Come high noon this Saturday, Montana’s premier institutions will meet on the gridiron for the 119th time in what MSU head ball coach Jeff Choate dubbed “Montana’s Super Bowl.” Saturday will also make it exactly 1,463 days since the University of Montana has last beaten Choate’s boys from Bozeman, but there is much more on the line than just a winning streak. Montana comes rolling into the Gallatin Valley hotter than any FCS team in the country after defeating number third-ranked Weber State last weekend in convincing fashion, 35-16. This year’s group out of Missoula is led by seniors who have gained national recognition for their performances so far this season: quarterback Dalton Sneed and linebacker Dante Olsen. Montana State has safely secured a playoff spot for the second consecutive season thanks to the leadership of Dillion, MT junior linebacker/quarterback/running back Troy Andersen, along with the production of one of the toughest defensive fronts in the West.
The tension and stakes of this weekend’s Cat-Griz game are the highest they’ve been since 2011, when the seventh-ranked Grizzlies upset the top-ranked Bobcats in Bozeman. Choate described the game by saying, “This is what the Big Sky Conference is all about. Having two good Montana teams that get to hook it up at the end of the season with stuff on the line.” For Montana, a victory Saturday would secure their claim of the Big Sky championship along with a seed in the playoffs. One of the most noticeable improvements the Griz have made from last season is in their offensive line play because of their growth in maturity and size. Their offense is now the second-ranked unit in the Big Sky conference, matching up well with MSU’s third-ranked defense. For MSU, a victory on Saturday would give the Cats a seed in the playoffs, and a consequential week off. Back in October, this matchup with UM was a game that some Bobcat fans were fretting over due to a stretch of frustrating losses and performances by the Cats. But as MSU fans and foes have grown accustomed to the Bozeman boys have once again caught fire in November. Blowout victories against Northern Colorado and Southern Utah kicked off the month, leading into one of the Cats’ more impressive outings of the season when they defeated last year’s conference co-champion UC Davis at home this past weekend.
The reason Montana State will win Saturday is that they are once again playing aggressive, hard-nosed football in November. Many around the MSU football program describe this month as the time to play “big boy football.” With a confident, physical group from Missoula coming to town, there is no other choice but to play to that brand of ball. Expect Choate to try and slow down the game. Teams that have tried to keep pace with Montana so far have usually succumbed to the fact that the Griz have the ability to score in heaps. The Cats will want to grind down an already weathered Griz unit with steady possessions that present their defense with a chance to catch a breather and keep Sneed on the visitor’s sideline. The Bobcats’ game plan is no secret. They will rely on their Big Sky leading rushing attack, especially with the return of sophomore running back Isaiah Ifanse into the lineup. The defense for the good guys has been carrying the team for most of the season, and in order for the blue and gold to pull off their fourth straight state championship Saturday, they are going to need another standout performance from that unit. Safeties Jahque Allen and Brayden Konkol back up the best front seven in the Big Sky conference. Look for the senior duo to try and capitalize on the pass rush MSU creates.
The 119th Exponent Prediction:
This is the biggest Cat-Griz match up Montanan’s have had the pleasure of enjoying in quite a while, and emotions will be through the roof come Saturday. History reminds us of when MSU rose to the occasion as stakes were raised over the past three seasons. UM on the other hand has lost their composure repeatedly in the past three matchups, most notably fumbling steps away from the endzone last year in a game MSU fans have coined “The Miracle in Missoula.” Not only does MSU have an advantage in composure, but they also have the advantage of producing a defense that fans in Bozeman will hold as the standard for years to come. When the defense gets rolling this weekend and the Cats’ offense begins to find their rhythm after a few possessions, you can bet the Griz better bring their best effort. As seen throughout the season, when the Bobcats are playing up to their potential they can beat any team in the FCS. The Cats will ride the emotions of their fans and the superhuman efforts of junior utility player Troy Andersen to victory Saturday, making their current streak the longest MSU has held over UM since the 70s.