For the 17 Bobcat seniors, this is it.
Montana State enters the 115th matchup against archrival Montana with a 5-5 record. A victory will sew up a 14th straight winning season for the Bobcats, extending the longest streak in the Big Sky Conference. But even with a win, Montana State’s season will end.
In a certain way, it raises the level for a collection of 17 seniors that walked various paths to reach the final games of their college careers.
“A win would definitely put the cherry on top for us seniors,” Montana State senior captain wide receiver Mitch Griebel said. “It would get us back to a winning season, above .500. That is one of our goals given the year we’ve had. But for the seniors to out with a win and bring that trophy back would mean a lot for our program.”
To accentuate the importance of the rivalry showdown, Montana State head coach Rob Ash had former Bobcat captain and future MSU Hall of Fame wide receiver Tanner Bleskin come address the team on Sunday afternoon.
“He told us how we need to be mentally ready for that moment to play that day,” Griebel said. “He told us we need to prepare right and as a team, we need to win together. As a team, it’s not guys being solo, doing your own thing. It’s we are going to beat the Griz this year.”
“The stuff he said really hit home for a lot of us. Disregard our record this year. Put our focus on this game and our preparation and win together.”
For 17 Montana seniors, this could be it. But a victory could also extend No. 17 Montana’s season. UM enters the game at 6-4. A win would likely punch a playoff ticket and, with help, could earn a share of the Big Sky Conference title. A loss and the Griz will end the season with the same record as the Bobcats, each at home for Thanksgiving in the same season for the first time since 1992.
“If we were 0-10 right now, we would have the same fire about this game,” Montana senior cornerback Nate Harris said. “They have a little bit less to play for than we do. They are playing just to get their trophy back. We are playing for a lot more than that.”
For the coaches on each side of the rivalry, the showdown is filled with a variety of dynamics. Rob Ash and his staff are trying to regain the momentum that helped the Bobcats claim three straight Big Sky titles for the first time in program history between 2010 and 2012.
“It’s not about them this week, it’s about us,” Ash said. “That’s what we have really tried to focus on. We are trying to get our guys away from the distractions, all the external things that go on, all the advice, the suggestions they get during the week and put together a great game plan focused on just executing what we need to do.”
“We will talk about implications after history is made on Saturday.”
Bob Stitt will coach in his first Cat-Griz game on Saturday afternoon. On Tuesday, he said he had no idea what to expect from his first afternoon involved in one of the fiercest rivalries in college football. Stitt spent the last 15 seasons at Colorado School of Mines. He brought a handful of his coaches from Mines to Missoula but the rest of his staff has deep Grizzly roots.
Offensive line coach Chad Germer was an All-America center for the 1991 Griz and served as an assistant coach from 1998-2002 and in 2009. Inside receivers coach Mike Ferriter won four straight Big Sky championships as a stud wide receiver for the Grizzlies. Assistant quarterbacks coach Andrew Selle quarterbacked Montana to the 2009 FCS national title game. Running backs coach Justin Green was an All-America running back/fullback who was picked in the 2006 NFL Draft out of Montana. Defensive line coach Legi Suiaunoa has held the same position since 2010. Defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak has been at Montana since 2003.
“I know they are not playing for playoff contention but they are playing to beat the Griz and if we were 9-1 right now or 10-0, we would go into this game with the exact same mindset. It’s a great rivalry. I love this rivalry,” Gregorak said. “This is my 12th time playing the Bobcats. I can’t wait.”
On the field, the matchup pits a Bobcat offense averaging 43 points per game, tops in the Big Sky, against a Montana defense that seems to be peaking at the right time. Montana State has scored at least 35 points in all but one game this season and has scored more than 40 on seven different occasions.
Montana is third in the league in scoring defense and its 36 sacks are among the best totals in the nation. But the Griz have been vulnerable against running quarterbacks and Montana State has one of the best in the FCS. Dakota Prukop is fourth nationally with 346 total yards per game, including 75 yards per game on the ground.
“Mobile quarterback is the way to attack them,” MSU offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey said. “Montana wants to load the box, wants you to run down hill at them and I think a mobile quarterback that we have creates some problems for them if you spread the field and spread them out.”
Cramsey’s unit has averaged 36.4 points per game since he took over directing MSU’s offense before the 2013 season. Cramsey is averaging 39.3 points per game in 32 games against any team other than Montana. The Bobcats have scored 21 total points against Gregorak’s defenses since Cramsey entered the rivalry.
“It’s always fun going against Ty,” Cramsey said. “No disrespect to anybody, but you don’t get a lot of that in this conference, but you get guys who play their defense, they do what they do. I think Ty does a good job of finding your tendencies and he schemes something up for certain formations to attack that.”
Last week, Montana forced seven turnovers and notched six sacks in a 57-16 win over Eastern Washington. The Griz offense manufactured points but the lofty point total was more a product of the takeaways as UM scored twice on defense.
“I think the Montana defense is one of the best defenses in the conference and we like to think our offense is one of the best offenses in the conference,” Ash said. “It will be their strength versus our strength. But the other part of the equation that is critically important is we have to do a great job on defense to get the ball back to our offense.”
Montana’s offense, which welcomed junior quarterback Brady Gustafson back after eight weeks out with an injury, has been up and down this season. Stitt has had to “start over completely” two different times because of injuries to the quarterback. Now the Griz have their guy back under center and are facing a Montana State defense that has given up yards and points in bunches this season.
MSU has scored more than 40 points on three different occasions and lost. MSU put 50 on Eastern Washington and lost by five. Montana Sate scored 41 in Flagstaff and lost by eight to Northern Arizona. The Bobcats scored 42 at Portland State and lost by 17. MSU scored 38 at North Dakota and lost by six. Montana State is giving up 501 yards per game against teams from the Big Sky.
Stitt isn’t buying into the stats.
“They fly around and their front is pretty good,” Stitt said. “Scheme-wise, they can throw a few things at you. In a rivalry game, it doesn’t matter who is in there if they are a starter, a backup, a third string guy, they are going to be going and you are going to have to earn it. Defensively, they have shown they can play.”
As the old cliché goes, records and home field advantage can be thrown out the window. Montana’s win last season in Missoula marked the first by the home team this decade. Since Montana State snapped “the Streak” at 16 straight Griz wins in 2002, UM holds a 7-5 advantage. On Saturday, both teams have a season’s worth of work riding on the line.
“This is it, man,” MSU captain running back Chad Newell, a Billings native, said. “This is Montana-Montana State. You watch this game since you are old enough to understand what is going on and you are always on one side or the other. It splits the state in half and it’s great. Hopefully we can come out with the win this weekend.
“This is such a meaningful game not only to us but to everyone in the state of Montana and any time you are playing for something greater than yourself, it’s awesome. It’s what we live here for in Montana.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.