeff Choate – major expectations. After an 8-5 season that featured a third consecutive win over the Griz and a win in the first post season of the Choate era, MSU finds itself a preseason top 15 team. MSU enters the year relatively healthy (senior cornerback Munchie Filer being the most notable exception) and loaded with talent including 10 seniors and 15 upperclassmen on its starting roster.
An experienced offensive line, anchored by senior All-Big Sky offensive tackle and captain Mitch Brott and a defense with all-conference players at every level, including pass rush specialist/life wrecker Bryce Sterk. Then there’s some small-town Montana kid named Troy (If you don’t know already, then stop reading now). This is the team that Jeff Choate has been building toward since he took over in 2016. Now the time has come to deliver.
Beyond the talent, the planets seem to be aligning for the ‘Cats, too. The unbalanced Big Sky schedule shifted (presumably) in favor of Montana State, who won’t play another team projected as a top five squad in the conference until the second-to-last week of the season. MSU will be favored and favored heavily in its first six (SIX!) BSC games of the season. There are only eight of them. That’s a significant reality.
And yet, this is still college football. Nothing is a sure thing. For the 4th time in four years Jeff Choate will be starting a different quarterback in the opening game. This time, redshirt freshman Casey Bauman. And for all the great photos that a 6-foot-7, 235-pound stallion can pose for in print, and for all the RPMs he puts on the pigskin ripping deep go routes on the practice field, there is this to consider: He’s never played a meaningful snap of DI football in his life.
Moreover, the appointment of Bauman as the starter felt more like a loss by sophomore Tucker Rovig than a win by the youngster. And all the proclamations and depths charts in the world can’t change this reality: Montana State is still unsettled at quarterback.
Make no mistake, Bauman has the talent and the best situation you can imagine. MSU’s outstanding defense and a run game spearheaded by Andersen and Isaiah Ifanse make quarterback productivity a need of enabling not excellence. The old adage, “he doesn’t have to win games, just not lose them” certainly applies here.
Still, it’s an open question of whether Bauman is capable of clearing that bar. If he can, this is a nine (even 10) win team with a seed in the playoffs. If he can’t…heaven only knows how many quarterbacks Choate will file under center. The over-under is six, which is also the number of wins the Cats could end up with.
For Montana, Year 2 under Bobby Hauck feels like hardening cement. Every member of the coaching staff is still in place. The significant player turnover that accompanies any coaching change is in the rear view and nearly every position returns significant experience from a season ago.
The thing about the Griz is that even in a year that was an ostensible rebuild, when Montana played its best, it was good enough to be a conference championship contender.
Most teams in a coaching change following a firing simply don’t have the talent to compete; but at UM, talent is never the issue. That is what made the second half of last season so maddening for Griz fans.
A 4th quarter lead in 10 of the 11 games, yet just a 6-5 record. A three-game losing streak precipitated by an unimaginable home loss to lowly Portland State. And a microcosm of the entire season in a single ghastly 3rd and 1 that punctuated every defect of the whole season, a moment that exists perhaps the lowest singular point in Grizzly football history. Costly turnovers, sloppy mistakes, inability to finish. That was the story of the 2018 Griz, glaringly and symbolically stamped by a fumble on the goal ine of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Montana fans will argue that Montana’s failings were just that…Montana’s failings. It wasn’t about (for the most part) the skill or quality of the opponent or some talent gap that meant the Griz were simply not as good as their opponents . They were as good. In some cases better.
The wounds were self-inflicted wounds, mental mistakes and turnovers that cost Montana games last season. Strangely, that should be somewhat reassuring for Griz nation. If you imagine the losses that Montana endured were at their own hand, then the elimination (or at least reduction) of those same errors could change the complexion of the season bygone immensely. And it could actually provide a source of great optimism heading into 2019.
Offensively, senior quarterback Dalton Sneed answered all the Gresh Jensen doubters emphatically last year. He comes in an unquestioned leader and one of the most electric dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big Sky and the FCS. Montana has undoubtedly the best receiving corps in the Big Sky. And the much-scrutinized offensive line should certainly take a step forward.
Defensively, senior inside linebacker Dante Olsen was as dominant as it’s possible to be last season. The captain is looking for the exclamation point this season. No. 37 Jesse Simms has the strength of 10 men, Montana will ask him to occupy merely two. A new Kent Baer defensive scheme is now ingrained, second nature to a defense that returns seven starters and adds significant transfer depth in the secondary.
More than all of this though, is the expectation that Montana will play with a chip, and thus a physicality, that is unprecedented in recent history. Even while the energy level on the field last season was unmistakably greater than the previous three, sometimes great pain is required to engender great growth. Perhaps a fumble on the goal line can be the catalyst into a special season for the Griz.
Saturday all the hopes, expectations, qualms, questions and aspirations begin slowly to come into focus. And for both schools, the metaphorical journey begins with a literal one, on the road.
Lubbock and Vermilion, two places as foreign to Montana as the Sahara and Amazon, with this common thread – they play football there too.
For Montana State, the colossal challenge of Texas Tech presents this one silver lining: it will be the only game of the year that MSU can play with no pressure at all. Choate has painstakingly outlined the disparity of the programs, and he must hope that the nerves accompanying any player in a first game, are counterbalanced by the fact that no one expects them to win. Playing free can turn a team into a dangerous thing.
For Montana, they have the biggest opener of anyone in the Big Sky. On the road against a good South Dakota team will provide a stiff challenge. This is a tone-setter and foundation layer, for better or worse, for the entire season. The rest of the non-conference sets up obviously enough (2-1 in weeks 2-4 if you are wondering) but, on paper, UM has the most difficult conference schedule of anyone in the Big Sky.
The opener could go a long, long way to breaking or continuing the streak of missed playoffs for the Griz. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this one.
So here we go again, for the 122nd time. How it will go, no one knows – that’s the beauty of it – but I know this for sure: I. Cannot. Wait.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.