The 118th rendition of one of college football’s fiercest rivalries could be a defacto playoff game depending on how the rest of the FCS performs in the final week of the regular season.
After each experiencing rough October slates, Montana and Montana State have each won twice in November to enter Saturday’s rivalry showdown in Missoula with identical records. Montana is 4-3 in Big Sky Conference play and 6-4 overall after winning consecutive road games against Southern Utah and Idaho. Montana State is also 4-3 in league, 6-4 overall after a pair of home victories over Cal Poly and Northern Colorado.
The winner of Saturday’s game could snap a playoff drought if the chips fall in an advantageous fashion around the conference and the Football Championship Subdivision.
Montana has not made the playoffs since 2015. The Griz will gun for their 22nd playoff bid since 1993 while trying to beat the Bobcats for the 73rd time.
“I’m not fit to be around the week of this game,” said Montana head coach Bobby Hauck, who went 5-2 against the Bobcats during his first stint at his alma mater between 2003 and 2009. “I have a love-hate relationship with this game. I love winning it and I detest losing it.”
MSU is gunning for its first three-game winning streak over Montana since 1983, 1984 and 1985. In 1986, Montana won for the first of 16 times. Since Montana State broke “The Streak” with a 10-7 win in Missoula in 2002, Montana has claimed the Great Divide Trophy nine times and the Bobcats have claimed it seven.
“Our guys know exactly what this game is all about and how important this game is to the people in Montana and the people at this university,” said MSU head coach Jeff Choate, who is 2-0 against the Griz..
As is the case every year, this year’s contest features a collection of players from around the Treasure State. Montana State’s roster features 45 in-state players, down from 46 in last season’s game. Montana’s roster has 42 Treasure State products if you include Hauck’s son, Robby, who lists his hometown as Missoula on UM’s roster despite attending high school in San Diego. The Griz had 29 Montana natives in last year’s game.
Montana State has seen 16 in-state products start at one time or another while UM’s starting lineup has featured 12 in-state starters.
Missoula is Montana’s most represented city with 15 players suiting up, including 10 who stayed home to play for the Griz. Kalispell is next with 13 players, including eight for the Griz. All 13 players went to Glacier High. Billings is the third city with double-digit representations with seven Bobcats and four Grizzlies hailing from the Magic City.
Helena has eight natives playing in this year’s Cat-Griz game, including five Capital High alums who play for Montana. Two from Helena High are among the three playing at MSU. Bozeman High has seven players in the game, all seven playing for the hometown Bobcats. Butte has three players in the game, including two players in their first seasons at Montana. Just two players from Great Falls, both Charles M. Russell High alums, will suit up, both for the Griz.
Of players from Montana’s small towns, Dillon leads the way with three players, all Bobcats, competing in Missoula on Saturday. Colstrip, Whitefish, Boulder, Belgrade, Huntley Project and Polson all have two but only Whitefish and Boulder have a player competing on each side.
Augusta, Bigfork, Conrad, Culbertson, Ennis, Eureka, Glendive, Sidney, Stevensville, Sunburst, Townsend and Valier all have representation.
Here’s a look the 42 Montana products on the Montana roster headed into the 118th rendition of the fierce rivalry in Missoula on Saturday afternoon.
Jesse Sims, defensive tackle, junior, Stevensville — Saturday will mark Sims’ third straight Cat-Griz start but his first wearing Montana’s hallowed No. 37 jersey. Sims and all other Griz players are off limits to the media this season following Monday’s press conference featuring just Hauck, senior linebacker Josh Buss and junior quarterback Dalton Sneed. Before last season’s game, Sims, who grew up 20 minutes from Missoula in Stevensville but played his senior year of high school in Corvallis, talked about what the game meant to him.
“This is a really exciting week,” Sims said leading up to last season’s game. “Practices ante up a little bit. There’s always big stakes in the game so it’s really exciting.
“In Montana, everybody is a Cat or a Griz fan. As a kid in school, you don’t like somebody because they are a Cat or a Griz fan or vice versa. I always remember that growing up.”
This season, Sims’ power in the middle of Montana’s defensive line has been crucial in UM junior Dante Olson breaking Kendrick Van Ackeren’s single-season tackles record of 130. Sims and his fellow defensive linemen David Shaw and Reggie Tilleman eat up blocks, allowing Olson to run sideline to sideline and amass 133 tackles so far this season.
Sims himself has had to overcome several injuries, including a dislocated thumb suffered against UC Davis and an undisclosed injury suffered agaisnt Idaho. This season, Sims has 39 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.
Robby Hauck, safety, redshirt freshman, Missoula —Hauck was 12 years old when Bobby Hauck took the UNLV head coaching job in 2009. Robby Hauck played all his high school football in San Diego with his father serving as an assistant at San Diego State under Rocky Long. Robby spent last season as a redshirt freshman at Northern Arizona. When his dad was hired at Montana, he transferred almost immediately.
