BOZEMAN — There’s one big intangible Montana State has used to its advantage during its current three-game winning streak over rival Montana.
When Brady Gustafson threw a 58-yard bomb for a touchdown on UM’s first play in 2016, the Bobcats shrugged it off and didn’t panic. When the Griz moved into MSU territory seeking the tying points late in the fourth quarter in 2017, the defense rose up.
And last year, facing a 22-0 second-quarter deficit, MSU simply kept chipping away and eventually prevailed 29-25, preserving the win with a forced fumble on the goal line with just seconds remaining.
Three times the Bobcats faced serious adversity and three times they emerged victorious.
Grace under pressure has been a key characteristic for MSU in Brawl of the Wild games under fourth-year coach Jeff Choate, and it may very well come down to that again this time around.
No. 8 Montana State (8-3, 5-2 Big Sky) will host No. 3 Montana (9-2, 6-1) for a high-noon tussle Saturday at Bobcat Stadium. The game will be broadcast regionally on ROOT Sports.
It will be just the second top-10 matchup between the teams in the 119-game history of the rivalry.
“It’s probably going to be a game of momentum swings like it kind of seems to always be,” Choate said Monday during his weekly news conference at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. “I think that’s one of the things Montana’s done a really good job of.
“When they get going they’ve turned the gas on a little bit a couple times. That kind of started to happen to us last year (in Missoula). So we’ve just got do a good job of maintaining our poise and staying in the moment, play the next play, and get it into a fourth-quarter game. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”
No team in the Big Sky is rolling quite like Montana. The Grizzlies are coming off a convincing 35-16 rout of Weber State, who before last week was ranked No. 3 nationally and was the front runner to win the conference crown outright.
But UM put an end to all that, as quarterback Dalton Sneed continued to be the catalyst for the Griz.
“He’s a young man that makes the whole thing go,” Choate said. “You talk about all these component parts, but he’s a courageous leader, you can just tell that.
“He’s a tough kid, built thick in the lower body, hard to bring down in the open field, accurate passer, very strong arm, and he has that confidence, that swagger you can kind of just see.”
UM has won four straight games here toward the end of Bobby Hauck’s second tenure as head coach, and with a win over Montana State it will clinch at least a share of their first league title since 2009.
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Despite being a game back in the standings, the Bobcats — who have won three in a row on the heels of a 27-17 win victory at UC Davis — can still mathematically claim a share of the championship with a win, but the stars would have to align this week with a Weber State loss to Idaho State and a Sacramento State loss to UC Davis.
The Cats and Griz are already planted firmly in the playoff hunt, and seeding and first-round byes are also likely at stake.
But in the moment, nothing seems to outweigh the emotion and passion this game always brings out.
“I’m not a big pregame speech guy, and part of the reason is you can throw that stuff out the window after about two minutes of game time,” Choate said. “There’s going to be a lot of emotion in pregame (and) guys are going to have to manage that.
“You almost have to just have that release. Just get it out so that you can go focus and stay in the green zone as we like to call it from a mental preparation standpoint and not go to red.
“There’s going to be moments when things get heated, but both of these programs are class programs and we’ll settle it between the white lines the way it’s supposed to be, and it will be a good game.”
Both Travis Jonsen and Isaiah Ifanse returned to Montana State’s lineup last week at UC Davis, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Jonsen, a receiver and wildcat quarterback, had 93 rushing yards and 61 receiving yards, and scored on a 75-yard touchdown run off a busted play in the second quarter.
Ifanse, a 1,000-yard rusher last season who had been either ineffective or inactive for the past eight weeks, finally looked healthy while rushing for 77 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown against the Aggies.
Troy Andersen has also had a big impact on both offense and defense, which he has continued to do since about the midway point of the season while playing through some obvious pain.
Choate knows that trio, among others, will need a similar showing against a hungry Griz team looking to get back into the win column in this rivalry for the first time since 2015.
“In big games your playmakers have to arrive. Period,” Choate said. “If you don’t have your best guys ready to go compete and make plays for you, that’s going to be an advantage for the opponent.
“For a big game at Davis, to have all three of those guys contribute in major ways on offense — and certainly Troy had a tremendous game on defense as well — was big.
“The one big run that Travis had was huge. I think that everybody felt that Isaiah, a couple of the runs that he made, you’re going, ‘Oh. He’s back.’ That felt really good.”