All good things come to an end, and with shadows creeping across the Reno H. Sales Stadium’s playing field on the afternoon of Dec. 8, 1984, it likely seemed to most of the 13,000 fans assembled that Montana State University’s miraculous worst-to-first football season was grinding to a close.
Kelly Bradley’s 70-yard touchdown pass to Kelly Davis on the previous drive cut Rhode Island’s lead to 20-18 in the fourth quarter of an NCAA Division I-AA semifinal playoff game, but the Rams were on the march. The Bobcat defense scrapped for its life, with URI on the Montana State 13-yard line seemingly poised to punch in what might well have been a game-clinching touchdown with four minutes remaining.
And then, it happened.
Rhode Island quarterback Tom Ehrhardt threw a pass toward the goal line on a slant pattern. MSU safety Joe Roberts jumped the route, and intercepted the ball. What ensued was beautiful, blue-and-gold imbued chaos. Roberts headed south with the football while players from both teams scrambled to get their bearings. Offensive linemen and receivers pursued, defensive players blocked, and the senior from Missoula whose father played football at Montana, wound his way through the madness to the far end zone.
Montana State led. The crowd came unhinged. And when Rhode Island fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Cats scored three plays later, MSU was on its way to the national championship game. The Bobcats decisively defeated Louisiana Tech in the title tilt, and the school had its second crown in eight years, and third overall.
The Bobcats’ 1984 championship team is No. 10 on the list of the Big Sky’s 50 greatest men’s sports moments.
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Montana State opened 1984 with youthful energy and high hopes. Although it’s easy to tag that team a rags-to-riches story, that ignores the obvious fact that the Bobcats stood as football royalty for 30 years. An intriguing mix of fresh-faced youngsters and war-hardened veterans brought the school its first National Championship in 1956, the NAIA crown, while a star from that team, Sonny Holland, led MSU to the 1976 NCAA Division II title as its head coach. The Bobcats may have won just a single game in 1983, but as recently as the season before that had claimed a share of its fourth Big Sky title in 11 years.
The Cats scraped by Mesa State 30-14 in the season opener before dropping a 21-16 decision at Eastern Washington the next week. The Eagles scored early in the fourth quarter before stopping the Bobcats on three straight possessions to seal the win. Montana State scored the game’s final 16 points in a 34-28 win against Idaho in week three before dropping a 22-6 home decision to Idaho State the week after. September ended with the Bobcats at 2-2 overall, 1-1 in the Big Sky.
But then things started to click. The Bobcat team that rolled into Ogden, Utah, with a now-or-never urgency blocked three kicks and exploded for 498 yards in a 48-0 win over Weber State, then Bradley found David Pandt in the end zone during the fourth overtime as MSU beat Nevada 44-41 in Bozeman. The Bobcats gained 475 yards in a 45-22 non-league win over Division II power Portland State, and a week later fullback Jesse Jones gathered in a short pass, turned into a human pinball, and scampered 80 yards for the game-winning score in a 22-18 win over Boise State.
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The two emotional home wins over Big Sky powers Nevada and Boise State set the stage an enormous triumph a week later in Missoula’s Dornblaser Stadium. Bradley and Grizzly quarterback Marty Mornhinweg staged a duel for the ages, combining for 732, five touchdowns and eight interceptions, but the Bobcat ace tossed touchdowns to Tom White and Missoula native Tom Mahlum in the fourth quarter, and the Bobcats rolled back to Bozeman with a 34-24 win.
One week later, the team that had stumbled out of September with a break-even record celebrated a Big Sky championship on its home field. The Bobcats scored a pair of touchdowns early and never looked back, trouncing Northern Arizona 41-3. The victory gave the Bobcats their ninth Big Sky championship in the league’s 22 years, including the fourth in six years. More importantly, it boosted MSU into the NCAA playoffs for only the second time.
But work remained in the regular season. The Bobcats finished the regular season on Nov. 17 at Bulldog Stadium in Fresno, also closing the door on an ages-old rivalry, facing a talented Fresno State squad. Once small-college rivals, the Cats and Dogs had met every year since 1960. The teams would square off one more time, a 1986 game to settle the score for what was about to unfold, but Fresno State had transitioned to college football’s top tier of teams and former Bobcat head coach Jim Sweeney would lead that program to great heights. Former MSU player and assistant coach Cliff Hysell, who would become MSU’s head coach in 1992, was an FSU assistant.
