BOZEMAN — The looks on the two men’s faces that day last November could not have contrasted more. But they nevertheless expressed the same emotion:
Jeff Choate sat down not long after his Montana State football team capped a surprising come-from-behind victory against heated rival Montana — in the most stunning way possible — and wasn’t quite sure what to say.
“Some of it seems like a little bit of a blur right now,” a wide-eyed Choate told the gathered media following the Bobcats’ 29-25 victory in Missoula. “Processing all this is probably not going to hit me for a while.”
Montana coach Bobby Hauck was similarly dazed. His Grizzlies were rolling over MSU earlier in the day, seemingly poised to blow the Bobcats right out of Washington-Grizzly Stadium. But that didn’t happen.
“I’ve got a pretty sour taste,” said Hauck after coaching in his first Brawl of the Wild game since returning to the Grizzlies as coach 11 months earlier. “There’s a lot of ways to find a way not to win, and this one’s particularly gut-wrenching.”
There was no other way to describe it.
To summarize, it was the Bobcats’ third consecutive victory over the Grizzlies, which hadn’t occurred since the mid-1980s. And the sheer impossibility of the way it transpired made the game one of the true classics in the long history of the rivalry.
After trailing 22-0 in the first half the Bobcats reeled off 29 unanswered points, including three short touchdown runs by quarterback Troy Andersen. MSU took the lead on a 13-yard TD run by running back Logan Jones with 2:19 remaining, leaving the 26,508 in attendance reeling.
But Montana’s Malik Flowers returned the ensuing kickoff 47 yards to the 50-yard line, setting the Grizzlies up with great field position and a chance to steal victory from defeat.
Quarterback Dalton Sneed quickly completed passes to running back Adam Eastwood, Jerry Louie-McGee and Keenan Curran as the Grizzlies moved inside MSU’s 10-yard line. Sneed then rushed five yards to the 4, and Eastwood carried the ball for three more yards to the 1.
There were 14 seconds on the clock, and Montana, on the doorstep of a wild victory, called time out.
But that’s when things got positively crazy.
From the 1-yard line, Sneed lined up in the shotgun with Eastwood at his side. The ball was snapped, Sneed handed it to Eastwood and he crossed the goal line with ease.
Touchdown. Game over. Right?
It would have been, but a split second before the play began Choate had called time out and the official’s whistle negated the play. As he told it, Choate wanted to see what formation the Grizzlies would line up in before deciding what to do defensively.
Only his players weren’t aware.
“The first play where they thought they scored, apparently (the coaches) knew we were going to take a timeout but they didn’t tell any of us,” MSU defensive lineman Tucker Yates said. “Choate didn’t tell any of the defensive guys.
“We called a super, super base play that isn’t normally a goal-line play so we were like, ‘What the heck? We’re calling this?’ So we were all surprised.”
As the teams lined up again, the Grizzlies showed the same formation. Though the Bobcats, on the contrary, were lined up in their heavy goal-line set.
The ball was snapped. Again. Same play.
This time, Eastwood was met hard at the line of scrimmage by Yates and linebacker Grant Collins. The ball popped out. Bobcats defensive lineman Derek Marks landed on it to snuff out Montana’s scoring threat and cap the most consequential goal-line stand in rivalry history.
MSU’s offense then ran out the final 10 seconds and the Bobcats had won. It was a victory that clinched their first postseason berth in four years.
The Grizzlies had lost, ending their season.
Emotions ran deep in the immediate aftermath. The Grizzlies, of course, were crushed.
“It was tough,” Eastwood, a sophomore on this year’s Griz team, told 406mtsports.com. “I wish I could go back and change it. I can’t. It happened.”
“It was definitely tough on him,” Sneed said. “No one wants to be in that position. It’s (your) worst nightmare.”
The Bobcats were naturally elated, and it showed on the field. Their defense made a play with their backs to the wall to preserve its third consecutive win over Montana.
Yates, a Colstrip product whose eligibility ended after last season, was officially credited with the forced fumble but those within the MSU football program said Collins, who was a senior out of Bozeman High at the time, helped dislodge the ball.
“I gave him a good pop and then Grant came in and finished him off and the ball came out,” Yates explained. “We’re never going to forget that play. That’s going to be special between me and Grant for a long time.”
Whether it’s the greatest Brawl of them all is up for debate. MSU fans will probably say it is. Griz fans would just as soon forget it.
Either way, it has to rank right up there with the 1997 game in Bozeman — in which a deep pass from UM quarterback Brian Ah Yat to Helena product Justin Olsen set up a 37-yard field goal by Kris Heppner as time expired to give the Griz a 27-25 victory and continue a winning streak that would eventually reach 16 in a row.
A year removed from what some described as a “miracle” in Missoula, the memories are still fresh.
Last year, a playoff berth was on the line. In the 119th Brawl of the Wild this season at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman, there could be similar spoils up for grabs.
By early November the Grizzlies were a game back of league-leading Weber State in the Big Sky standings, as the second year of Hauck’s second stint as coach was producing more consistent performances — and more consistent winning.
The Bobcats were also chasing a playoff berth in Choate’s fourth year at the helm, and were one game back of the Grizzlies in the league standings.
The only thing that’s certain right now is that the Great Divide Trophy has taken up residence in the locker room at Montana State for the past three years — and that Montana desperately wants to take it back.
How will the drama unfold this time? Sit back, relax and enjoy.