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'It’s kind of hard to ignore': There's no escaping talk of the Cat-Griz rivalry, even in July — and during a pandemic

'It’s kind of hard to ignore': There's no escaping talk of the Cat-Griz rivalry, even in July — and during a pandemic

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Jeff Choate, Bobby Hauck (copy)

Montana State coach Jeff Choate, left, and Montana coach Bobby Hauck greet each other prior to the 119th Cat-Griz game last November in Bozeman. Choate and Hauck were among those to talk about the heated in-state rivalry during the Big Sky Football Kickoff earlier this week.

MISSOULA — Portland State coach Bruce Barnum couldn’t get Montana State coach Jeff Choate to crack Thursday during the Big Sky Football Kickoff.

Already 37 minutes into a Zoom call that included Barnum, Choate, former Montana assistant and current Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie, and Kickoff host Mariluz Cook, Barnum tried to bring some humor into the conversation by asking Choate a simple question with a straight face: “Where is Bobby the head coach at?”

Seemingly perplexed, Choate responded by saying, “Where do I think he’s at right now?”

“No, what university is Bobby at?” Barnum asked again, now trying to conceal his smile.

“What university?” Choate said while leaning forward seemingly in bewilderment about the question but quickly catching on as Barnum started to ask the question again. Choate pointed his left thumb over his left shoulder and promptly said, “The one over the hill,” before laughing.

Not pleased, Barnum the instigator, who was trying to get Choate to say “Montana,” asked again, “No, what university is it?”

The fourth-year MSU coach wasn’t going to cave, replying “Hey man, we don’t get too involved in that. We want to downplay this. I think people get too excited about that game here in the state of Montana.”

“Yeah they do, it’s a fun one to watch for FCS football,” Barnum said before letting the conversation get back on course after about 40 seconds of off-the-wall talk that drew laughs from all four people on the video conference call.

Choate, Hauck, Griz wide receiver Samori Toure and Cats offensive lineman Lewis Kidd all spoke about the in-state rivalry Thursday or Friday while the viability of the season and the 120th iteration of the game remained unknown. There simply was no escaping talking about the Cat-Griz rivalry and the mid-November Brawl of the Wild game, even in July — and during a pandemic.

Like Choate, Hauck has refused to say the name of his team’s rival. He and three former players went an entire press conference last season without saying MSU’s school or mascot name. That came during the same interview session when Hauck mentioned that he felt "the animosity and the bitterness around (the rivalry) is out of hand."

The MSU name, though, has been elevated recently under Choate, who’s owned the rivalry by winning his first four matchups. It’s the Cats’ longest winning streak since they won six straight from 1972-77.

When asked how he shifts the balance of power from Bozeman back to Missoula, Hauck said: “It’s already done.” Except the recent head-to-head results say otherwise.

Hauck has only been on the losing end of the last two since he returned to UM, but the 2018 loss included a blown fourth-quarter lead and a goal line fumble in the closing seconds. Last year’s 48-14 blowout was MSU’s largest margin of victory in the rivalry since 1966 and came with UM one win away from capturing at least a share of its first official Big Sky title since 2009.

“We need to win that game,” Hauck acknowledged after his initial comment. “They kicked our ass last year, and we’re not pleased about it.”

The Cats have found a formula to beat Montana by pounding the ball on the ground. They’re averaging 325.3 rushing yards per game and have run for 17 touchdowns against the Griz in four games.

“There’s a pretty simple recipe for our success in those games, and if you look at it, I think we’ve come close to 400 yards rushing in each one of those,” Choate said. “I think just consistently doing what we do regardless of the scoreboard. We were down 22 in Missoula two years ago and we didn’t change what we did a whole lot; we were able to complete a couple passes down the sideline. But every team is different, every situation is different.

“I’m sure they’re hungry to get back on the good side of the column up there in Missoula. For us right now, quite honestly, that seems like a thousand miles away. … We’ll worry about them when we get to them. I hope we get to them. That’s what I hope. And if we do, we’ve got a pretty good blueprint for how to take care of it.”

The script has been flipped, and the Cats have their own mini version of The Streak, which was UM’s 16-game win streak over MSU from 1986-2001.

No player on the Cats roster has lost to the Griz. Maybe that’s partly why Kidd, a preseason all-conference pick, said is favorite place to play in the conference is Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

“They’ve got a great stadium,” Kidd said. “They’ve got a lot of loud fans. Every time we go there it seems like there’s double of what there is normally. It’s a great atmosphere and a lot of fun to play in.”

He later hit on what made the game seemingly bigger than life.

“It’s the best game of the year every year,” Kidd said. “It’s crazy how the split is. It’s been awesome to be on the winning side of that (four-game) streak here since I’ve been here, because I know in the past it’s been kind of tough for MSU.

“It’s so much fun. The energy … you get the most competitive side out of everyone from both sides. The fans are great and there’s just a lot of history behind it. Coming in as a freshman I really had absolutely no idea what it was all about. And then after that first year it’s like, ‘Yep, that’s what you’re itching for all year.’ That’s what you’re looking forward to.”

In a stunning occurrence, no player on the Griz roster has won a game against the Cats. Last year’s seniors went their entire career without playing in a victory over their in-state rival.

This year’s seniors could miss out on even having another opportunity to get a win in the rivalry if the season is canceled because of the pandemic. That includes Toure, a preseason all-conference honoree, who actually named Montana State when asked which team he’s always fired up to face.

“The electricity, whether we played them (in Missoula) or in Bozeman, it’s just unmatched,” he said. “That rivalry is something I never really understood before I got here. Even when I redshirted, it kind of didn’t even resonate with me. Once I played in that game, all it took was like a few snaps and I knew that this is one of the biggest rivalries in college sports.

“I never want to lose to them again.”

Hauck and Choate have come together on one topic. They participated in a "Mask up Montana" public service announcement earlier this month, a move to help keep people safe and hopefully make it possible to play football, especially the Brawl of the Wild game.

“They’re all big (games), but I think there’s one the third week in November that’s pretty big in the state of Montana,” Choate said, again avoiding mentioning Montana's school name or team mascot. “It’s kind of hard to ignore that one.”

Billings Gazette sports reporter Greg Rachac contributed to this report.

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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