By Bruce Sayler
BOZEMAN —Both teams likely ended their seasons on Saturday.
Montana State had already been counted out of playoff contention and the Bobcats’ 31-23 victory over Montana likely eliminated the Grizzlies from postseason, too — though UM head coach Bob Stitt would argue the point. (Stats)
The win was MSU’s first over the Griz at Bobcat Stadium since 2005 and allowed the Cats to finish a 5-6 record. They also get to keep The Great Divide Trophy for another year. Montana State’s last two-game win streak over Montana was in 2002-2003. It was the 117th Cat-Griz game in one of the nation’s longest rivalry. The Grizzlies’ lead in the series is now 73-39-5.
MSU head coach Jeff Choate admitted to being in a hurry to celebrate the win as he entered the postgame press conference.
“First of all, let me say it was a great team effort,” the second-year head of the MSU program said. “Montana battled back. We got caught in a couple of coverages.
“I’m excited to be (the Bobcats’) head coach. They’re a tough bunch of kids.”
The Cats, known more as a ground team, started out throwing the football with enough success to loosen the Griz defense for some running gains later. They spotted Montana first-quarter field goal then ran past the Grizzlies and held them off in a dramatic finish, customary often in this rivalry.
“This game, it’s even, this brawl,” Stitt said. “Throw the records out. I think we’re a good football team, a playoff football team. It’s difficult to win football games in the Big Sky (Conference) every week. I think 7-4 should get us in (to the NCAA FCS playoffs).”
The Grizzlies’ last two possessions seemed to have them poised for a last-minute win, but both ended disastrously for them. They had found momentum on Keenan Curtis’ acrobatic catch of a Gresch Jensen pass from 32 yards away with 5 minutes, 25 seconds left in the game.
The play put the score at 31-23.
Montana forced the Bobcats into a punt and then drove to near midfield. Jensen rolled out for a pass and the ball, instead, slipped out of the back of his grip as he began his passing motion. The fumble bounded away and Bryson McCabe gathered it in for the Cats.
They were unable to cash the recovery for points, but the possession ate away more precious time from the UM clock.
MSU quarterback Chris Murray quick-kicked on fourth down to the UM 12-yard line where the Grizzlies set up shop. Receiver and sometimes quarterback Makena Simis took over for Jensen at quarterback, only for a play, which was a short run.
Stitt said later Jensen had experienced some numbness in his throwing hand, which was probably the reason for the earlier fumble.
“He couldn’t feel his hand, whatsoever,” Stitt said. “It’s football, but unfortunately it happened at that point. I thought Gresch played a good game and for a freshman,
Jensen returned and began passing the Grizzlies downfield in the waning minutes. Consecutive completions to Jerry Louie-McGee, Jeremy Calhoun and Simis took UM to the 48. They got to the Bobcat 44 on another pass to Louie-McGee and then Jensen scrambled to the 37. MSU linebacker Brayden Konkol hurried Jensen into an incompletion that was nearly picked off by Chase Benson.
Then, a Jensen pass to Calhoun netted nine yards to the Cats’ 28. Three incompletions ensued as the field shortened put the Griz at a do-or-die fourth-down dilemma. Jensen through toward the front right corner of the end zone where Montana State defender Tyrel Thomas spiked it to the ground with 4 seconds left, clinching the win.
Bobcat Stadium became bedlam. Fans rushed the field and tore down the goalposts. The cheering lasted as long as the blue-and-gold adorned spectators field out of the facility.
“I told Tyrel he’ll be remembered forever here because of that play,” Bobcat star linebacker Mac Bignell, a senior from Drummond, said.
Bignell, son of former Deer Lodge and MSU standout Joe Bignell, was ecstatic, sort of.
“That was my last game in Bobcat Stadium,” he said, “but I’m happy for the win so I’m happy and sad. When I was growing up all I ever wanted to do was play football for the Bobcats and beat the Grizzlies.”
Griz kicker Brandon Purdy booted a 20-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead at 10:13 of the first quarter. Montana State went ahead for good when stud freshman Troy Andersen of Dillon snared a pitch from Murray and beat the UM defense to the end zone on a 2-yard scoring play. Gabe Peppenger kicked the extra point and the Bobcats led 7-3 three minutes into the second quarter.
Three minutes later, MSU speedster Nick LaShane bolted 71 yards off right tackle for another touchdown and the Cats had gained some comfort space, 14-3.
However, Montana made them a little more nervous with a 13-yard touchdown run by Calhoun to cut the difference to four points. Montana State zapped back with a 19-yard TD dash by Andersen as he shot through two holes created by perfect blocks and plowed through a defender at the goal line. Another Dillon product, Ben Folsom, was ejected on the kickoff for what the refs ruled as targeting on the return.
Purdy kicked a 41-yard Grizzly field goal and the teams broke for halftime.
The Bobcats took the second-half kickoff and frustrated the UM plans for getting back into control of the game.
“We didn’t tackle very well in the first half,” Stitt said. “We were a little tentative and their quarterback (Murray) was the fastest guy on the field.”
So, he was looking for a quick stop and a UM takeover early in the period.
Instead, MSU kept the ball for most of the frame and even survived a fourth-and-Livingston situation after a holding penalty and one for unsportsmanlike conduct, both on the same play. The quick, shifty, speedy Murray accounted.
He raced 30 yards on one carry to leave a fourth-and-five situation. Murray kept again on the net snap, and erased the once third-and-35 with the first down reach.
“There’s not a lot plays for third-and-26 on the call sheet,” Choate said with a shrug. “It was just Chris being Chris. Then, it was fourth-and-manageable, and it was actually a two-point (conversion) play.”
Murray said Choate told him that if the fourth-down play didn’t look good when he got to the line to take the delay of game penalty and the team would punt.
“I didn’t even look at him,” the sophomore QB said.
The Cats’ good run-blocking became the theme for the win and the important third-quarter march ended with a 20-yard field goal by Peppenger.
“If you can run the ball, you can do anything,” Choate said. “That’s going to be our DNA around here.”
Purdy added a UM field goal of 35 yards and Murray scored on a 4-yard keeper for MSU to set up the intrigue of the last minutes.
“Humbling is how I would describe it,” Choate said about the MSU fans’ reaction to the win. “This is as good a fan base as there is anywhere in the country. And I think the 2018 Bobcats are going to be a pretty good outfit.”
The 2017 Bobcats fan for 322 yards against the Griz on 57 carries. LaShane finished with 121 yards and Murray just missed the 100-yard total, gaining 99 on keepers. Andersen, who also saw duty on special teams and at outside linebacker, picked up 64 yards on 10 carries, including the two touchdowns. Murray passed for 98 yards on 10 completions in 15 tries. His top receivfer was senior Mitch Herbert with four grabs for 55 yards. Konkol led in tackles with 12 ½ and Bignell was next with 8 ½. Senior Khari Garcia intercepted a pass.
The Grizzlies outgained MSU 442-420, but suffered two turnovers while the Cats committed none. Jensen completed 30 of 49 throws, and eight of the connections were with Louie-McGee for 95 yards. Jeremy Calhoun gained 63 yards on 12 carries. Connor Strahm led Montana in tackles with 12 ½, and James Banks was next-high with 9 ½, including three for losses. The Grizzlies made several stops behind the MSU line of scrimmage but the Bobcats seemed too-often able to compensate.
“We knew they’d get their negative plays and we’d get some big runs,” Choate said. “The only stat that matters, though, is the one on the scoreboard at the end.”