BOZEMAN — As he has done more than perhaps any player in the Big Sky Conference over the last four years, Tucker Yates knocked his opponent on his heels, threw Cy Sirmon to the side and dove at the ball carrier barreling at the goal line.
As Montana State’s senior nose tackle thrust his hips and put his head perfectly across the bow, he punched the ball out of Adam Eastwood’s hands in a moment that will never be forgotten in the 121-year history of the fiercest rivalry in the Treasure State.
In an ending fitting, storybook, shocking and thrilling all at once, Yates’ final punch helped the Bobcats swing the pendulum in their favor even further in a rivalry owned by the Grizzlies for much of the modern era. Sure, Montana State has now defeated Montana eight times in 17 match- ups since ending “The Streak” in 2002.
But Yates’ enormous goal line play served as the crescendo in one of the wildest contests in the 118-game series and helped Montana State make history. And the final forced fumble of Montana’s fumble-ridden season helped Yates and his fellow Montana State seniors cement their legacies as Bobcat legends.
When Derek Marks fell on the final fumble, MSU owned a 29-25 victory that took a 22-point fourth quarter as the Bobcats came back from a 15-point deficit to solidify their first three-game winning streak over Montana since 1983, 1984 and 1985.
“Great team win, an unbelievable team comeback and we couldn’t be happier,” Marks, a Belgrade native, told ROOT Sports TV after moving to 3-0 in his career against the Griz. “This is the dream and beating Montana is the new standard. Three years in a row, that’s unbelievable.”
As Yates rose from the pile, the shock setting in with the Washington-Grizzly Stadium record crowd of 26,508 fans, the four-year starter from Colstrip walked slowly toward his team’s sidelines as the rest of the Bobcats burst into bedlam. One of just eight players recruited by former head coach Rob Ash that made it to his final season had a signature play that might keep MSU’s playoff hopes alive.
“Amazing college football game,” Choate said. “I just can’t say enough about the heart that was shown by both teams on that field today. I have a ton of respect for the University of Montana, that group of men and how they played today. And clearly, I’m extremely proud of our team.
“The people of Montana should be proud of both of these teams.”
It's a MIRACLE IN MISSOULA!! pic.twitter.com/XDxgIjM3TV
— Bobcat Football (@MSUBobcatsFB) November 17, 2018
The Bobcats have won four times in Missoula this decade alone. Montana State moved to 7-4, the team’s best mark since its last playoff berth in 2014. The seventh win combined with a schedule that has featured losses to three of the Top 10 teams in the FCS and Saturday’s 31-16 loss by North Dakota at Northern Arizona further strengthens the postseason possibilities.
On this sun-kissed Saturday in the Garden City, the memorable moment belonged to the Bobcats and overshadowed any playoff prospects.
Tough-running true freshman Isaiah Ifanse landed an impressive backflip during the post-season celebration. Senior captain defensive tackle Zach Wright took a head butt to his bare forehead and rejoiced in tasting the blood that streamed down his full face.
Choate took an ice bath and kept charging toward the middle of the field, the emotion pouring from within him. As he embraced tortured defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak — an assistant at Montana for 12 seasons, including seven under Hauck — Gregorak beamed after watching his defense force two crucial fumbles in the final six minutes. With three fingers raised above his head for the duration of MSU’s second post-game celebration at the center of Montana’s home field, Choate exclaimed, “Three in a row and don’t think this is going to stop any time soon.”
“Quite honestly, processing all this is probably not going to hit me for awhile,” Choate said. “There was a lot that happened in that fourth quarter and some of it seems like a blur right now. We talked all week about how if you want to be remembered, you make a play in this game.
“I think this is a game that will be remembered for a long time for the courage of the young men who fought in it and for the excitement that was provided.”
Montana State’s deliberate if one-dimensional offense never panicked, manufacturing a touchdown to end the first half with points on the board after a 22-point onslaught that has become customary in Bobby Hauck’s first season of his second stint back his alma mater.
Montana State’s defense continued its hard charge, wearing down Montana’s overmatched offensive front with a relentless push anchored by Yates, Wright and senior Tyrone Fa’anono and decorated by the powerful pass rush of Marks and junior Bryce Sterk.
MSU punter Jered Padmos helped mitigate the early onslaught by Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed and UM’s explosive offense by pinning the hosts inside their own 5-yard line twice in the second half, a performance that had Choate calling the Boulder native “the unsung hero of the game.”
And after falling behind by three touchdowns early in Missoula to a Hauck-coached Griz team, for the first time in the 21st century, the Bobcats withstood Montana’s wave of momentum, evened the action and rallied back for a miraculous win that might extend their season.
“This is such a big rivalry and it means so much to everybody in this state,” said MSU sophomore quarterback Troy Andersen after throwing for 154 yards and rushing for 107 yards in the win. “We put our heart and soul into this game and for us to come out on top, it means a lot.
“I think it would mean a lot to go to the playoffs. Our seniors, we have a great group of seniors who deserve a chance to play in the playoffs. We’ve shown we are a team to be reckoned with. I think we’ve made a pretty good case and if we have a shot, we’ll be a tough out.’
The first of three rushing touchdowns during Andersen’s virtuoso sophomore season cut UM’s deficit to 22-7 with MSU receiving possession to begin the second half. The Dillon product’s second touchdown capped a nine-play, 87-yard drive to cut the lead to one score and Andersen’s two-point plunge cut the deficit to 22-15.
“We never felt like the game was out of hand,” Andersen said. ‘We had that belief, that swagger to us that this game was ours for the taking.”
