BOZEMAN, Montana — The Bobcats are little brother no more.
And no Troy Andersen, no problem for Montana State.
A rivalry that turned vicious and downright mean due to a generation of domination by the Montana Grizzlies has earned balance over the last 17 years. And on Saturday in Bozeman, Montana State officially put to rest the notion of any inferiority complex in regard to their fierce, age-old rivals from Missoula.
Despite Andersen, Montana State’s do-everything All-American junior, not playing, the Bobcats physically whipped the Grizzlies from the first play of the game until the final whistle on the way to a 48-14 victory in front of 19,827 at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“You just don’t draw it up like that,” Montana State fourth-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “In a rivalry game, you are going to get everybody’s best shot.
“Our ability to control the line of scrimmage was critical in this game and that was really the difference…I can’t say enough about our offensive line or our defensive line. Both of those sides showed through today.”
The victory is Montana State’s fourth straight victory in the rivalry, marking the first time since Sonny Holland, the man the South end-zone at Bobcat Stadium is named for, roamed the sidelines. A group of fifth-year seniors who came to play for Rob Ash but watched as redshirts as UM ripped Montana State 54-35 in Bozeman in 2015 instead stamped their places in immortality.
“That was legendary, man,” Konkol said. “Four in a row hasn’t happened in however many years and I’m glad to be a part of it. Especially under Choate. This was awesome.”
The Bobcats threw the first blow when senior safety Jahque Alleyne lit up Griz wide receiver Samori Toure, forcing a fumble that Derek Marks recovered. And the hosts threw every single punch thereafter, destroying a team that had physically dismantled No. 3 Weber State a week ago. And a Montana State senior class looking to go 4-0 against the Griz for the first time in 42 years left absolutely no doubt in one of the most dominant victories in the history of a rivalry that dates back to 1897.
Left tackle Mitch Brott (Billings) helped MSU rush for 382 yards, the most ever by the Bobcats in a Cat-Griz game. Running back Logan Jones (Kalispell) rushed for 121 and a touchdown. Inside linebacker Josh Hill (Kalispell) piled up a team-high nine tackles to lead an MSU defense that allowed 46 rushing yards and 1.9 yards per carry. Marks and fellow defensive lineman Marcus Ferriter (Butte) each had a sack as part of six-sack day by the Bobcats.
“It’s a very gratifying victory and it means a lot to our seniors,” Choate said. “They are the first class in 42 years to walk out of here never losing to Montana. And that’s a pretty special thing.”
And Konkol, Mr. Cat-Griz himself and a Bobcat senior captain who has performed his best in each rivalry game the last four years, again proved his mettle. The strong safety snared a fourth quarter interception as MSU turned early momentum into a decimation unseen in the history of the rivalry.
“I remember when we were redshirts and the game was here and Missoula beat us, home field and I remember talking to all the fifth-year seniors and we said, ‘We are never going to lose to those guys again,” Konkol said. “To see the work we put in and here we are four years later and it actually happened, it’s awesome.
“I told the guys last night, this don’t have to be close. We just have to play a good game. It ain’t going to be close. We’ve seen the tape. We are a good football team. The only time we lose is when we beat ourselves. If we play our best game, nobody can compete with us.
“Sunday last week, I knew we would get them. Actually, Saturday after the UC Davis game. I was waiting for this for a whole year, man.”
In a game billed as a showdown between two rivals ranked in the Top 10 in the nation each gunning for byes in the first round of the FCS playoffs, Montana State led 10-0 five minutes into the game and 17-0 just 11 minutes in after Jones scored from 18 yards out. The Bobcats led 24-0 after 20 minutes following Tyrone Marshall scoring a 29-yard touchdown on a wide receiver reverse, a sample of the out-scheming and out-execution the Bobcats exacted for the duration of the game.
MSU finishes the regular season with a 6-2 mark in Big Sky Conference play and a 9-3 record overall. MSU will certainly receive a Top 8 seed and a first-round bye in the 24-team playoff field set to be announced on Sunday.
