By Thomas Stuber SKYLINE SPORT
Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott has so far shown a penchant for facing the situation in big games for the Bobcats. However, the Cat Griz competition is a very different beast than your run-of-the-mill game against Big Sky Conference leaders or FCS playoff games.
This game is loved by more fans, media, concessionaires, cops, smoke jumpers, jet pilots… you name it, and just beholden to almost everyone in the state. Each game is scrutinized in real-time and the games that determine the wins are narrated for decades to come.
It’s just a completely different ball game, or in today’s vernacular, a unicorn.
Suitable for any beginner, Cat-Griz will be a unique setting for MSU’s signal caller, which has captured the imagination of fans, especially youngsters, in Montana. Being not just from Montana but from Butte only heightened Mellott’s mystique, and all that attention and reverence may set expectations too high, but he gave them good reason.
“He was able to play in that game last year and Tommy was able to show up in big environments even though he hasn’t started that game yet,” said MSU head coach Brent Vigen. “I think Tommy is ultra-competitive, ultra-focused and he prepares so well. That’s what it’s all about. He understands he’s a guy out there. He’s probably the most important guy in a lot of plays and when he’s asked to make a play I like our chances with those chances.
“The fact that he was in this game, in this environment, last year helps him. Don’t put too much on his shoulders, but understand that there will be plays for him there. We have full confidence in him.”
In fact, Mellott shows no statistical drop in games against top teams as opposed to games against weaker opponents. If anything, he’s a little better in the big games. He has started 12 games in his career. Six against teams over .500 — four were in the 2021 FCS playoffs. Oregon State and Weber State in 2022 were the others. Another six were against sub-500 teams – all in the current season.
He has 50-90 passes for 713 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions against the .500+ teams for a 131.5 passer rating. Throw away the Oregon State game when he had three of his four college interceptions and his rating climbs to 148.5. On the ground, he has hauled the ball 127 times for 840 yards (6.6 average) and eight touchdowns. Against under-.500 teams, Mellott is 67 for 115 passes for 905 yards and eight touchdowns against no interceptions, and those numbers equate to a 147.3 passer rating. He has carried the ball 54 times for 297 yards (5.5 average) and four touchdowns.
“I think he’ll be ready to go,” MSU captain RJ Fitzgerald said. “He’s one of those guys that we believe in as an offense and as a football team. He will play his heart and I have 100% confidence in his ability to do his job for the football team.”
Mellott started showing his skills when he came Off the bench against the University of Idaho late in the 2021 season to salvage a stalled Bobcat offense. His three touchdowns and 68 yards rushing were key, but his biggest contribution may have come in the fourth quarter when MSU was assisted near their own goal line.
The Bobcats faced two straight 3rds and 4ths, and both times Mellott flexed his muscles to go for exactly four yards. The drive resulted in a punt, but fielding position proved valuable as he would set up the winning TD if MSU took over with a smaller field.
He didn’t play against Montana a week later, but played. He had just eight touches in the game and gained 31 yards — 27 on seven carries and four on one reception. Neither team went on offense that day as the UM Special Team Units stole the show with several long punt returns from Junior Bergen, a touchdown from Justin Ford after a botched fake field attempt, and four field goals from Kevin Macias .
Mellott was abruptly moved to the starting role two weeks later in place of Matt McKay, who had started all 11 games during the regular season before entering the transfer portal. He got his first collegiate start on an extremely windy day in a second-round playoff game in Bozeman. He threw in rousing gusts for just 51 yards as MSU clinched a 26-7 win behind his 180 yards rushing and two TDs. A week later, he took the FCS playoffs in Huntsville, Texas by storm with five touchdowns on three TD passes, a touchdown run and a retained score as he led the Bobcats to a 42-19 win over then-No. 1 led Sam Houston State.
The next week in Bozeman, he proved performance was no fluke as he threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns and added another 155 and two more points as he helped the Bobcats defeat South Dakota State 31-17 and defeat MSU for the to send national title fight. After getting off to a hot start by leading MSU into shot on goal on their first possession, Mellott went down with a serious lower leg injury and was unable to return as the Bobcats fell 38-10 to North Dakota State.
Mellott has come up with big games this season too, albeit in completely different situations. After suffering a terrifying concussion against Eastern Washington and missing the next two games, he had to prove he was over the injury. What followed was one of the best passing games of his career against Northern Colorado and then an electrifying game against then-leaders Weber State. He caught on 16 of 20 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns against UNC and ran against the Wildcats for a Big Sky quarterback rushing record for 273 yards, including three touchdowns.
Mellott also played in the 2019 State AA championship game for Butte High. The Bulldogs lost after Bozeman broke a 14-14 halftime standoff with 21 unanswered points to go 49-28. However, Mellott was a standout loss, rushing for 291 yards and running for another 80 with two touchdowns.
Mellott’s efforts have drawn the attention of opposing teams and coaches. His skills were recognized by longtime University of Montana head coach Bobby Hauck during the Grizzlies’ press conference Monday.
“He’s a good player and did a good job,” Hauck said when asked about Mellott. “He leads them in a hurry and he did a good job.”
One of Mellott’s best skills is his ability to analyze a situation, step in late and make plays when big plays are needed. Montana is at its best when it packs and then carries momentum and plays a style where they want to avalanche an opponent. When the Griz have been at their best this season, they’ve had two touchdown leads in the opening minutes of the game and then unleashed their high-pressure defense.
How long will it take for the cerebral but sometimes shy Mellott to settle in and find his groove? It will be a key factor in Montana State’s win or loss against rival Griz.
The Cat Griz game begins Saturday noon at Bobcat Stadium.