The arc of a football season is wrought with stories. Drama, comedy, suspense, action; it’s all there if you care to see it.
Within the context of any good story there are moments of significance that alter the path for better and worse. What makes a story compelling are the obstacles overcome by the protagonist in pursuit of a goal. The bigger the goal, and even more, the bigger the obstacles, the more compelling the story becomes.
The beauty of the Cat-Griz football story is that it dates back to 1897. The state of Montana was eight years old when they played the first one. Eight! The story of Cat-Griz is in many ways the story of Montana. A place, and a game, that has to some extent evolved with the outside world, but that still recognizes everywhere else as “the outside world”.
Still more, for all the modern (in)conveniences, go a mere 15 miles in literally any direction from any town in the state and you will be in a universe appreciably unchanged in the last 125 years. We are reminded of the deep, immutable history of our state, thirty minutes an hour, every day; often more. The snow, the rock, the woods, the mountains, the rivers, lakes, hay bales, horses, corals and cattle; all of it hearkening to a time bygone that still is.
A perpetual story. A perpetual struggle. Each other, the obstacle to overcome. Glory the goal.
As a matter fact, Cat-Griz is a single game, just one chapter in the arc of a season. As a matter of truth, it’s a game for the rest of time. The rivalry is magic in that it offers this counter intuition: The part is bigger than the whole. The game is bigger than the year.
Ask yourself this question honestly: Would you rather your team win Cat-Griz or a national championship? I’m not suggesting the answer is obvious or unanimous, but that’s just the point; the fact that it’s hard to assess proves the point. Moreover, there are undoubtedly plenty of fans for whom the answer is immediate and certain. Win the Brawl. In a state where the human numbers are few, the perception of a national profile is far less impactful than ones standing with a neighbor.
So what of No. 119?
For Montana State, this is a culminating season. The fourth season of the Jeff Choate era is the prophesied year of fruition. For a team that has made incremental, but consistent progress year by year, 2019 is supposed to be a year of reaping. A win Saturday and MSU will have a first round bye in the playoffs, yet another progression, a seeded home game in the Round of 16 of the FCS Playoffs and thereby, an inside track into the national quarterfinal and beyond. All of which would be a high water mark for Jeff Choate as the MSU head man. It would stamp his vision of what this program is and can continue to be.
More than all that, it would also make him 4-0 against the Griz, which would probably give him personally the inside track to becoming governor if he’s looking for a professional change. A win Saturday and Jeff Choate may never buy a beer again in Bozeman, Montana. In a profession where job security is nearly impossible to come by, undefeated in the rivalry is as close as a coach can get.
On the field, MSU has a defense that is made to win now, with strength and skill at every level. Since their bye four weeks ago, the Bobcat defense has held their opposition to 17 points or less. On the year Montana State has held its opponents to 22.2 points per game, tied for second in the Big Sky; one spot ahead of Montana, which allows just 23.5.
Offensively, the quarterback critique is long and valid. But consider this: Montana State has thrown the ball north of 26 times per game AND rushed for the most yards of any team in the Big Sky, averaging 259 yards per contest. That includes Cal Poly who runs the damn triple option (and throws the ball less than half the amount of MSU) and has led the Big Sky conference running the ball every season save one since joining the league in 2012. To further make the point. Montana State has run the ball for nearly 500 more total yards than Cal Poly, while having exactly 100 LESS rushing attempts.
And all that almost entirely without their two best running backs. The return of Isiah Ifanse last week (who averaged a no-big-deal 7.7 yards per carry) once again showed how dangerous a dynamic runner behind a dominant offensive line can be.
And then, there’s the Centaur. Without close rival the biggest disappointment of this season for me personally, as member of the media and as a football lover, is that Troy Andersen has been less (far less) than 100 percent healthy this entire season; even to the point (unthinkably) of missing a game.
The fact that he is in clear and obvious pain every time he takes (and leaves) the field is a testament to his toughness. It’s also a stunning study in what may have been. How best to use the most versatile player in the history of modern FCS football is a debate that has, and will, rage for a very long time.
