Cats welcome back legends

BOZEMAN, Mont. — E. J. Cochrane’s gaze settled on Bobcat Stadium’s Sonny Holland Zone, and he marveled.
“It’s amazing,” said the Bobcat kicker who nailed MSU’s game-winning field goal toward that end zone in the opening game of the Bobcats’ magical 2002 season. Montana State celebrates Cochrane and his teammates during Saturday’s Homecoming game against Northern Colorado, welcoming home the players who helped begin the process which led to, among many other things, the south end zone complex.

More than 30 players from the 2002 and ’03 teams, which each won Big Sky Championships and advanced to the NCAA Division I-AA Playoffs, are expected back for the reunion. One of the that group’s unquestioned leaders, current MSU assistant Kane Ioane, is glad to welcome back many of his teammates back to Bozeman. “It’s exciting that so many of those guys are coming back to be recognized,” said the four-time All-America who earned Big Sky Defensive MVP honors in 2003. “Those teams set the foundation for where we’re at now. That (2002) team broke the streak and won the Big Sky and made it to the playoffs.”

The Big Sky title and playoff appearance vaulted the 2002 team to national prominence, but it was breaking the streak that raised it to legendary status for Bobcat fans. Riding an amazing run of wins ranging from improbable to miraculous, MSU stared down a lot of history on that frigid, blustery day in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Montana State had never won a game in that venue, had lost 16 straight games to the Grizzlies, and had not come remotely close to a Big Sky title since 1984.

Led by precocious freshman quarterback Travis Lulay and a cast of veterans who had endured an 0-11 season in 2000 and disappointment against UM the year before, Montana State carried a 3-0 lead into halftime. Lulay found Junior Adams on a 53-yard slant for a touchdown in the half-empty stadium at the start of the third quarter, and senior running back Ryan Johnson battered the Grizzly defense throughout the second half until the Bobcats iced the game and hoisted the Great Divide Trophy.

“I’ll never forget that team,” Ioane says, and his boss, Bobcat head coach Rob Ash, holds the 2002 and ’03 players in high esteem.

“I’m excited to have them here,” said Ash, whose program has built on the success initially enjoyed by the returning Bobcats. “They started the resurgence of Bobcat footbal with the great win in Missoula and the Big Sky title, and laid the groundwork for the accomplishments we are realizing today.”

That the Bobcats played for anything meaningful in Missoula on that famed afternoon seemed impossible for most of October and November. A week after falling at home to Division II Central Washington, the Bobcats dropped Lulay’s first start at Idaho State in the league opener. Then the team drubbed Weber State before falling at Northern Arizona, 20-17. With the season hanging in the balance, MSU visited Hornet Stadium for a showdown with Sacramento State.

MSU carried a 28-21 lead into the fourth quarter, but Sac State nailed a 29-yard field goal then capped a long drive with a four-yard touchdown run to take a 30-28 lead with four minutes left. Facing the end of the meaningful part of its season, on the final play of the game, Lulay lobbed a pass to Scott Turnquist under duress, and the Billings product was yanked down by the facemask as time expired. On an untimed play, Nate Cook drilled a 36-yard field goal for the miracle win.

A week later Eastern Washington was on the march with a chance to win at the end behind sensational signal caller Erik Meyer, when Adam Cordeiro intercepted what was ruled a lateral and rumbled 76 yards to seal another stunning win. Portland State was up next, and the Bobcat successfully defended a two-point conversion in the game’s final 100 seconds for a 28-26 win. Montana’s loss at Eastern Washington that day set up the Cat-Griz championship showdown a week later.

Ioane, MSU’s linebackers coach, says current players are more than a little interested in the work of their predecessors. “We had a (position) meeting not long ago where someone asked about the 2002 team and we just talked and told stories about those teams. I appreciate that our guys take pride in and understand the history and tradition of our program. They always ask questions about what it was like then.”

A lasting symbol of Montana State’s tradition and current success, Ioane is looking forward to bringing the treasured past into the present. “It’s going to be a fun weekend,” he said. “We want to show those guys how much we appreciate what they started, but actions are better than talk. The best way to do it would be to play a great game.”

— MSU Sports Information