VICTOR FLORES and LUCAS SEMB 406mtsports.com
BOZEMAN — ESPN’s College GameDay decided to spotlight a rivalry soccer game that has all the makings of a head-to-head battle.
The No. 3 Montana State Bobcats (9-1, 7-0 Big Sky) are 1.5-point favorites to defeat the No. 13 Montana Grizzlies (7-3, 4-3) in the 121st Brawl of beating the Wild, which begins at noon on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
The Cats have one of the best rushing offenses in the Football Championship Subdivision, while the Griz have one of the best rushing defenses. A seesaw UM offense meets an inconsistent MSU defense, and both teams have kick/punt returners that can swing a game’s momentum.
Saturday’s Cat Griz game will be televised on MTN (CBS station in Montana), streamed on ESPN+ and aired on Bobcat Radio Network, Grizzly Network and Varsity Network.
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Here are three keys for each team:
3 keys to a Cats win
Building and maintaining the run
The Cats certainly want to pass well, but their offensive strength is on the ground. They lead FCS with 6.6 yards per carry and are second with 316.6 rushing yards per game.
MSU rushed for 168 yards at 5.3 yards per carry against Oregon State, which has given up 849 yards (94.3 per game) at 3.5 YPC to its nine Football Bowl Subdivision opponents. The Cats compiled 325 yards on 7.2 YPC against now-No. 24 UC Davis and 347 on 6.5 YPC against now-No. 7 Weber State. Without MSU, Davis would have a top 40 FCS rushing defense and Weber would be in the top 15.
The Griz lead Big Sky with 97.3 rushing yards against 2.6 YPC, but they allowed Weber to rush for 192 yards with 3.8 YPC, and now No. 2 Sacramento State finished with 180 yards and 5.3 ypc vs. UM.
MSU backup quarterback Sean Chambers, who has rushed for 622 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, will return after a three-game injury layoff. Running back lane Sumner, who has 450 yards in five games at 6.2 ypc, could also play. So could All-Americans Isaiah Ifanse, who hasn’t seen the field since the FCS title game in January.
MSU’s defense has allowed every FCS team they’ve faced so far this season at least one game of 34+ yards (oddly enough, Oregon State’s longest game against MSU was 26 yards, despite their 68-28 rushed for a total of 538 yards to win). MSU’s last two opponents, Northern Arizona and Cal Poly, executed successful trick plays and surprised the MSU defense in other ways.
UM’s offense has produced just 14 plays of at least 34 yards this season. If the Cats can improve their discipline and fix other issues that lead to chunk yardage, they have a good chance of slowing UM, especially if they keep forcing turnovers (they lead the Big Sky and are at the top at 23 in the FCS generated sales).
Of course, lack of discipline also contributes to penalties. The Griz have only been flagged 40 times (best in Big Sky) while the Cats have committed 49 infractions. This seemingly even matchup could be dictated by referee whistles, or lack thereof.
Win the Special Teams Battle
In last year’s brawl, MSU held UM’s offense out of the end zone after Cam Humphrey’s 74-yard TD pass to Junior Bergen passed on the second play of scrimmage. Kevin Macias hit all five of his field goals, and Justin Ford returned a fumble for a TD after a failed Cats fake field goal attempt. It’s unlikely the score would have changed had Macias missed at least one field goal or if Ford’s return hadn’t happened, but who knows how this game might have played out had MSU stayed longer within striking distance?
Macias is gone, and the Griz are just 7-of-12 in field goals and 44-of-49 in point-after-trips this season. The Cats are 14 of 19 and 54 of 56, respectively. UM still has Malik Flowers, one of the best returners in Big Sky history, while MSU has a dangerous kick returner in Marqui Johnson and two strong punts in Taco Dowler and Coy Steel -Returner has. UM’s Patrick Rohrbach has better punting numbers than MSU’s Bryce Leighton, but both are solid.
If either of them finds an advantage for a particular team on Saturday, it could make all the difference.
3 keys to a Griz victory
Protect the QB
If starting quarterback Lucas Johnson can play, the Griz will want to allow him to finish it. Twice this season he’s been eliminated from games with injuries that just tip their trajectory arrow down. Second in the Big Sky Conference on points accounting for (150), Johnson is creating opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.
The other benefit to his protection besides health would be extra time to dissect the Bobcats suspect secondary. If he has time in the bag he could have a big game through the air. In back-to-back weeks, the Bobcats have conceded 459 passing yards to northern Arizona and 317 to runner-up Cal Poly.
Force the pass
The Bobcats are first in Big Sky with rushing yards per game at 316.6. They have four different players who are averaging over 50 yards down per game. It will not be in UM’s best interest to let them grow to their strength.
Instead, the Griz must do whatever it takes to force MSU into the skies more often. Whether it’s putting pressure on or ending a few runs early, they have to do it. While MSU has some weapons in the passing game, it only has one player with more than two points. With Justin Ford, Robby Hauck and others in UM Secondary, this game script would go in his favor.
Recognize the stakes
There’s always action in the Brawl of the Wild, one of the greatest rivalries in all of college football. But even more so this year, where the Griz can control their own destiny and play spoilers – two birds with one stone in one of the biggest games of the year.
For starters, Montana State is playing for two things: keeping its 17-game winning streak alive at home and earning a slice of the Big Sky Conference championship. The Griz can put a stop to both things. Meanwhile, a win can seal the Griz’s playoff ticket. They may still come in at a loss, but they’d rather not put their fate in the hands of the selection committee.