When they needed 1 yard, the Bobcats got it. The Grizzlies didn't.
Montana State's surprise pass play on fourth-and-1 with less than 2 minutes remaining in the 116th Brawl of the Wild allowed the Bobcats to kneel their way to an upset victory over rival Montana on Saturday. The 26,182 stunned occupants of Washington-Grizzly Stadium could only stare as the last seconds elapsed in MSU's 24-17 win.
The Bobcats' win completes Montana's 1-4 finish to a season that began promisingly at 5-1. It also trims Montana's lead in the series to 73-38-5 (with one Griz win vacated).
For the Bobcats (4-7, 2-6 in Big Sky Conference), who owned just one victory in the conference before Saturday, there was little to lose with a late-game gamble. They gashed the Grizzlies (6-5, 3-5) on the ground to the tune of 368 rushing yards, but first-year head coach Jeff Choate wanted this play in the air.
"I didn’t hesitate," said Choate, whose true freshman quarterback Chris Murray finished the day 2 of 9 passing for just 37 yards. "... Literally we practice it every week. It’s something that’s been part of our package all the way back to our Idaho prep week (in August)."
Murray lined up in the backfield at the center of a Wishbone-split of three backs. He faked the handoff, stumbled briefly, then floated a pass into a wide clearing of Griz defenders. Connor Sullivan was there skipping through the daisies for an easy 26-yard completion down to UM's 3-yard line.
The tight end's catch sent the Bobcat sideline into a frenzy unlike any before, save one perhaps. That also happened to a be a fourth-and-1 play.
Trailing 24-7 but down inside the Bobcats' 1 after a third-and-goal pass to Keenan Curran came up just short, Montana brought on its heavy package to try and usher quarterback Brady Gustafson the final few inches into the end zone. On fourth-and-goal, the MSU defense rebuffed the advance and kept a string of 24 straight Cats points alive.
"I should have let my boys push me, but I thought they were going over the top," Gustafson said. "Obviously a big play that swings in their favor. If we get it, completely different ballgame."
The day appeared headed the same direction as Montana's past few home outings in its early moments. After scoring 60-plus points in the last three games at Washington-Grizzly, Gustafson fired a pass deep down the right sideline on his offense's first play from scrimmage. Justin Calhoun hauled it in and 58 yards later gave the Griz a 7-0 lead with less than 3 minutes of game time expired.
Most of the remaining 57 minutes belonged to the Bobcats, though.
Murray answered with an 8-yard run around the right end, the young QB going airborne over a tackler into the end zone with a full-rotation front flip. A few minutes into the second quarter Murray scored again, this time on a 48-yard scamper on third-and-long. It was his longest run of the day and part of a 142-yard rushing assault.
The Griz defense kept it close by holding MSU to a pair of 40-yard field goal attempts in the second quarter, both misses. JR Nelson blocked the first while the second was low and off the mark.
But the Montana offense had no answer for the Cats' newly potent defense. A 10-possession stretch following Gustafson's early TD included seven punts, an interception by linebacker Josh Hill, a kneel-down in the final seconds before halftime and the fourth-and-goal debacle.
A week after running 95 plays in a loss at Northern Colorado, the Griz managed only 59, the lowest in Bob Stitt's two years as head coach. They ran just 20 offensive plays in the first half.
"It was a bad first half and we couldn't give ourselves a chance with some of the things that went down," Stitt said.
After Missoula Sentinel grad and Bobcat kicker Gabe Peppenger's 21-yarder ran the score to 17-7 minutes after halftime, running back Chad Newell extended the lead to 24-7. His 4-yard score was set up by a 61-yard rush from Nick LaSane.
Though UM's defense collected 11 tackles for loss -- Ryan Johnson had 2.5 TFLs and 15 total tackles -- the Cats broke nine runs of 15 yards or more.
"I think it was just sometimes the offense executes and sometimes the defense executes," Cats senior lineman J.P. Flynn said. "We ran those same (big-gain) plays multiple times and I can vividly remember two of those being TFLs."
Brandon Purdy kicked a 28-yard field goal just before the third quarter expired to pull the Griz within two scores at 24-10, and one possession later Joey Counts capped an eight-play drive with a 3-yard touchdown.
Griz safety Josh Sandry sacked Murray to force a quick punt, but the Griz stalled inside Cat territory moments later. Facing third-and-8, a handoff to Jeremy Calhoun went nowhere and then Gustafson overthrew his receiver on fourth down.
"We were gashing them and you had two downs to go. ... When they went nickle (formation), we were better than them in the box and we wanted to run the ball," Stitt explained. "It didn't work out."
The fourth-down incompletion was the final sight of Montana's offense Saturday and of the season, which will end on the outside of the playoffs for the third time in seven years.