Big Sky Conference

Opportunistic Griz burst past Bobcats for 3rd straight time

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BOZEMAN, Mont. — Kendrick Van Ackeren and the Montana Grizzlies’ defense heard the hype about Dakota Prukop and the Bobcat offense entering Saturday’s showdown with rival Montana State here. The No. 17 Grizzlies used it as fuel for their fire.Van Ackeren piled up 13 tackles, a sack and an interception from his outside linebacker spot as the Grizzly defense carried its momentum. A week after forcing seven turnovers and notching six sacks in a 57-16 win over Eastern Washington, Montana’s defense forced turnovers on four straight possessions. Quarterback Brady Gustafson and the Montana offense capitalized on all four as UM rolled to a 54-35 victory.

UM special teams players celebrate a blocked punt

UM special teams players celebrate a blocked punt

Montana State entered the 115th meeting between two bitter rivals with the top scoring offense in the FCS. MSU junior quarterback Dakota Prukop is one of the leading candidates for the Offensive MVP of the Big Sky Conference. None of that mattered to a Montana defense that played with physicality and authority as the Grizzlies seized momentum early before Montana held on for their 72nd win overall in one of the most storied rivalries in the West.

“Coming into this game, they were the No. 1 ranked offense in our conference so we knew it would be a challenge but we embraced the challenge,” Van Ackeren said. “We know we are capable as a defense. We knew what we were facing, but we knew who we are. We prepared to do our job as well as we can and stop them.”

UM senior captain Jamaal Jones caught two touchdown passes, Montana junior speedster Ellis Henderson hauled in a 50-yard score following Van Ackeren’s interception and Montana scored 31 straight points to take a 37-14 lead at halftime in front of 20,507 at Bobcat Stadium.

The Grizzlies earned their third straight win over the Bobcats and won for the fifth straight time in Bozeman overall. The victory strongly enhanced Montana’s playoff resume as UM moved to 6-2 in Big Sky Conference play, 7-4 overall. The Griz are almost certainly assured a 21st playoff berth since 1993. Southern Utah’s 49-41 win over Northern Arizona denied the Griz a share of the conference crown.

MSU defensive end Taylor Sheridan blast UM quarterback Brady Gustafson

MSU defensive end Taylor Sheridan blast UM quarterback Brady Gustafson

“This is a great rivalry and it means a lot to the people in this state, which makes it a lot of fun,” Montana head coach Bob Stitt said following his first Cat-Griz win. “People don’t understand how big a game of this is until they are in it and part of it. I told our team last night that playing football for Montana is a special thing. What makes it special is Griz Nation. You want to pay them back? You win this game.”

Gustafson, a 6-foot-7 junior from Billings West, looked shaky in his rivalry debut early as Montana punted its first two possessions. After Van Ackeren’s interception, the Montana offense settled in. Gustafson threw for 227 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. He completed 23-of-39 passes for 353 yards and four scores overall, including three to Jones.

“We had the mentality to keep our foot on the gas,” said Gustafson, who moved to 3-2 as Montana’s starter after missing eight weeks this season with an injury. “The defense is out there creating really, really nice plays, creating opportunities for us and we had to capitalize.”

Montana State scored 21 points in the first 20 minutes of the second half to cut the lead to nine with 9:25 to play. Senior Beau Sandland caught seven passes for 163 yards, including Montana State’s first touchdown of the afternoon on a 46-yard catch and run as well as MSU’s last touchdown of the season on a 22-yard reception.

UM wide receiver Jamaal Jones evades two Bobcat defenders for a touchdown

UM wide receiver Jamaal Jones evades two Bobcat defenders for a touchdown

Prukop threw the first half interception and saw the Bobcat offense get stopped twice on fourth down tries in the second quarter, each leading to long Montana touchdowns. But the junior from Austin, Texas still produced statistically despite playing with a sprained ankle.

Prukop completed 21-of-39 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for 47 yards on 17 carries, although he picked up 37 yards on the final carry of the game.