After receiving and NCAA waiver, Hauck became eligible right away. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound safety has shown an impressive nose for the football this season. The way the Grizzlies fit the run in Kent Baer’s system provides an abundance of opportunities for Hauck to run the alley and make tackles in the box as well as on the perimeter. His fearlessness has shown through. He is second on the team and third in the Big Sky with 85 total tackles. He has 2.5 tackles for loss and 38 solo tackles to go with four pass breakups in his first year as a starter.
Josh Sandry, Rover, junior, Bigfork — Like Sims, Sandry was off limits to the media this week. But before last season’s game — a 31-23 win by MSU in Bozeman — Sandry shared similar sentiments as Sims and many others who came before him.
“It’s definitely a big game being from Montana,” he said. “It definitely holds a special place in my heart just the kind of hatred I have toward them. I know a lot of their players. It’s going to be a fun game going out there and competing.”
Sandry has adjusted to his new position as a Sam linebacker/Rover safety, the player who often matches up against opponents’ inside receivers or holds the edge against the run. The 6-foot-1, 206-pounder has 54 tackles, half a tackle for loss, two interceptions and five pass breakups this season.
Colin Bingham, tight end, junior, Missoula — The Missoula Big Sky product was expected to see a big jump statistically this season with the return of tight ends to the Griz offense. A season after catching no passes, he has 12 catches for 93 yards, including a touchdown in UM’s season-opening 26-23 win over No. 13 Northern Iowa. But he’s struggled with an ankle injury, an ailment that has limited his availability.
Over the last month, Bingham has played in the three tight end sets UM offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach has favored as of late, helping prop up Montana’s suspect offensive line with their blocking skills and creating confusion that leads to production in the passing game. Redshirt freshmen Matt Rensvold and Bryson Deming each have eight catches this season as well.
Jace Lewis, inside linebacker, sophomore, Townsend —Lewis technically hasn’t started a game this season. But the former do-everything star at Broadwater County High in Boulder has been one of Montana’s biggest splashes defensively nonetheless.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder is 32nd in the league in tackles as UM’s third linebacker in a two-man scheme. He has rotated in for both Buss and Olson this season, amassing 54 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. His aggression and ability to tackles in space has helped the former all-state quarterback establish himself as the next linebacker in line after Buss graduates.
Gabe Sulser, wide receiver, true freshman, Billings — When the former Montana Gatorade Player of the Year comes in the game, Montana wants to get the ball in his hands.
Sulser scored a 53-yard touchdown on the first touch of his college career in UM’s Big Sky Conference opener against Sac State. His second career touch was a six-yard touchdown catch. He ripped off a 59-yard run against North Dakota. And he caught a 59-yard touchdown agaisnt Idaho. This season, he has four carries for 133 yards and six catches for 87 yards.
“When he comes in the game, they definitely try to get him the ball,” Choate said. “Gabe’s a dynamic kid and a kid we would’ve loved to have had here. They did a nice job recruiting him. He has a lot of history and tradition with that program. He is a quality young man, comes from a great family. You can see they are starting to get him involved a little more each week in the offense. I think he’s done a nice job for a true freshman for them.”
Sulser finished his career at Billings Senior as a four-time letterman in football and track. He was a first-team all-state selection three times as a wide receiver and twice each at cornerback and kick returner. He led the Broncs to two straight state championships. He finished his career with 80 total touchdowns, 50 touchdown catches, 261 catches and 4,007 receiving yards, all Montana all-class records. He also won two straight state titles in the 110-meter hurdles, missing the all-class state record last spring by 0.01 seconds in a time of 14.15 seconds.
Eric Williams, punter, senior, Missoula — The Loyola Sacred Heart alum has been one of Montana’s most consistent performers in both the classroom and on the field. The two-time Academic All-Big Sky selection is averaging 41.4 yards per punt this season. During Big Sky Conference play, he has only allowed 30 return yards.
Last season, he averaged 40.1 yards per punt, almost the same number he averaged in his first year as a starter in 2016. He has a long of 59 yards, has forced 25 fair catches and has pinned opponents inside the 20 on 19 occasions.
Williams played on state championship teams at Loyola in 2012 and 2013. He trained under former Griz punter Dallas Neil during his prep days. He earned the Michael R. Jorgensen Endowment scholarship at the 2017 Scholar Athlete Awards Banquet.
Jed Nagler, defensive end, sophomore, Whitefish — The 6-foot-4, 230-pounder spent his first two seasons toiling at wide receiver buried deep down the depth chart in a stacked group. When Hauck was hired, Nagler moved almost immediately to defense.
The former champion track star was an all-state outside linebacker on Whitefish’s 2015 state championship team. During spring, Nagler moved to outside linebacker then to the standup defensive end position on the front line. He made his first career sack against Drake in the second week of the season.
