BOZEMAN — When was the last time the Bobcats hung one on the Grizzlies? Like, really hung one on them?
And why had it been so long?
It’s a question I had on my mind during the week as Montana and Montana State prepared to do battle in the 119th meeting between the age-old rivals Saturday at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman.
In the recent history of the series — we’re talking the last 30 or so years — things always seemed to come easier to the Grizzlies. Blowout wins of 55-7 in 1987, 49-3 in 1999, 35-3 in 2008 and 34-7 in 2014 signified Montana’s dominance over the Bobcats during a stretch in which coveted bragging rights resided on the west side of the Divide far more often than not.
And there were more where those came from.
For Montana State, winning was always much more difficult.
A 10-7 triumph in Missoula in 2002 brought to an end MSU’s excruciating 16-game losing streak to the Grizzlies. The Bobcats followed that with a 27-20 win the following year.
Their next five wins (over the course of 13 years) went as follows: 16-6 in 2005, 21-16 in 2010, 16-7 in 2012, 24-17 in 2016, 31-23 in 2017 and 29-25 last season.
The Bobcats loved to eek 'em out. There wasn’t a double-digit victory among them.
You have to go back to 1985 to find the last time Montana State comfortably beat the Grizzlies. A 41-18 home victory at what was then known as Reno H. Sales Stadium solidified a three-game winning streak for the Bobcats in the rivalry.
But then came the arrival of coach Don Read in Missoula, and MSU didn’t win another game in this series for 16 long seasons.
Things are much different now. Heck, they’re much different than they were only a year ago, when a forced fumble on the goal line preserved the Bobcats’ 29-25 come-from-behind win.
None of those past difficulties in this rivalry matter. Not after MSU throttled the Griz 48-14 on Saturday.
It was the Bobcats’ fourth consecutive win over Montana — which hadn’t happened since 1977 — and served as their largest margin of victory since a 38-point win way back in 1966.
And it was the kind of beat-down that encapsulated the football DNA of fourth-year coach Jeff Choate, an intense man who takes enormous pride in the implementation of tough, physical football. The Bobcats dominated the line of scrimmage, rushing for 382 yards and six touchdowns to claim their first no-doubter against the Griz in decades.
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It allowed for some sideline celebrating well before the game was over, with hugs abound on the sideline.
“It doesn’t happen very often. Especially around here,” Choate said. “We like to play close games. It was really neat to kind of take a little bit of a victory lap at the end.”
Choate is now 4-0 against Montana. They call him the “Griz slayer,” and there's no arguing that point.
Though he’ll never take credit for it. That belongs to his players.
And the Bobcats are taking on opponents with more passion, grit and toughness than they have in years.
“It means a lot to them, when you can carry that momentum and that emotion,” Choate said. “This can’t be a ‘sometimes’ thing.
“When you have a lot of Montana guys and a lot of Montana guys that want to be able to walk the streets and feel good about who they are ... certainly I think they earned that opportunity today.”
In the postgame press conference on Saturday, Choate was asked how it feels to have brought stability to this rivalry from the Montana State side of things — to have brought this rivalry to a place it hasn’t been in 42 years:
With the Bobcats never backing down.
“I don’t really know how to quantify that. I probably never want to find out what it feels like on the other side,” Choate said. “But I think this is a great rivalry, and what makes it a great rivalry is when there’s balance.
“It’s not a great rivalry when one side is dominating all the time. There needs to be balance. I think we’ve earned a measure of respect, and certainly that’s something that I think will propel this thing as an even better rivalry.”
With a 9-3 overall record (and a 6-2 mark in the Big Sky Conference), the Bobcats will find out their playoff situation when the 24-team FCS postseason bracket is revealed Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time on ESPNU. As will the Grizzlies, who are also 9-3 and 6-2.
However it turns out, Montana State has won nine games for the first time since 2012. Under Choate, the Bobcats are 11-3 now in November games.
This is the time of year when momentum matters.
“It’s one of the things our seniors talked about a year ago,” Choate said. “Their advice to me was, ‘You need to treat more games like the Montana game.’ Obviously now it’s win or go home from here on out, and I think we’ve certainly secured a berth in the tournament. Let’s go.”