Montana entered the game as the No. 3 team in the country and on a four-game winning streak. The Griz limp into the playoffs with a 6-2 mark that includes a 9-3 overall record. The records of the rivals are identical, sure, but the feelings surrounding each team entering their first simultaneous post-season appearances since 2014 are distinctly different.
“Good day for them, bad day for us, certainly,” Montana head coach Bobby Hauck said. “They beat us in all three phases. They played really well. They gave us some stuff we didn’t expect and capitalized on it. We did not play well in any of the three parts of the game. And it’s a bad day to do that.
“This game has import. And it’s important to us as well. I feel bad that we had a bad performance, and ultimately, that goes on me. I failed at getting our team ready to go today.
“You saw their reaction at the end of the game. This game is everything to them. Their sole focus is to beat us. Maybe that’s what we need to do ourselves. Maybe that’s where I’m failing. Good job by them.”
Montana State’s last four-game winning streak in the rivalry came when the Bobcats won six straight between 1971 and 1977. MSU closes the current decade with six wins in the last 10. Since MSU ended “The Streak”, a 16-game winning streak by Montana that brewed vitriol from corner to corner of all 147,051 square miles of the Treasure State, the ledger is 9-9.
“Settle it between the white lines and like I told our guys, you want to win this thing, you have to control the four corners of the field,” Choate said. “And after that, you can control the four quarters of this state.”
The margin of victory was MSU’s largest since a 41-18 win over UM in 1985, the victory that capped MSU’s last three-game winning streak until last season. The margin marked the second-largest Bobcat rivalry win since a 38-0 win over the Griz in 1966. Only 11 times in the last 119 matchups was there a larger margin of victory and only three times had the Cats won by 34 points or more against the Grizzlies. The 48 points are the most Montana State has ever scored against the Griz.
“I don’t know what’s better: beating them four times in a row or knowing there are seniors on the Griz that have never beat us,” Marks said. “That’s a great feeling. We are winners. We are state champions. Four years in a row.”
The narrative surrounding the game entering the latest rendition of the rivalry centered upon Montana’s improvements, particularly on the offensive and defensive fronts. In Choate’s first season at the helm at Montana State, the Bobcats shocked the state by rushing for 368 yards in a 24-17 win in Missoula. The following season, Montana State smashed Montana to the tune of 322 rushing yards on the way to a 31-23 victory in Bozeman, MSU’s first at home over the Griz since 2005. And last season, Montana State punched out the ball on the goal line with eight seconds left to cap an epic rally from a 22-0 deficit to post a 29-25 win.
Following that loss, a defeat that denied the Griz a playoff berth for the third straight year, Hauck dedicated his rebuilding efforts to first focus on the fronts. Montana entered Saturday’s rivalry showdown fresh off a physical decimation of former No. 3 Weber State in which the Grizzlies thrashed the Wildcats in every way.
Montana’s offensive and defensive lines have objectively improved. But Montana State’s defensive front added to a deserved reputation as among the nation’s best on Saturday. An offensive line unit that features Brott, an All-American candidate who started for the 47th straight time, along with All-Big Sky candidate guards Taylor Tuiasosopo and Lewis Kidd pulverized Montana’s previously swarming front for 60 straight minutes.
“That’s our standard,” Brott said. “It’s nothing new. It’s something we always strive for: to run the ball, dominate the defensive line and that’s what we did today.”
The Bobcats did not complete a pass in the second half. Yet MSU rushed for 175 yards on 34 attempts.
“Once we started running the ball, you could tell they weren’t expecting that and that gave us momentum,” Brott said. “
Montana State welcomed the return of sophomore Isaiah Ifanse to a full workload out of the backfield. MSU averaged 6.2 yards per rips on 62 carries thanks to a run game that featured a variety of elements and utterly owned the point of attack. That gaudy effort came against a Montana team that entered the game leading the Big Sky Conference in rushing yardage allowed.
“Isaiah was a catalyst today,” Choate said. “Some of the stuff we did with him in the plus-one run game reduced the sting of not having Troy. Isaiah is a special back. He showed his ability again today and was critical in our ability to continue to run the ball.”
