…Blastoff

…Blastoff

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The countdown's over; Sky title, playoff bid up for grabsHow's this for a sky walk? Montana and Montana State, today in Missoula, with no net and high winds possible.

The Grizzlies and Bobcats play football for at least a co-championship of the Big Sky Conference.

"I don't remember this game having as much at stake as it does," Grizzly coach Mick Dennehy said.

That's because it never has before.

In 97 prior meetings, the Griz and Cats never both went into the final game of the season needing to beat each other for a league championship.

Even in 1982, when they wound up in a three-way tie for first in the Big Sky with Idaho, UM's 45-14 victory over MSU happened way back in October.

Last year the Grizzlies needed to win in Bozeman to make the playoffs. They did, but only after a storied 22-second comeback that included an unsuccessful conversion run and a shanked kickoff by the Bobcats, a blind heave from Brian Ah Yat to Justin Olsen for 46 yards, and Kris Heppner's 37-yard field goal as time ran out.

All three of those Grizzly playmakers are back today.

If the Bobcats win, they're Big Sky champs for the first time since 1984. They'll also be off to the I-AA playoffs, which start next week, with the league's automatic berth.

Montana can clinch a co-championship, its fourth Big Sky title in six season, and a likely playoff bid for the sixth straight year - even if Cal State Northridge (also 5-2) beats Idaho State later in the day to earn the automatic berth.

The loser gets nothing but your applause.

The Griz are flirting with 13 straight victories over the Cats. They'll wear T-shirts under their pads with a "13" inside a lucky maroon cloverleaf.

"There's definitely a tradition at hand. But it's a one-year thing," defensive end Eric Buehler said.

The Cats have improved steadily over the past four years. They led Montana at halftime in 1995 and '96, and until that last play last year.

"It's been fun being a part of the turnaround," MSU senior linebacker Kevin Lundstrom said. "We just need to finish the deal. Big Sky champs, the playoffs - they're attainable now. It just boils down to this one game."

There are some remarkable similarities.

Both teams are 5-2, 7-3. In the Sports Network poll this week, Montana State is 19th, Montana 20th.

The Bobcats, who've for years scrambled to catch up with the Grizzlies on offense, go into the final game having gained 4,125 yards. The Griz have 4,119.

Fifth-year seniors Brian Ah Yat of UM and Rob Compson of MSU are the deans of Big Sky quarterbacks and will duel for the third straight year.

"This is a different game to prepare for than most in that they're so much like we are," Dennehy said.

As usual, the game fairly squirms with angles outside the lines.

More than 60 sports bars in 31 states will be filled with displaced Griz and Cat fans at alumni association-formed satellite parties.

Familes of Montana's Hawaiian Connection, Ah Yat and record-holding receiver Raul Pacheco, have journeyed overseas to see the game live on Ah Yat's 23rd birthday.

UM dealt with a mini-crisis late in the week when Heppner, last year's savior, was arrested and held briefly for a minor bad-check charge.

On the night of last year's game, MSU defensive tackle Ty O'Connor was arrested after he and a celebrating Grizzly fan crashed through a plate glass window in downtown Bozeman.

"The game's going to be played at 12:35 on Saturday," Montana State coach Cliff Hysell was fond of saying this week. "Let's not play it on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday."

It's time.

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