The simple fact is that Andersen’s running style, size and speed forces defenders to drag him down slowly with feet, ankles and knees getting pinned and turned on the way down seemingly every time. Coupled with ongoing shoulder issues and who knows what else, Andersen simply couldn’t carry the ball even five times a game this season, to say nothing of the 50 times any coach would prefer to if given the option.
In an homage to his skill, and perhaps his preservation, he’s been used more on the defensive side of the ball and as a result has, in four of the last five games, registered at least one sack/tackle for loss AND one scored touchdown. He is fourth in the league in sacks with 6.5 and fifth in the conference with 11.5 tackles for loss. Pretty good for being 50 percent. Saturday though, there is no pitch count. There is only availability and efficacy. Play and Win. The rest macht nichts. As Troy goes, so go the Cats.
The Grizzlies have been simply dominant in 2019. So much so that even their imperious coach admitted they are a year ahead of where he thought they’d be. Give Hauck (and his staff) credit; they have a defense that’s really good, but plays even better. If there is such a thing as the literal imposition of will in FCS football, the Montana defense instantiated it against the 3rd ranked team in the nation last weekend. Playing with a deep ferocity, UM outplayed, overpowered, and simply beat down Weber State, who had been undefeated in the FCS through 10 games. If a football team is suppose to peak as the season moves to November and December, the Montana defensive crescendo is undeniable. Saturday they will undoubtedly play with a fervor yet unseen. That is a scary thought.
Montana State rushes for exactly 100 yards per game more than Montana. But in the stat that matters, they are ranked first and second in the Big Sky with MSU scoring 33 times on the ground to UM’s 28. And Marcus Knight, well he’s found pay dirt 19 times this season, three more times than anyone else. In fact, he’s scored more points than any other player in the Big Sky, kickers and all.
Forget the “empty calories” of yards gained, Bobby Hauck cares about one thing only: winning. Points earned, points prevented. That is all. UM has outscored opponents by 14.5 points per game, including two lopsided LOSSES. Moreover, they haven’t been in a single close game this season. The Griz are 9-2 on the year, and the closest any contest has been was the first game of the season at South Dakota, a 31-17 UM win.
On the field, the heartbeat of the offense is senior quarterback Dalton Sneed. The numbers are outstanding: 280 passing yards a game, a 19-8 touchdown to interception ratio; completing better than two of every three attempts. But again, numbers are mere facts.
The truth about Sneed is that his competitiveness, toughness and leadership truly elevate the play of his teammates. In a rivalry game against Idaho – down 10, and minus 3 in the turnover category, a hobbled but determined Sneed took the field after missing the previous two game and led Montana on 42-7 stretch that swung the scoreboard to up 25 and plus 1 in the turnover category in seemingly the blink of an eye. Sneed inspired Montana to a Vandal embarrassment in the Battle for the Little Brown Stein. Dalton Sneed, like his Cat counterpart Troy Andersen, doesn’t need to be 100 percent to be great. He doesn’t need to be 100 percent to lead.
For the Griz there are only two options. Continue an utterly dominating season by exorcising (some of) the demons of a year ago and release what is officially a monkey (growing into a gorilla day by day) of having not beat Montana State since 2015. Roll into the playoffs with a bye and the true belief that Frisco could (remarkably) be on the schedule this season.
Enter the playoffs with a the first senior class in 42 years to not know the feeling of beating the Cats. Enter the playoffs in the most despondent and mentally fragile state of the Hauck era. Enter the playoffs looking in the rear view wondering what went wrong and walk right into a trap game and season ender waiting to happen.
So we’ve come round again. The greatest sports day of the year, every year. The beauty of immersing into something the outside world will never know. The excitement of rooting for your friends, against your neighbors. And the alternate trajectories that will be taken for the next 364 days until we do it all again.
National Championship be damned. What’s on the line Saturday? Same as always – everything.
Montana – Montana State – #119 – 11/23/18 – High Noon – Bobcat Stadium – Bozeman, MT.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.