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No. 3 Montana State runs all over No. 13 Montana in blowout Brawl of the Wild win

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BOZEMAN — The Montana State football team could’ve let “College GameDay,” rivalry pressure or a host of other factors derail its focus. Instead, the Bobcats put together their most complete game of the season.

MSU quarterback Tommy Mellott, his offensive line and the team’s ensemble cast of running backs powered an unstoppable ground attack in a 55-21 win for the No. 3-ranked Bobcats over No. 13 Montana in the 121st Brawl of the Wild on Saturday afternoon in front of a Bobcat Stadium-record 22,037 fans. The win gave MSU a share of the Big Sky Conference with Sacramento State, something the Cats hadn’t accomplished since 2012.

“It just felt we had the right mindset this week,” said MSU head coach Brent Vigen, adding, “(That’s) the way we’ve approached every week, no matter who we’ve played, and that carries over into a game of this magnitude. You don’t have to all of the sudden become something different. You don’t have to have this out-of-body experience. You can just go out and execute. I think our guys really have bought into that philosophy, and it showed today.”

Mellott made his mark right away, rushing four times for 46 yards on the opening drive, which ended with a 1-yard touchdown run from the sophomore from Butte. That put the electric home crowd and the momentum on MSU’s side, unlike last year’s 29-10 loss in Missoula when UM scored a 74-yard TD on the second play from scrimmage.

“That first punch is important in a rivalry game like this,” Mellott said. “We took the first punch last year. That set the tone. It’s a very unique game, and I think it’s very difficult to overcome things like that.”

The Griz answered four minutes later with a 30-yard TD pass from Lucas Johnson to Malik Flowers, but the Cats marched right back down the field, once again without attempting a pass. Mellott made it 14-7 on a 12-yard run.

Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott talks to reporters after the Bobcats’ 55-21 win over Montana in the 121st Brawl of the Wild on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman.

The tide truly turned on the following drive. Less than a month after Weber State committed four safeties on high snaps at Bobcat Stadium, UM long snapper Grayson Pibal did the same, and it wasn’t a two-point play this time. Senior linebacker Jory Choate, a Bozeman High graduate and son of previous MSU head coach Jeff “Griz Slayer” Choate, recovered the fumble at the 3:13 mark of the first quarter to put the Cats up 21-7.

“I had a lot of dreams about this game, and I can promise you none of them included a touchdown,” Jory Choate said.

Montana State linebacker Jory Choate talks to reporters after the Bobcats’ 55-21 win over Montana in the 121st Brawl of the Wild on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman.

MSU's game at Northern Colorado on Oct. 15 was the last Mellott and two-QB system partner Sean Chambers played together, until Saturday. Chambers made his mark early as well with some bruising, chain-moving runs and his 17th TD of the season on a 1-yard run on fourth down with 7:52 left in the first half.

The Griz looked like they could take some momentum into halftime when they reached MSU’s 1-yard line late in the second quarter. But Johnson fumbled after faking a handoff, and Bozeman grad Callahan O’Reilly recovered it. Once again, the Cats drove down the field, and they carried a 31-7 lead into halftime thanks to a 35-yard Blake Glessner field goal as time expired.

MSU finished with 306 total yards in the first half, including 267 on the ground. UM had 102 total yards and 18 rushing. The Cats didn’t attempt a pass until early in the second quarter on their 16th offensive play of the game.

“We knew we were going to be able to run the ball on these guys, and we kept rolling with it,” Mellott said.

Reigning Big Sky and Football Championship Subdivision offensive player of the week Marqui Johnson continued his strong November with a 27-yard TD run at the 11:54 mark of the third quarter, and another Glessner field goal made it a 10-0 third quarter for MSU.

With 12:50 left, Derryk Snell faked a run and completed a jump pass to wide open fellow tight end Treyton Pickering for an 18-yard TD. The play was inspired by the TD pass from Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry on Thursday night, MSU offensive coordinator Taylor Housewright told the media after Saturday’s game.

“We installed it in practice on Friday at like 4 o’clock, and we ran it two times,” Fitzgerald said. “We just kind of put it in there, and it was pretty awesome to see.”