“We just stopped ourselves,” Prukop said. “That’s been the story of this season. Any time we are not executing on offense, it’s because of ourselves.”

Montana State opened a beautiful, sunny Saturday by striking first. Prukop hit Sandland for long touchdown to cap a five-play, 88-yard drive following a Bobcat defensive stop.

Two possessions later, Montana snared the momentum as the Griz turned Van Ackeren’s interception into an eight-play drive capped by Jones’ first touchdown from eight yards out. Jones caught a pass in the flat then made MSU senior Desman Carter and sophomore linebacker Mac Bignell each miss tackles.

UM wide receiver Jamaal Jones makes a one handed catch

UM wide receiver Jamaal Jones makes a one handed catch

Montana sacked MSU punter Trevor Bolton and turned it into true freshman running back Jeremy Calhoun’s first touchdown from eight yards out to take a 17-7 lead with a minute left in the first quarter.

On the ensuing Bobcat possession, Van Ackeren chased Prukop down in the backfield on a fourth-down scramble to force a turnover on downs. The call was a quarterback sweep to the right. Prukop cut back left when he saw Van Ackeren, but Montana’s tackling machine still chased him down from across the field.

“That play was meant to shut down the edges and I was on the other edge where they were originally running it and they cut back up inside so I folded back looking for him to cut up and when he started to jump back further, I tracked him from the backside and I kept my angle so he couldn’t get the corner,” Van Ackeren said. “I knew if he got around the corner, I would meet him.”

Gustafson hit Jones for a 54-yard touchdown on the next play. UM again forced a turnover on downs again and Gustafson again struck quickly, hitting Henderson for a 50-yard bomb four plays into the possession to put UM up 31-7 with 7:36 to play in the first half.

Montana added two Daniel Sullivan field goals to take a 23-point lead into halftime the Bobcats came storming back. Trace Timmer intercepted a Gustafson pass on the first Griz possession of the second half to set up a short touchdown drive of all Chad Newell runs capped by a four-yard touchdown from the junior captain. Montana answered with a 10-play drive aided by a phantom roughing the punter penalty and capped by Calhoun’s second score to go up 44-22.

MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop stretches out the UM defense to no avail

MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop stretches out the UM defense to no avail

Prukop threw touchdown passes to Sandland and Brandon Brown in the fourth quarter as MSU cut the lead to 44-35. But Jones’ third touchdown — a 17-yard screen pass on which he beat Khari Garcia around the corner — sealed Montana’s 30th win over Montana State since the two teams joined the Big Sky Conference in 1963.

“I’m really proud of the way our guys fought back in this game,” Montana State head coach Rob Ash said. “We had some uncharacteristic issues in the first half and I think a lot was to do with the hype of this game. Our guys played with a tremendous amount of emotion and spirit but at the same time, that gets out of our mode a little bit. When we settled down and going and playing with more rhythm in the second half. We battled back. The first half was a lot closer than the score.”

The loss means Montana State’s streak of winning seasons ends. The last time the Bobcats finished with less wins than losses was in 2001. MSU will not qualify for the playoffs and finishes the season at 3-5 in Big Sky play, 5-6 overall.

MSU tight end Beau Sandland celebrates his second TD catch

MSU tight end Beau Sandland celebrates his second TD catch

Montana will learn its playoff fate on Sunday morning when the NCAA announces the 24-team field for this season’s FCS playoffs. With wins over four-time defending national champion North Dakota State, three-time defending Big Sky champion Eastern Washington and perennial contender MSU coupled with a win over playoff hopefuls Northern Arizona and North Dakota mean the Griz will likely see their season carry on.

Following the victory, the Montana players lingered on the Bobcat Stadium turf, posing for pictures with the Great Divide trophy that will return to Missoula. Following his first win over his new bitter rival, Stitt was focused on his recent accomplishment rather than his team’s future.

“I’ve coached for 30 years and I never dreamed I would coach in a rivalry like this,” Stitt said. “There’s nothing better in the country than this rivalry.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. 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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