Fresno State scored midway through the first quarter to grab a 7-0 lead, and after Bradley found Bignell for a 25-yard score midway through the second quarter the fireworks began. Bulldog quarterback Kevin Sweeney tossed a 53-yard touchdown pass to give FSU a 14-7 lead, and tacked on a field goal after MSU fumbled the kickoff to take a 17-7 lead into halftime. The Bulldogs scored late in the third quarter to take a commanding 24-7 lead.
The Bobcats, though, refused to die. Bradley and Davis hooked up on a 19-yarder with 1:06 to play in the third quarter, and after a crucial three-and-out by the Bobcat defense Bradley found Pandt for a touchdown to pull MSU within 24-21. FSU answered with a touchdown to restore its 10-point lead, but the Bobcats pieced together a methodical 11-play, 80-yard drive to again crawl to within a field goal at 31-28. The Bobcat defense forced two more stops, sandwiched around a Bradley interception, and MSU took over 73 yards away from a destiny-changing touchdown.
At one of the season’s biggest moments, Bradley gave his biggest performance. The sophomore signal caller carved up the Fresno State defense, leaving the Bulldogs helpless. He completed four of six passes on the drive, including a 19-yarder to Tommy White on a third-and-10 near midfield and the game-winning 20-yard scoring strike to Bignell, who carried several Bulldogs across the goal line for the score.
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That win handed Montana State the top seed in the playoffs, a much-needed bye week, and a heaping helping of confidence. One of the often-overlooked storylines of Montana State’s magical 1984 season was the continued development of the Bobcat defense. Other than Fresno State, the only team to top 24 points against the Bobcats after the Idaho game was Nevada, and the Wolf Pack could muster only 21 points in regulation.
As many individual accolades as Bobcat defensive players have accumulated in recent years, the standard of single-season excellence at the school still belongs to Mark Fellows. During his sensational senior year in 1984, Fellows battered Big Sky quarterbacks. The Choteau product rolled up a school-record 23 sacks and was named a first-team All-American. Led by Fellows’ first-team selection, three Bobcats snagged national honors and Lonnie Burt, Doug Kimball, Clete Linebarger, Joe Roberts, Tex Sikora and Kirk Timmer each nabbed either first- or second-team All-Big Sky mention.
If ever that star-studded defense was needed during the season, it was in the team’s first playoff game. The Bobcat offense, so productive throughout the previous two months, faltered early against Arkansas State. A-State returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the game’s first 20 minutes, putting the Bobcats in a 14-0 hole. But Bradley righted the ship, throwing three touchdown passes and running one in himself as the Bobcats rallied for a 31-14 win. The Indians mustered only 272 yards of offense on the day, including just 162 yards after the first quarter, as the Bobcat defense rose to the occasion. Fellows recorded two tackles-for-loss and recovered a fumble to key the effort.
Rightfully, Montana State’s offense is remembered as the engine powering the team’s championship drive. Bradley (third team) and Bignell (honorable mention) each earned All-America honors, and each set MSU single-season records, Bradley in passing and Bignell in receiving. Punter Dirk Nelson joined Fellows as a first team All-America choice, and for those that appreciate great work up front, the Bobcat offensive line provided it. Tackle Bill Schmidt (first team) and guard Bruce Randall (honorable mention) each earned All-America awards.
The job Dave Arnold – then the program’s second-year head coach and still one of the most popular figures in program history – and his staff did in holding things together through a rocky start in 1984 was masterful. When he took over in 1983, he was the Bobcats’ fourth top man in a seven-year span. And while the 1-10 record in his debut season doesn’t show it, that year was fruitful in terms of Arnold implementing his systems and identifying the pieces that would fall so neatly together a year later.
Although it produced Montana State’s third national championship, the 1984 season holds a special place in the lore Bobcat football. It was in many ways the final chapter of a glorious three-decade run of dominance, and stands as a story of overcoming long odds and withstanding adversity.