MSU’s defense forced Montana into four third downs on UM’s ensuing possession. On third down and eight yards to go from the UM 38, Sneed fired a dart for a 21-yard completion to senior Keenan Curran to put the captain over 100 yards in his final college game. On 3rd & 17 from midfield, Sneed threw into triple coverage but beastly UM sophomore Sammy Akem plucked the spiral from the sky for an 18-yard first down catch. On 3rd & 19 from the MSU 39, Sneed again threw into a closing three-some of Bobcats and Akem, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound physical marvel, snared his sixth catch to set up a first and goal. Akem finished with a game-high 147 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown in the first half as part of Montana’s initial rip.
The first sack of Yates’ senior season pushed UM back to the MSU 17, setting up a Tim Semenza 34-yard field goal that gave the Griz a 25-15 lead with 7:46 left.
Montana State’s steadfast focus started to pay off. After not mustering much of a passing attack for the first 52 minutes, Andersen completed three of four passes for 68 yards, including a 45-yard bomb to wide receiver Travis Jonsen to move inside the Griz 10. Two players later, Andersen waltzed in for his third touchdown of the day and 19th of the season to again cut the UM lead to a field goal.
“Us getting beat on that fade ball was really big,” Hauck said as the cheers of the Bobcats from the visitors’ locker room echoed through the rafters of the Adams Center up to where Hauck sat seated in the stadium club of Dahlberg Arena conducting his final post-game press conference for 2018.
The play of fifth-year senior inside linebacker Grant Collins’ career sparked the epic momentum swing. The Bozeman native smacked Sneed on the Griz sideline, forcing a fumble and recovering it in one motion to give Montana State possession on the Griz 35 with 5:16 left.
“After it happened, I went and sat down on the bench because I was so tired so I was really hoping it didn’t get overturned because I really wasn’t sure how I was going to go back out there and play if it would’ve been,” Collins said. “I saw the replay at one point and knew I was good to take a breather.”
Seven plays later, Andersen pitched to senior Logan Jones on a speed option to the Northeast pylon. The Kalispell product sprinted his way to the go-ahead touchdown with 2:07 left.
But Montana would not go away easily. Redshirt freshman Malik Flowers, a candidate for All-Big Sky honors as a kick returner who led a slow-sauntering Griz team out of the Topel Tunnel with UM’s famed sledgehammer in hand, ripped off a 50-yard kick return to midfield. Sneed, who threw for 354 yards and two touchdowns, engineered an eight-play drive that included first down throws to Eastwood and Curran, the latter 11-yard strike that moved UM inside the 10.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Collins stood up Eastwood at the goal line with 14 seconds left, leading to Hauck burning his first timeout. On the next play, Eastwood appeared to score but not before Choate called his first timeout.
“I told the official I was going to call a timeout but I wanted to see the formation, obviously,” Choate said. “They were a little disjointed getting out of the huddle so I wanted to see if I could see the formation before I took the timeout.”
On the next play, Yates cemented himself in mortality.
“I think that play characterizes the toughness of our team,” Choate said. “We are not a group of guys who are real flashy, necessarily. We are a bunch of blue collar kids who play their tails off and play for each other. We have a great bond, a great brotherhood in that locker room. There was nobody out there who wanted to let the guy next to them down. That showed not only on that play but the entire second half of this game.”
— Joe Dunning (@Coach_Dunning) November 18, 2018
For the third season in a row, Montana finishes outside the FCS playoffs, UM’s longest such streak since 1990, 1991 and 1992. In 1993, Montana won the Big Sky title, sparking a run that featured 15 Big Sky championships in 17 seasons and a record 17 straight appearances in the playoffs.
During that run, Hauck led Montana to seven straight conference titles that included a 50-6 mark against Big Sky competition. Hauck lost his first (27-20) and third (16-6) matchups against the Bobcats, both in Bozeman. In 2006, Montana posted a 13-6 win in Missoula to begin a four-year reign by Hauck over Montana State filled with smack talk, hate and resentment for the brash UM coach from the MSU faithful.
“We’ll get it back there,” Hauck said. “We have the temperament. We’ve established that. Changed the culture in our program in that regard. Recruit, keep coaching. I think we have a chance to be a really good football team in a couple of years.
In 2010, Montana State won in Missoula to snap both Montana’s playoff and conference title streaks. In 2011, the seventh-ranked Griz whipped the No. 1-ranked Bobcats 36-10 in Bozeman. The Bobcats capped their third straight and last Big Sky title with a 16-7 win in Missoula, stamping UM’s first losing season in a generation in the process in 2012.
In 2013, a 28-14 UM win in Missoula sparked a three-game Griz winning streak that ended up ending the Ash era. Enter Choate, the first Bobcat coach to start his career 3-0 against the Griz since Dave Arnold did it as part of MSU’s last three-game rivalry streak.
“Three years ago, this program was starting to go downhill and this shows all the hard work that was put in and shows a big turning point in this program,”Collins said after leading MSU with 12 tackles and forcing two fumbles.
The Bobcats cut into the Grizzlies’ all-time lead in the series for the third straight season. UM now holds a 72-40-5 advantage. Since both teams joined the Big Sky as charter members in 1963, Montana leads 30-25. Since the erection of Washington-Griz in 1986, the Griz own a 24-8 advantage bolstered by “The Streak.” But since Travis Lulay led MSU to a 10-7 victory in Missoula in 2002 to snap MSU’s futility in the rivalry, UM’s advantage slims to 9-8.
And it’s clear for another 364 days that the Bobcats are the kings of the gridiron in the Treasure State.
“It’s hard to quantify this win,” Choate said. “This is such a big deal in this state. It’s awesome. These kids are absolutely unbelievable. We’ve been through a lot together for a long time. It’s extremely rewarding for them.
“I’m the 32nd head coach at Montana State. There is going to be more after me. This is about them and their legacy. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.