In 1899, The Agricultural College of the State of Montana was in the middle of what would become a six-game winning streak against their bitter rival, the University of Montana. After that year’s 38-0 victory for the Ag school, the Bozeman Avant Courier reported that, “They ran around, over, under and through them; kicked the ball over them, just to save carrying it, and then got it again; they took turns in making touchdowns; in fact, did about everything but give their opponents a chance.” This Saturday in the rivalry’s 119th meeting, the Ag school that is now MSU will look to repeat history, as this year’s team looks to build on the win streak against UM.
The first contest between the Treasure State’s crown institutions took place in 1887, making the Cat-Griz contest the 31st oldest rivalry in college football and the oldest rivalry in the football championship subdivision west of the Mississippi river. The earliest seasons of the rivalry were inconsistent in schedule, sometimes playing twice a season and sometimes taking a year-long hiatus. Regardless, the rivalry caught flame from its birth, creating one of the most intense matchups in college athletics. The Missoulan describing the 1903 meeting as “Highly Interesting With No Fatalities in the Contest.”
In 1918 the rivalry was put on hold briefly, as World War I and the influenza epidemic caused both universities to spare the health of their football players, who were also cadets in the Student Army Training Corps. The only former Bobcat football player who served in battle was star fullback Cyrus “Cy” Gatton, who was killed in action one week before armistice. Gatton was named a captain in theExponent’s 1933 Bobcat All-Time team. The blue and gold rekindled their series with the Grizzlies in 1919, resulting in a memorable 6-6 tie where the teams would play in multiple inches of standing water at the old Roundup Stadium in Bozeman.
The rivalry paused once again during World War II. The Bobcats enlisted in droves, including 14 previous football letterman who perished while serving fearlessly in the United States military. Montana State lost more former players to World War II than any other football program in the nation. Frank Whitney of the Washington Post wrote, "As students of Montana State College, yell for their Golden Bobcat football team to roar on to victory when the sport is resumed, there will be lumps in their throats … No college football team has been as hard hit by World War II as Montana State." Our great rivalry continues with thanks to those former and current students of MSU and UM who have sacrificed and continue to serve our country in times of need.
Beginning with the Bobcats’ acceptance into the NCAA in 1957, this current era has been the most competitive and meaningful the rivalry has seen throughout its history. Since becoming equal in competition level, the Bobcats and Grizzlies have a record of 32-29, with UM leading the series. The Cats would win the majority of contests in the 60s and 70s, but the rivalry again became competitive in the 80s. One game in particular that sticks out during this time is the match-up of 1984, where MSU would go down to UM 24-12 at halftime. All-American tight end Joe Bignell, the father of recent All-American MSU linebacker Mac Bignell, and a stout Bobcat defense would go on to dominate the Griz in the second half, continuing a season that would result in MSU’s third national championship.
The 1990s and early 2000s were dark times for Bobcat nation as UM would enjoy the fruits of what is now referred to as the streak, a stretch of time where Montana State failed to defeat their rivals from Missoula 16 straight times. Following the streak, the rivalry is once again at its full potential, with the Griz holding a close 9-7 advantage.
Currently Montana State is on a three-game winning streak against the maroon and silver, the longest streak MSU has held since 1985. This year’s contest will feature both teams ranked inside the top 10, and the winner will end up with a seed in this year’s FCS playoffs. Montana could walk out of Bobcat stadium with a claim of the conference crown.
The history of this rivalry is unparalleled by any in the Rockies. Saturday’s high noon showdown on the plains where the Bridger and Gallatin ranges meet will have the chance to become another memorable addition to this rivalry’s great story. We cannot appreciate all that we as students, alumni, faculty and Montanans have in this matchup without understanding the deep history of this game. Enjoy cheering on the blue and gold this weekend and embrace the vim made possible by those before you.