He and redshirt freshman R.J. Nelson have split time at the position this season. Nagler has 10 tackles. He is questionable for Saturday’s game after suffering a potentially serious but undisclosed knee injury last week at Idaho.
Colton Keintz, offensive tackle, redshirt freshman, Missoula —The former walk-on from Big Sky High has had to prove himself in the heat of competition this season. The 6-foot-8, 287-pounder has shown signs of improvement but has also been overmatched often during his first year as a starter.
Keintz has started all 10 games at right tackle, a remarkable stat considering the teenager didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school just four years ago. Keintz has started 20 games in his whole football career, including the 10 starts he made for the Eagles in his only season as a varsity starter his senior year of high school.
Bryson Deming, tight end, redshirt freshman, Billings — The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder has been one of the surprise contributors for the Griz this season. He’s caught eight passes for 110 yards while also serving as a solid blocker when UM runs its three tight end sets.
Braydon Deming, defensive tackle, redshirt freshman, Billings —Bryson’s 6-foot-4, 255-pound twin brother was Montana’s Co-Scout of the Year on defense last season. As a backup defensive tackle, he has 19 tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks this season.
Evan Epperly, safety, senior, Kalispell – The Glacier product and former Western AA Offensive MVP started five games last season as a junior. This season, he’s broken into the rotation over the last three weeks, compiling 10 of his 18 tackles during that period.
Matt Rensvold, tight end, redshirt freshman, Polson — The 6-foot-4, 235-pound former conference MVP basketball player has gotten involved in his first year playing tight end. The former state champion football and basketball player has caught eight passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns.
Shayne Cochran, inside linebacker, senior, Culbertson —The former 8-man star recorded 20 tackles and three tackles for loss last season, including a sack and strip against Idaho State the proved to be crucial in a 39-31 win. This season, he has not had as consistent a role but still has 11 tackles and a tackle for loss in eight games of action.
Marcus Welnel, inside linebacker, redshirt freshman, Helena —The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder from Capital High has 16 tackles this season, including 3.5 for loss. He registered sacks against Drake and Southern Utah.
Michael McGinnis, safety, redshirt freshman, Sidney — The 6-foot-3, 205-pound former all-state track star has been a standout in practices all 2018 and has earned some time on special teams, notching eight total tackles.
Garrett Graves, quarterback/running back, true freshman, Eureka — The multiple-time state champion in football and wrestling came to UM as a quarterback. But his first snaps as a Grizzly came as a running back last week in Moscow. The 6-foot-3, 196-pounder carried the ball five times for 15 yards in Montana’s win over Idaho.
Levi Janacaro, fullback/running back, true freshman, Missoula Big Sky — The 6-foot, 226-pounder was a two-time all-state selection at quarterback for Big Sky. He was the Western AA Offensive MVP as a senior after rushing for 1,952 yards and 29 touchdowns while throwing for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He came to Montana as a fullback. He earned eight carries and gained 29 yards in his first college action in a win at Southern Utah.
Brandon Purdy, kicker, junior, Kalispell Glacier — The 201-7 HERO Sports FCS All-American honorable mention hit 15 of his 17 field goal attempts to finish second in the Big Sky in points by a kicker with 89. He was a third-team All-Big Sky selection. But off-season knee surgery cost him spring practices and he eventually lost out in fall camp to junior Tim Semenza in the competition to serve as MSU’s field goals and PAT kicker.
Tanner Wilson, quarterback, redshirt freshman, Polson
Mitch Roberts, wide receiver, redshirt freshman, Missoula Sentinel
Trase Le Texier, fullback, sophomore, Boulder
Gabe Peppenger, kicker, junior, Missoula Sentinel
Cole Rosling, defensive end, redshirt freshman, Helena Capital
Andrew Harris, defensive end, junior, Kalispell Glacier
Devin Maua, defensive end, redshirt freshman, Billings Senior
Danny Burton, wide receiver, redshirt freshman, Helena Capital
Jackson Pepe, safety, true freshman, Kalispell Glacier
David Koppang, safety, true freshman, Missoula Loyola
Drew Turner, running back, true freshman, Kalispell Glacier
Jake Olsen, tight end, true freshman, Great Falls CMR
Tyler Flink, linebacker, true freshman, Missoula Big Sky
Patrick O’Connell, linebacker, sophomore, Kalispell Glacier
Cody Hartsoch, offensive line, true freshman, Kalispell Glacier
Trevor Welnel, offensive line, true freshman, Helena Capital
Conor Quick, offensive line, true freshman, Helena Capital
Dylan Cook, offensive line, sophomore, Butte High
Gerrit Bloemendall, offensive line, true freshman, Great Falls CMR
Nick Germer, wide receiver, true freshman, Missoula Sentinel
Max Morris, tight end, true freshman, Kalispell Glacier
Colton Curry, tight end, true freshman, Valier
Nathaniel Morin-Ferguson, punter, true freshman, Butte High