BOZEMAN — When you come to Montana State to play football, you are tasked with a certain objective: Beat the Grizzlies.
It’s a goal that transcends era, geography, coaching regimes ... everything. It was the same for every player that has ever suited up for the Bobcats in the past, and will remain the same for every player that ever will in the future, whether they hail from sunny Florida or the heart of Big Sky country.
Dylan Mahoney arrived at MSU in the summer of 2013 out of Great Falls CMR High School to complete that chore. And it happened last year as Mahoney and the Bobcats ran all over the field to beat archrival Montana by a 24-17 score at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula.
For Mahoney, MSU’s starting left tackle, it was pure exhilaration.
“Last year, that was really fun being able to do that over there, and then bring the (Great Divide) trophy back to Bozeman. That was awesome,” Mahoney said. “It was probably one of the highlights of my life and my college career.
“It’s an indescribable feeling. You just don’t know until you’ve done it.”
Mahoney is now a senior captain and one of the anchors of an offensive line that has helped the Bobcats lead the Big Sky Conference in rushing offense.
He had dreams of playing college football growing up, and knew MSU was where he wanted to go as early as middle school.
The game against the Griz will mark Mahoney’s final outing in a Montana State uniform — the Bobcats are eliminated from playoff contention.
Naturally, emotions will be running high come Saturday at noon, not just for Mahoney but for other seniors like receiver Mitch Herbert, linebacker Mac Bignell and safety Bryson McCabe, who share the captaincy with Mahoney.
What would a victory against Montana mean this time?
“It’ll be the last game I play, the last time I put on the uniform, and the most fun game you can play,” said Mahoney, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 285 pounds. “It’s going to be a great memory. It’s going to be an honor to play in that game — it always is every year. So I’m hoping to go out on a high note.”
The Bobcats haven’t won two in a row over the Grizzlies since going back-to-back in 2002 and 2003. Montana’s 16-game rivalry winning streak was snapped in 2002, and the series has since taken on more of a back-and-forth flavor, with the Griz leading by a 4-3 count since 2010.
MSU coach Jeff Choate said last year’s win was valuable on many fronts.
“It was important for us just from the standpoint of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to build here, because there’s a lot of heavy lifting that goes into changing culture when you’re walking into a place and you’ve got a different vision than maybe the previous regime did,” Choate said.
“There’s some growing pains and there are some guys that are going to move on. The buy-in maybe helps a ton when you get a win like we did last year. I think the energy level was good. There’s a lot of positives, obviously. Your goal is always to win the last game you play every year, whether it’s a rivalry game like this or a playoff game.”
Last year, with Mahoney’s help, the Bobcats rushed for 368 yards against the Grizzlies, and required only two pass completions from quarterback Chris Murray to get the job done.
MSU took advantage of a defensive strategy employed by Montana, which had certain defenders standing up and the line of scrimmage. Mahoney and the offense, in turn, kept pounding away, using the simple fundamental of low pad level to generate a great push up front.
The Grizzlies could not stop the run.
Mahoney does not expect to see the same maneuvers from Montana this time.
“They’re not the same defense they were last year,” Mahoney said. “This game is totally different, because when you watch film you’re seeing some stuff but then come Cat-Griz it’s totally different.
“That’s what you’ve got to expect with any rivalry, really. We always feel like we’ve got to go out and play our game and know what we can do.”
Nearly every Montana State game has come down to the wire this season, which validates the notion that the 117th installment of the Cat-Griz rivalry will be tightly contested into the fourth quarter.
The Bobcats have been on the wrong end of many closes games — just in the past two weeks they lost by two points at home to Kennesaw State and dropped a one-point decision on the road to Big Sky rival Northern Arizona last Saturday.
If it is indeed a similar situation this week, the Bobcats will be in familiar territory. Mahoney just hopes it goes MSU’s way.
Not for himself, but for the pact he and his teammates have made.
“We’re never, ever going to give up, no matter what the circumstances are, even if we’re getting blown out or we’re way ahead. We’re going to keep fighting for each other and the coaches and our families and the community,” Mahoney said.
“We just have so much motivation. Especially (for) our teammates. You can look your brother in the eye and say, ‘I’m going to be here for you.’ We all keep our heads up, we all keep swinging.”