Editor’s Note: Leading up to the 118th edition of the fierce football rivalry between the Bobcats and the Grizzlies, Skyline Sports will provide features on five of the game’s key matchups between Montana and Montana State.
PART IV — THE MATCHUPS: Dalton Sneed vs. Bobcat defense
For more than two decades, the winner of the rivalry clash between Montana and Montana State advanced to the postseason. And most often, the loser, while forced to lick their wounds for 364 days, turned the page to the off-season and a Thanksgiving holiday without football to prepare for.
Two of the last three Cat-Griz football games, the winner has ridden into the off-season with bragging rights but the loser has been left to pick up the rubble – literally.
In 2015, first-year Montana head coach Bob Stitt led his team to a 54-35 victory in Bozeman. Less than 48 hours later, Montana State athletic director Peter Fields announced the dismissal of Rob Ash, the school’s all-time leader in head coaching victories.
Stitt’s Griz advanced to the FCS playoffs, the last postseason appearance for either the Bobcats or the Grizzlies.
In his first season at the helm for Bobcats, Jeff Choate led a spirited Bobcat team to a physically dominating 24-17 win in Missoula, a victory that included 378 rushing yards and stamped a 6-5 season in Stitt’s second at the helm. The Bobcat victory ignited the Griz faithful and the clamoring for a different direction began to fester.
Last season, Choate’s Bobcats rushed for 322 yards and again physically manhandled the once-mighty Grizzlies. Despite a late rally by Gresch Jensen and the Griz, the Bobcats held on for a 31-23 victory, MSU’s first against Montana on its home field since 2005.
Less than 48 hours later, Montana athletic director Kent Haslam announced Stitt’s contract would not be renewed. By the first week in December, Bobby Hauck had returned to his alma mater, a move that many Montana supporters hoped would help the Griz dig themselves out of a recent rut that included two straight absences from the FCS playoffs for the first time since the early 1990s.
“I think those two wins over the last two years were definitely important and I think they were important for Bobby, too, evidently. Let’s be honest. If I’m not 2-0 against those guys, he’s probably still in San Diego,” Choate said in his press conference on Monday morning in Bozeman. “I didn’t get a thank you card when he became the all-time winner in University of Montana history (two weeks ago with Hauck’s 86th win, a 57-14 victory at Southern Utah).
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Hauck and I say those things tongue in cheek. He’s an excellent football coach and he’s got himself surrounded with some really good people. I think those things are great. He wants to win this game too. He’ll have his guys ready to go.”
Hauck has had a close eye on the rivalry for most of his childhood. The son of former Big Timber head football coach Robert Hauck Sr., Bobby Hauck’s brother, Tim, was an All-American safety in the late 1980s before playing 13 seasons in the NFL.
During his otherwise short and non-revealing press conference on Monday, Hauck did reference one of his favorite memories from his time around the rivalry, remembering when Tim blocked a punt, although Bobby could not remember the year. Montana’s head coach can be forgiven for not knowing the specific game. After all, his brother blocked a punt in each rivalry game between 1987 and 1989.
Bobby Hauck’s coaching career began as a graduate assistant on Don Read’s staff during the 1988 season. The Griz beat the Bobcats 17-3 that November and 17-2 the following season, the third and fourth consecutive victories in what would become “The Streak”, a 16-year run by Montana.
Hauck left for a graduate assistant position at UCLA after the 1989 season and spent the 1990s bouncing around the West. He made stops as an assistant at Northern Arizona, Colorado and Washington before returning for his first stint as Montana’s head coach in 2003.
Monday, Hauck acknowledged rivalries like Alabama-Auburn, Washington-Washington State and Arizona-Arizona State as widely regarded intense rivalries. But he said he would choose Montana’s rivalry against the Bobcats over any of them.
“I grew up in Montana, I went to this University,” Hauck said. “It’s a big game. It’s a rivalry game. It’s what’s good about college football. Teams that don’t have a traditional rival are missing out on something pretty cool. We do. We actually have a couple of them. But especially the in-state rivalry games, the top one for us and we are lucky we have a great rivalry.”
In his first Cat-Griz game as a head coach the year after Travis Lulay and the Bobcats snapped the streak in 2002, Hauck’s Griz gave up a 90-yard return for a touchdown to Corey Smith on the opening kickoff of the game in Bozeman. The Cats held on for their first win over the Grizzlies in Bozeman since 1985, 27-20.
The following season, Hauck earned his first rivalry win in dominant fashion. Behind two touchdowns each from Lex Hilliard and Jefferson Heidelberger, the Griz marched to a 38-22 victory. In 2005, Lulay quarterbacked MSU to a 16-6 win to cap his career with a 3-1 record against the Griz.
Over the next four years, Hauck did not lose to Montana State or hardly any other team for that matter. The Griz posted a 31-1 record against Big Sky Conference opponents between 2006 and 2009, including four straight wins over the ‘Cats by an average margin of 18 points.
On Saturday, Hauck faces off against the Bobcats in a game filled with intrigue because, frankly, UM has not lost three straight games to MSU since 1985. And Hauck was hired to ensure history would not be made at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Saturday.
“It’s a rivalry game,” Hauck said. “But our preparation is uniform, week in and week out. My opinion is any time the Grizzlies play, it’s a big game. Our preparation is uniform through the season. It won’t differ any this week. The difference is everybody’s attention in our home state is focused on Missoula, Montana this Saturday.”
