For the first time in seven years, the Cat-Griz rivalry game is actually not for all the marbles.
And in the scope of the ascension to the ranks fo the nationally elite for both Montana and Montana State, that’s a good thing.
In 2016 and 2017, Montana State defeated Montana to take momentum into the off-season. But the off-season started right away for both programs. In 2018, MSU posted a third straight rivalry game victory, keeping the Griz out of the playoffs for the third year in a row and snapping a three-year postseason drought of its own.
Montana State’s 16-7 win in 2012 stamped Montana’s first losing season in nearly 30 years and helped the Bobcats win a third straight Big Sky Conference title. UM’s victory in 2013 snapped MSU’s streak of league crowns and qualified the Griz for the playoffs. In 2014, Montana destroyed Montana State 34-7 and both teams kept playing in the postseason.
Saturday’s showdown marks the first time since 2011 that both teams are in the Top 10 of the FCS national rankings It also marks second time that has ever occurred. Win or lose, both teams are into the FCS playoffs. Saturday’s action will go a long way to determining who will get a playoff seed and a first-round by out of the Big Sky, a league that has four teams (UM, MSU, Sac State, Weber State) in the mix for top eight seeding.
“This is what the Big Sky Conference is all about,” said Montana State head coach Jeff Choate, who is 3-0 against the Griz. “Having two Montana teams that get to hook it up at the end of the year with stuff on the line, that’s the way it should be.”
Choate posted his first two rivalry wins to cap otherwise lackluster seasons that ended right after the rivalry game. He did it with former Griz assistant Ty Gregorak, one of the most passionate faces in the rivalry this century, as his defensive coordinator.
Last season, Choate’s last-second timeout to set up an epic ending proved to be crucial. Montana had to run another play from the MSU 2-yard line. Defensive tackle Chase Benson blew up the interior of UM’s offensive line, nose tackle Tucker Yates and inside linebacker Grant Collins smacked Griz running back Adam Eastwood, the UM tailback fumbled the ball, MSU defensive end Derek Marks recovered with eight seconds left and the Bobcats had their first three-game winning streak against the Griz since 1985.
“You are not the man you were yesterday and we aren’t the team we were yesterday or last year,” Choate said. “If we spend any time at all thinking about what happened the last three years, it’s not going to go the way it needs to go on Saturday. That’s how you keep your edge. You don’t listen to outside noise because it softens you and it strengthens your opponent. You don’t listen to people patting you on the back about the fumble on the one or any of that stuff.
“It’s all about this group, this team, Team 122 going out, owning their role and doing their jobs.”
Losing, but more aptly, getting physically manhandled by the Bobcats in 2016 and 2017 proved ultimately detrimental to Bob Stitt’s tenure at Montana. He did not have his contract renewed following the 31-23 loss in Bozeman, MSU’s first rivalry win at home since 2005.
Enter Bobby Hauck. The brash, take no prisoners head coach had led Montana to an 80-17 record between 2003 and 2009 that included five wins in seven seasons to the Bobcats. But in his first rivalry game in nearly a decade, Hauck’s team lost in heartbreaking fashion, a cruelly symbolic ending to a season that saw UM lose three straight home games for the first time since Washington-Grizzly Stadium opened in 1985.
“I think about this rivalry a lot throughout the year,” Hauck said on Monday. “I grew up around it. And I think we are really lucky to have a long-standing, traditional rival. I think it’s just a really cool deal that it has been played as many times as it has. It’s a great game.”
Montana owns a 72-40-5 advantage all time in a series that was first played in 1897. For many of the first 20 years of the 20th century the teams played twice. The teams did not play from 1905 until 1907 because of faculty decree from MSU. The schools did not play in 1915 or 1918 because of World War I. There was no Cat-Griz game in 1924.
The game was played in Butte from 1926 until 1951. In 1957, the Bobcats joined the NCAA for the first time. In 1963, the two schools were charter members of the Big Sky Conference and began playing in the same league for the first time.
During the Big Sky era, Montana State won 12 of the first fifteen rivalry games and 17 of 23, culminating in a three-game wining streak between 1983 and 1985. In 1986, the Griz won for the first of 16 consecutive Montana rivalry wins.
Since the ‘Cats snapped “The Streak” with a 10-7 win in Missoula, Montana has won nine times and the Griz have won eight times. MSU leads this decade 5-4.
“This goes down with our class and our legacy,” MSU senior captain wide receiver Kevin Kassis said. “It would be historic for us to win. We are excited for this opportunity and we are excited to show what we can do.
“Looking back to last year, coming back from a couple of touchdowns and a big goal line stop, it doesn’t seem real. It was almost like a movie.”
That movie probably feels like a horror film for the No. 3 Grizzlies. Montana’s fumble sealed a largely disappointing season that ensured many of UM’s veteran players are still searching for their first playoff experiences.
“I don’t know the last time I was 9-2 since high school and we have a shot at winning the title,” Griz senior cornerback Justin Calhoun said. “It definitely feels different. I think the hardest thing was not being able to make the playoffs. Having the season end and we have to watch every other team play, that was tough. Now for us to have a chance to have a shot at the playoffs and a conference championship is a great feeling.”
A win would help the Griz earn at least a share of their first Big Sky title (officially) since 2009), although the UM team that posted a 36-10 win over Montana State in Bozeman won the league before having it stripped.
Since then, Montana has missed the playoffs more often than not.
“This has been a very humbling experience,” UM senior offensive guard Angel Villanueva said. “Us seniors, our careers have been filled with highs and lows. I’m really proud of the work that we have put in. There’s a lot more to accomplish. I’m just glad we are still playing. The games you remember are played in November.”
For Montana State, the Cats will return to the FCS playoff for the second straight year. But this senior class, a group that includes seven fifth-year seniors who signed with former head coach Rob Ash who each have Montana roots, has a chance to go undefeated against Montana. And a win would thrust Montana State into the playoffs likely with a Top 8 seed and a bye.
“We are excited about this position,” Kassis said. “A couple of years ago, being 3-7 going into this game wasn’t too exciting because there wasn’t really anything on the line, wasn’t playoff implications. It’s great knowing we are in the playoffs and hopefully this can put us into postseason with some momentum.”
Implications or ramifications aside, bragging rights for the year, for the decade and forever are on the line. Everyone involved can’t wait to embrace the moment.
“In this microwave society where it’s all about where College Game Day is and it’s all about this match up and that matchup, this is one of the things we HAVE to maintain and hold on to in terms of this great game between these two great schools,” Choate said.
“The purity of it. That throwback feel. It helps a lot of people stay in contact and connected to Montana. I think there is a lot of purity left in this game.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.