Much has changed in the year since Montana State last faced arch-rival Montana in football. The Bobcats have fallen out of Big Sky title contention while dealing with a wave of late-season injuries on both sides of the ball that have tossed the two-deep into turmoil. Montana’s football program has changed coaches, quarterbacks, and replaced an array of talented players on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
But one thing, according to MSU's Tim Cramsey, has remained the same.
“Their defense, man,” says the third-year offensive coordinator. “Their defense is really sound, really well-coached, and really good.”
That matchup, the Big Sky-leading Bobcat offense against an attacking Montana defense that leads the nation in sacks, is the starting point of most conversations about this year’s Cat-Griz game, which takes place in Bozeman Saturday at 12:10 pm. Two of the FCS football’s most high-profile individuals – MSU signal caller Dakota Prukop, among the nation’s top five in total offense all year, and FCS sacks leader Tyrone Holmes of Montana – line up at the fulcrum of that showdown. So, too, do potential All-America offensive linemen John Weidenaar and J.P. Flynn for the Bobcats, and an assortment of talented Grizzly linebackers and defensive backs.
Ninth-year Bobcat head coach Rob Ash says games are often decided away from pre-game hype. “A lot of times, it’s the other matchup – in this case how our defense does against Montana’s offense – that is really important,” he said.
The Bobcat defense faces an enormous challenge, says MSU defensive coordinator Kane Ioane. “They really spread the field well and create one-on-one matchups,” said the man who has been involved in every Cat-Griz game since his freshman year as a Bobcat safety in 2000. “And they have the personnel to win one-on-ones. Their receivers are very good, and even though everyone thinks they throw it all over the place they’re 50-50 run-pass, and their run game is very good.”
The game will serve as an introduction to one of the nation’s oldest continuous rivalries for Montana head coach Bob Stitt.
“I think it’s going to be similar to me walking into the stadium the first game against North Dakota State," said Stitt. "You really don’t know what to expect, and it’s ten times greater than you ever imagined it being."
The Grizzlies exploded for 57 points last weekend upon the return of starting quarterback Brady Gustafson. Ioane said his presence is noticeable. “Their offense just operates smoothly (with Gustafson),” Ioane said. “He does a great job doing what Coach Stitt wants done, and he’s very smart.”
Montana’s prolific, up-tempo offense squares off against a Montana State defense that has made incremental improvements through the last half of the season. Much of the gains are triggered by an improved ability to pressure the quarterback and force turnovers. The Cats have four strip-sacks in the last three games and nine takeaways in the last four after forcing just four opponent turnovers in the season’s first six games.
“The defense has played better,” Ash said. “Part of it is personnel, and part of it is scheme. But the net result is that they have improved as the season’s gone on.” The emergence of defensive end Jessie Clark has triggered that resurgence. The junior has five sacks and three forced fumbles in the last three games.
Montana State enters Saturday’s game with a 5-5 record, looking to extend the program’s string of consecutive winning seasons to 14 with a victory. Montana hopes to seal an FCS Playoff bid and, if things break right in other games, could snag a share of the Big Sky Championship.
But none of that matters when the Cats battle the Griz. Says Ioane, “It’s just a special, special day.”
“It means a lot to the people in this state," said Stitt. "That’s why we gotta go win the ball game. For our fans and the passion they have. We can’t let ‘em down. Whoever wins this one is going to earn it. Our guys are going to be ready to play.”