Ifanse scored a 38-yard touchdown to answer Montana’s first touchdown drive to go up 31-7. Ifanse ran the ball 21 times for 171 yards and three touchdowns, including a pair of scores as the Bobcats pounded the Griz gleefully no matter the margin.
“Midway through the third quarter, I could feel them breaking,” Brott said. “That’s a great moment to feel. There’s nothing to really describe it. It’s the best feeling in the world to move somebody from Point A to Point B against their will.”
Every key senior for Montana State contributed largely, starting with captain Kevin Kassis scoring on a wide receiver reverse five plays after Marks’ first fumble recovery. Captain Travis Jonsen only carried the ball four times and gained no yards as Montana’s obvious keying on MSU’s Wildcat packages usually operated by Jonsen and Andersen. But Jonsen hauled in a team-high three passes for 26 yards.
Hill spearheaded a defense that allowed a Montana offense averaging 40 points per game to 241 yards of total offense and just 12 first downs. Senior defensive end Bryce Sterk had a hand in three sacks, including two after halftime.
“We wanted to hit that guy because he’s a good payer,” Marks said. “We wanted to hit him and effect him and get him off his game.”
Senior cornerback Damien Washington came out of his breaks more explosively than any time in his career, breaking up three passes and nearly grabbing an interception. Punter Jered Padmos was not needed like in the past three Cat-Griz games but still pinned the Griz inside the 20.
And Alleyne, a former Virginia Tech transfer needing a boost in his senior season, took nearly a 30-yard full sprint at Toure before bending him in two with a hit that sent the sellout crowd into bedlam, where they stayed for two hours and 53 minutes.
“That was a tone-setting hit, soul-taking stuff right there,” Konkol said of Alleyne’s hit. “That set the tone. That first kickoff where (Jory Choate) got the tackle at the 13-yard line. Then Que does that? Awesome.”
After one of the most emotionally charged, highly contested and most hyped games of the modern era of the rivalry, both the Bobcats and the Grizzlies must now start their second seasons.
The Griz are into the playoffs under Hauck for the first time in 10 years and the first time as a program since 2015. Montana will likely earn a first-round bye thanks to South Dakota’s 24-21 over No. 5 South Dakota State and Youngstown State’s 21-3 win over No. 7 Illinois State.
Sac State defeated UC Davis 27-17 to earn a share of the Big Sky title for the first time in school history. Weber State shares the title with the Hornets after a 38-10 win over Idaho State. The Griz lost to the Hornets, beat Weber State and lost to the Bobcats. Montana State lost to the Hornets, didn’t play the Wildcats and destroyed the Griz.
“I’m glad both teams are in the playoffs,” Hauck said “I will be interested to see what comes out tomorrow. But we have to simmer on this one for 24 hours and then get on to the next one.”
MSU’s first-round playoff victory over Incarnate Word in Bozeman last season was Montana State’s fourth postseason win since its 1984 national championship season. The Bobcats lost to top-seeded North Dakota State the following week.
This year’s Bobcat team looks locked and loaded for the playoffs. Montana State is now 11-3 in regular-season games in November under Choate. After a 16-12 loss at North Dakota that knocked the Bobcats from the Top 10, MSU has averaged 40.5 points and 323.25 rushing yards per game. The Bobcats have rolled up 16 sacks, 31 tackles for loss and forced eight turnovers this month.
“That loss at UND was a reality check and it made us reflect on ourselves,” Marks said. “But the leadership of this group, having a senior team really helps in that situation. We wanted to finish out strong and we love the pressure in November. We want to play under the pressure in November.”
The FCS Playoff committee announces its bracket on Sunday morning.
“I think it’s always good to go into the tournament hot,” Choate said. “A victory like this can provide momentum and hopefully, it can be a catalyst for us to continue our run. I think this is a really good football team. And I think if we played like we did today, we could make a run in the playoffs.
“We are a nine-win big Sky team that just beat the No. 3 team in the country soundly. I think that we have made our case.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.