UM’s Isiah Childs scored 4 ½ minutes later to make it 48-14, the same score of MSU’s home win in 2019, the last Cat-Griz game at Bobcat Stadium before Saturday. The Cats squashed that symmetry with a 3-yard TD run from RJ Fitzgerald with 3:13 remaining. The senior fullback from Dillon is a team captain and dons MSU’s legacy No. 41.

“It was pretty special to score and celebrate with my teammates,” Fitzgerald said. “It was just a fun day to be a Bobcat.”

Montana State fullback RJ Fitzgerald talks to reporters after the Bobcats’ 55-21 win over Montana in the 121st Brawl of the Wild on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman.

Daniel Britt completed a 32-yard TD pass to Cole Grossman with 1:53 left, padding an otherwise lackluster offensive performance from the Griz, due in part to an injury to Johnson in the third quarter that caused him to miss the rest of the game. They finished with 315 total yards and two turnovers (not counting the fumbled long snap).

“They whipped us and whipped us good,” said UM head coach Bobby Hauck, adding, “I like our team, they’re great guys to coach, fired up about them. But the best team won today.”

Montana head football coach Bobby Hauck and safety Robby Hauck, Bobby’s son, talk to reporters after the Grizzlies’ 55-21 loss to Montana State in the 121st Brawl of the Wild on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022 at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman.

The Cats finished with 439 rushing yards, their most ever against UM and sixth-most in program history. They rushed 65 times, attempted 10 passes, tallied 561 total yards and didn’t punt.

“We’ve got some electric guys running the football for us, a good variety of runs, an offensive line that continues to execute at a high rate,” Vigen said, adding, “We’re pretty difficult to defend right now.”

Last November, the Cats finished with 204 total yards and 96 rushing in their Brawl loss at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

“It wasn’t a deal like we were out for revenge or anything like that. We just needed to come out and perform on this stage,” Vigen said, adding, “Last year, we were so dependent on our defense having to make everything happen. Special teams wise, we were in a hole last year. Special teams (now), we’re in a good place. We executed well today.”

It wasn’t Mellott’s most prolific game. He rushed for 141 yards on 15 carries and completed 6 of 8 passes for 104 yards. But so much of his value comes from his threat of breaking off a big run. After all, he nearly broke MSU’s single-game individual rushing record with 273 last month against Weber.

Mellott was the backup to Matthew McKay at this time last year. He was elevated to starter prior to MSU’s first playoff game, and that began a magical run to the FCS title game. An ankle injury robbed Mellott of a chance to lift MSU to its first national championship since 1984.

The pride of Butte is now 10-0 in FCS games he’s started and finished. He possesses a special mix of skills that elevate MSU from a good team to a championship contender.

“He’s an unbelievable competitor, he’s extremely intelligent and he’s incredibly talented,” Vigen said. “He has things that he continues to understand he needs to get better at, and he keeps working at those things. But he is a play-making quarterback in a different way than I think a lot of people see quarterbacks, and that’s OK by us.

“He’s a competitor beyond a competitor, and he’s smart as a whip too.”

Mellott would be the first to say that he hasn’t done it alone. Chambers showed he can fill in more than admirably when he won three games earlier this season that Mellott missed with a concussion. MSU’s O-line has been a revelation. The Cats’ depleted running back room has epitomized their “next man up” mentality, thanks in large part to Housewright’s creative play calling. They have good passing targets and a talented defense that arguably played its best game this season on Saturday.

A day that began with ESPN broadcasting GameDay across the street from Bobcat Stadium ended with one of the biggest Brawl beatdowns in MSU history (Saturday's 55 are the most points MSU has scored in a Brawl). It’s hard to imagine a sweeter feeling for the Cats’ seniors or for first-time Cat-Griz winners like Mellott and Vigen.

“I remember around Thanksgiving every single year going to sit down with my family and get to watch this game,” Mellott said. “It’s extremely special for me to have an opportunity to play in this game and contribute and help the team that I dreamed to play for get a win.”

Email Victor Flores at victor.flores@406mtsports.com and follow him on Twitter at @VictorFlores406

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