Choate grew up in Saint Marie’s, Idaho, but he’s been keenly aware of the Treasure State’s fiercest rivalry as he closely followed the Idaho Vandals as a teenager. He learned more about it during his college days playing at Montana Western in the early 1990s, where he first crossed paths with Mick Dennehy and Mick Delaney, two mentors that would each go on to become head coaches for the Griz.
Choate was a high school coach and athletic director in Idaho for most of the 1990s and early 2000s before diving into the collegiate level. His first graduate assistant job was at Utah State on Dennehy’s staff beginning in 2002, Dennehy’s third of five seasons after heading up UM from 1996 until 1999.
In 2006, Choate took a job on Chris Petersen’s staff at Boise State. There, he worked alongside former Montana quarterback and current Griz wide receivers coach Brent Pease along with former Montana State defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski.
“Every year, there was some…not NCAA violations, but there was definitely some hardy wagering going on for things like push-ups,” Choate said remembered with a laugh.
Choate coached in the Apple Cup as an assistant at Washington State against the rival Huskies in 2012 and against the Cougars as an assistant at Washington in 2014 and 2015. In 2013, Choate coached in the Florida-Georgia game as an assistant on Will Muschamp’s staff for the Gators.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m in the head coaching role but I think about how they rank often,” Choate said. “What is this like? For me, Cat-Griz is the best. It’s the best. Florida-Georgia, awesome, quite the party. The football is awesome but it’s nothing like this. This state is so small in terms of the population and everybody is so connected to one university or the other. We spend so much time traveling around the state whether it’s Coach Hauck or myself. You are in every little berg in the state of Montana at some point in time. And that’s all they want to talk about.”
Nearly 30 of Montana’s towns, both relatively urban and incredibly rural, will be represented in Saturday’s game. A total of 87 players from Montana total are featured on the two rosters, including 45 for the Bobcats and 42 for the Griz.
“I think it’s one of the things that makes this game so special,” Choate said. “In the Florida-Georgia game, it’s just a bunch of five stars playing against each other. In this situation, it’s a bunch of over achievers, a bunch of kids that are here because they are passionate about their state, they want to represent their state and their community. It’s a very unique situation that way.”
One of Ash’s knocks on an otherwise successful resume that included three straight Big Sky titles between 2010 and 2012 (the first and last capped with wins in Missoula) and four playoff appearances was the former head coach’s 2-7 record against Montana.
In 2011 MSU reached No. 1 in the FCS national polls for the first time since 1978 only to get destroyed by Montana , 36-10. In 2013, a 28-14 Montana win in Bozeman capped a three-game losing streak to end a season that began with a preseason No. 2 national ranking and national championship aspirations. In 2014, MSU limped into the playoffs after suffering a 34-7 loss in Missoula.
By the end of the 2015 game, Ash had lost faith among the MSU athletic administration. Enter Choate, a more fiery coach reminiscent of the Bobcat leaders that came before him like Jim Sweeney, Sonny Lubick and Mike Kramer.
Choate lost the first six Big Sky contests of his career. But MSU posted a win in its final home game of 2016 to take a sliver of confidence into the contest in Missoula. The week leading up to his Cat-Griz head coaching debut, Choate brought back a collection of former Bobcats to help solidify the historical importance of the rivalry in the minds of his players.
“More than anything for me, he really lets you feel the gravity and the history of it,” MSU senior captain defensive tackle Zach Wright said. “Being in this program, he makes sure you are aware of all the guys who have played in this before us. He’s not just something he lets slide off like it’s one game. He makes you realize the history of this and the years that this has been played, all the things in the past, all the factors that go into it.”
That perspective sparked Montana State to one of the most memorable wins MSU has posted in the modern era, a one-score victory to thwart UM’s playoff hopes despite completing just two passes.
“I think that win changed the dynamic of how the Bobcats saw themselves,” Wright said. “At the current time, especially in that first game I got to experience as a redshirt in 2014, we were kind of on the downward trend. The pride was hurting a little bit and we were unsure of what we were capable of.
“But the ability for us to move forward after that and change the way this game was going to be played the last few years with us being the underdogs and being able to beat them, I think it’s made a big difference. Despite how our seasons are going, we’ve always had that pride in our back pocket that we beat the Griz.
“I think it has played over into our confidence and how we see the game now. Even though you can have that pride in your pocket and these last two wins under your belt, you can’t get complacent because in these rivalry games, especially this Cat-Griz game, nothing can be counted on.”
When Hauck first accepted the offer to return to Montana, the scuttle about the burgeoning, sure to be heated rivalry between he and Choate began almost instantly.
First came Choate blocking Hauck on Twitter. Then came ramped up recruiting battles for some of the Treasure State’s most talented prospects. Now comes the first showdown between the two intense, driven head coaches.
“I feel it,” Choate said when asked about rivalry week. “I totally feel it. I woke up this morning (Monday) at 1:30 in the morning. I was juiced. I was ready to go. I just feel fortunate to be able to feel a part of it. I think our kids are excited. I think they’ll be excited. I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere in Missoula.
“I think it’s going to be a really good game, a war, hard-fought on both sides. I’m looking forward to it.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.