Cat-Griz Football

COMMENTARY: For first time since Hauck’s return, Griz enforce will upon ‘Cats

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MISSOULA, Montana — The Grizzlies were never going to return to dominance until they got back to beating the Bobcats.

Consider the rivalry box officially checked. And in resounding, dare one say, dominant fashion at that.

As senior quarterback Cam Humphrey took his second victorious knee, Billy Idol’s “Mony Mony” echoed throughout the Hellgate Canyon as the ravenous Montana faithful so thirsty for a Bobcat beat down gleefully mocked a visiting enemy that entered the contest in the midst of its most confidence-inducing rivalry success since Sonny Holland roamed the sidelines in Bozeman.

But these Bobcats, while still the most talented team in the Big Sky Conference, could not handle a Griz team that seized momentum on the second play of the game and never stopped swarming on an unforgettable afternoon in which many from east of the Continental Divide were longing for the years of Bob Stitt versus Jeff Choate.

“I thought the tenor and the temperament of our football team was perfect and we went out and played a really nice football game,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “I’m very proud of them. Week 11, we have had to fight through a lot of things and to be 9-2, deserving of the Top 4 seeds in the playoffs, it’s awesome considering what we have been through.

“This was a good win over a good football team. They are very well coached, sound in what we did and it’s a very good win for our football team to get this back on track.”

The raucous 120th edition of the fiercest rivalry in the West got kicked off with former Griz quarterback and 25-year NFL veteran coach Marty Mornhinweg raising the flag in homage of Montana’s hallowed No. 37.

Montana football players carry the Great Divide Trophy/by Brooks Nuanez

With Tim Hauck — the first man to receive the jersey when Kraig Paulson ignited the tradition of passing the garment down in 1986 — standing alongside Mornhinweg, the energy in the packed stadium began to build before a delayed kickoff ever ensued.

As captain Jace Lewis, the pride of Broadwater County High in Townsend, sauntered out of the home tunnel and into the belly of the beast to celebrate Senior Day, the hunger of the Griz was almost palpable in the air.

The Montana student section showed out like George Dennison was still president of UM, reaching a fever pitch on the second play of the game when former Bobcat commit Junior Bergen took the second play of the game 74 yards to the house, helping the South end-zone he screamed toward erupt similarly as the UM co-eds.

Seizing the moment early is always part of a rivalry game. But carrying the momentum is the key to victory. In 2016, Brady Gustafson hit Justin Calhoun for a 58-yard touchdown less than three minutes into the game but Montana State rallied to beat Montana despite completing just two passes.

And thus commenced Montana State’s most extended moment in of a rivalry in more than 40 years of a rivalry that dates back 1897.

The tide has always and will always turn in a seesaw with so much passion behind it, plus a financially boosted facilities arms race to boot.

But when following the game, Griz senior offensive linemen Moses Mallory, Dylan Cook and Conlan Beaver shuffled off the field while waving at a substantial number of Bobcat fans who added to the record crowd, the rivalry felt like it was starting to shift back to the side that dominated for many years.

Or at least, the host Griz again have ground to stand on for the first time since the last the last time UM pulled an upset like Saturday’s. Back in 2011, the No. 7 –ranked Griz went to Bozeman and lambasted the No. 1 Bobcats, 36-10. Saturday’s result was also reminiscent of No. 8 Montana State’s 48-14 win over No. 3 Montana in Bozeman in 2019, but on the opposite of the result.

Montana defensive end Joe Babros (56) hurries Montana State quarterback Matt McKay (1)/by Brooks Nuanez

The Griz victory moved Montana to 73-41-5 in the rivalry, yet Montana State has been building upward momentum, both incrementally and lately, since MSU snapped a 16-game losing streak to UM with a win at Washington-Griz in 2002.

That victory, led by true freshman quarterback Travis Lulay, helped Montana State win three rivalry games in four years and reroute the narrative of the 21st century. And the docket entered Saturday’s clash at 9-9 since “The Streak” snapped.

Hauck lost two of his first three games against the Bobcats. But he posted four straight victories between 2006 and 2009, including fully running roughshod over Montana State in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Those three victories last decade were spurred on by a punishing run game and a swarming defense. Montana State won for a second time this century in Missoula in 2010, sparking a decade in which MSU won six and Montana won four, plus the Bobcats posted four more wins in the Garden City.

Perhaps the thing that irked most of Griz nation more than anyting about the most recent four Bobcat wins came in the fact that Choate’s teams not only came out with the upper hand. They did it without being able to throw the football, instead dominating the line of scrimmage and all the adjectives regarding physical violence that go with it.

