BOZEMAN — Last year’s meeting between age-old rivals Montana and Montana State turned into a showcase for the Bobcats’ running game. MSU gave the Grizzlies a lesson in Football 101.
MSU quarterback Chris Murray completed only two passes but the Bobcats’ offensive line kept its pad level low— exploiting UM’s tendency to line up in a two-point stance up front — and pounded out 368 ground yards in a 24-17 win at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The Bobcats weren’t going to the playoffs last year, but they made sure the Grizzlies weren’t either.
MSU paraded the Great Divide Trophy on Montana’s field for the third time in its past four tries, but the game was unique in that its result guaranteed that neither team made the playoffs, a first since 1992. It was the Grizzlies third miss in seven seasons.
A similar circumstance has a chance to play out again Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
With the 117th matchup between the rivals looming, the Grizzlies have a score to settle. And this year they’re peaking in November instead of plummeting.
What’s at stake is a postseason berth. A win would all but guarantee Montana’s inclusion in this year’s FCS tournament.
After beating Northern Colorado 44-14 on Saturday, Griz coach Bob Stitt referred to the matchup with the Bobcats as the state’s Super Bowl. Coach Jeff Choate and the Bobcats feel the same way.
Montana (7-3, 5-2 Big Sky) comes in having won five of its past six games. The Bobcats (4-6, 4-3) have lost two in a row by three combined points.
MSU was defeated 37-36 this past week at Northern Arizona after a two-point conversion attempt failed with 32 seconds left. The Cats will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
Their objective is clear: Spoil the Grizzlies’ hopes and keep the Divide Trophy planted firmly on home turf.
MSU will enjoy home-field advantage on Saturday, but there’s a caveat to that: The Bobcats haven’t beaten Montana at home since 2005, which was the final game of Travis Lulay’s decorated quarterbacking career.
In fact, the home team has failed to take care of business over the course of the past several years in this rivalry. Last year’s game was a continuation of that trend.
The only time the home-standing team prevailed beyond the 2008 season was in 2014 — a 34-7 Montana win.
Is there such a thing as a home field disadvantage? In recent history, yes.
For the Bobcats to hold court, they’ll seemingly need to run the football the way they have been running it, which ranks No. 1 in the Big Sky at over 242 yards per game. No turnovers from Murray and the offense would go a long way, too.
As for the Griz? With a healthy Gresch Jensen back in the saddle at quarterback it’s about keeping the status quo.
Jensen, a freshman who took over the QB job early in the year after Reese Phillips was injured, suffered a concussion against Weber State but returned Saturday to account for four touchdowns in the drubbing over UNC.
The quarterback battle will be worth the price of admission. Murray has accounted for 24 touchdowns and is the first MSU signal-caller in history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Jensen, meanwhile, has 25 total TDs in just nine games and has completed 60 percent of his passes, an impressive stat for a first-year starter.
If it’s a close game, it won’t come as a surprise. The Bobcats have had six contests decided by one possession this year. Their ability to drag games into the fourth quarter ensures a slim margin virtually every week.
All that’s at stake are playoff positioning, recruiting inroads and the collective mood of thousands of fans, supporters and boosters.