That relentless rushing attack and an assertion of superior toughness helped the first Bobcat head coach since Holland to earn the adoration of “Griz Slayer” from his fan base.

Many would argue that the priority on the rivalry and the way Montana State assumed control of it sparked the firing of Stitt, the re-hiring of the man most refer to simply as “Bobby” and the solidification of a Bobcat deity in Choate, a man that had a 29-25 career record during his four seasons at MSU, including leading Montana State to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.

“I feel terrible for our guys because you can hear it in their voices,” VIgen said. “This isn’t a matter of us not understanding the gravity of this game or not wanting it. Sometimes, football just takes its twists and turns. We didn’t make enough plays, they did and here we are.”

For a moment at least on Saturday, the Griz reassumed the upper hand in the fiercest rivalry in the West, using an almost perfectly on-brand style that affirmed many of the dynamics displayed in a pre-game montage produced by ESPN senior writer and UM alum Kevin Van Valkenburg that blew up across the Twitterverse on leading up to the opening kick.

Montana plays a momentum-based style in which a lead means an opportunity to suffocate. Hauck and defensive coordinator Kent Baer favor an extreme, high-pressure style that thrives off of strangling opponents with hard hitting, relentless blitzing and exceptional tackling.

Montana defenders Robby Hauck (17) and Justin Ford (21) tackles Montana State wide receiver Lance McCutcheon (86)/by Brooks Nuanez

Bergen’s score helped UM crank up the intensity they desire and require. Kevin Macias, a graduate transfer from Arizona State who has been nails all season, drilled five field goals, including a season-long 50-yarder that barely snuck over the crossbar, helping Montana keep a strong grip.

And if you give a defense led by Lewis, O’Connell, fellow native son linebacker Marcus Welnel and energizer Robby Hauck in front of a sold out stadium, the Griz can party on the pile like its 2009.

“I always call those guys are the fire,” Griz junior cornerback Justin Ford said. “They get us started. They play with so much energy and that makes our defense as a whole play with a whole lot of energy.

“And Coach Hauck, we love playing for him.”

When Lewis forced a fumble on an attempted fake field goal that Ford returned 56 yards for a touchdown in the second half, there was no doubt the Griz had reemerged as true playoff contenders.

“I told the guys I had a certain feeling about today,” Ford, a transfer from Louisville, said. “We expect to win every game we play and like Coach said, this is one of the biggest wins so it feels good.”

Which is exactly what the hosts did Saturday, rolling up four sacks, nine tackles for loss and allowing 13 first downs on the way to the 10th victory in the last 19 matchups against the rival to ride off into the late November sunset with a paramount victory.

“It all starts with tackling,” Hauck said after his team gave up just 204 yards of offense to MSU. “We are good tacklers and we got them on the ground really well. We beat some blocks and we swarmed to the ball. Our defense plays really hard and they couldn’t handle that.”

Entering the game, the only Big Sky defensive unit performing at a comparable level to a Griz team that set the tone for its season with a 13-7 win at No. 20 Washington resided in Bozeman.

“We count on our defense,” Hauck said. “We are in the end of November and we know our team and how to play around our strengths. Our defense is really good and that helps us manage the game a little bit, choose some things, and we knew we weren’t going to give up much, just like we haven’t all year.”

Montana running back Junior Bergan (5) returns a punt vs. Montana State/by Brooks Nuanez

That MSU defense, led by all-everything Bobcat senior Troy Andersen, swung its hardest in a slugfest between two of the most fearsome FCS playoff teams, rolling up five sacks and eight tackles for loss, holding UM to 16 yards rushing.

“I feel terrible, right now, obviously, but Cat-Griz, it’s a huge game for the state of Montana and being from Montana, being able to play in the rivalry, it’s been awesome and it’s been a pleasure to play in this,” Andersen said. “We have a lot of football left in front of us. Our goals are still in front of us so back to work.”

But Humphrey, who missed about one-third of his senior season with injury, stood in the pocket with courage, took hits and delivered the football. He threw for 220 yards and helped Montana earn a victory it’s been desperately desiring since Hauck first anointed his return with the hash tag “RTD”.

“I love this football team,” Hauck said. “I don’t want this season to come to an end, Eventually, it will come to the end but we want to extend it for as long as possible. I’m very happy for our seniors and I’m happy for our team.”

For the first time since Hauck split for a gig at UNLV following a second consecutive FCS national championship game loss, Montana looked like the Griz again when lining up the opposition from East of the Continental Divide.

“Seeing this not go our way these last couple of years and then seeing it swing our way the way that it did, it was awesome,” Humphrey said.

Photo attribution noted. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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