BOZEMAN — Montana and Montana State each head into the Brawl of the Wild ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2011 and just the second time in the 119-game history of the series.
The third-ranked Griz and eighth-ranked Cats appear to have locked up playoff spots and are now playing for a seed and a first-round bye in the 24-team tournament. Montana is also playing for its first Big Sky title since 2009, while Montana State has an outside shot if it wins and gets some help.
"We’ve got a big game ahead of us this weekend," Griz coach Bobby Hauck said, cautioning talk about looking ahead to the playoffs. "I mean, we’ve got a team that we’re playing this week that’s won eight games, and they’re going to be a heck of a challenge for us."
The Griz come into the rivalry matchup with a record of 9-2 overall and 6-1 in the Big Sky under the direction of Hauck, who’s in the second season of his second stint at Montana. The Cats are 8-3, 5-2 under fourth-year head coach Jeff Choate, who’s led Montana State to three consecutive wins in the series for the first time since 1985.
“Really impressed with the job that coach Hauck has done in Year 2," Choate said. “I think he’s clearly addressed some issues on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
“We’ll settle it between the white lines the way it’s supposed to be, and it will be a good game.”
3 keys to a Griz win
Control the battle in the trenches
Montana prides itself on playing physical football under Hauck and showed last week it could match another physically tough football team in Weber State on both sides of the ball. That will again be key for the Griz against a Montana State team that’s strong up front.
Montana’s O-line is more mature and deeper than last year, when its leading rusher against the Cats was wide receiver Jerry Louie-McGee with 43 yards. The Griz are averaging 458.9 yards of offense per game, while Montana State is allowing 369.4 yards per game.
The Griz need to protect potentially still-hobbled quarterback Dalton Sneed. They’ve given up 26 sacks, seventh least in the Big Sky, while MSU has 27 sacks, fifth in the league.
“Well, we’re 11 games in, so everybody’s battle tested at every position on both sides,” Hauck said when asked about the O-line. “But those guys have played well. They’ve done a nice job. I think, and I’ve said this many times this season, but I admire those guys on our offensive line because they embraced working hard and improving, and they have.”
Montana will try to win against a Montana State O-line that’s paved the way for the Big Sky’s No. 1 rushing offense with 259.9 yards per game while ranking second to last in pass offense. The Griz will counter with the league’s No. 2 rush defense, holding teams to 112.6 yards per game, its best average since 2012, and having kept teams under 125 yards in eight of 11 games.
Montana is second in the league with 29 sacks, but the Cats have given up the fewest sacks in the Big Sky, 12, with their run-heavy approach.
“Controlling them up front,” Montana linebacker Dante Olson said of the key to countering MSU’s run game. “Like every week, the formula is to stop the run. That’s what we got to do.”
Adapt to MSU’s offense
It’ll be interesting to see who Montana State trots out at quarterback. It’s primarily been Tucker Rovig, but do the Cats dare put do-everything player Troy Andersen back there to operate a power-running attack?
“Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, they aren’t going to give us their game plan,” Hauck quipped. “So, we’ll try to do our best to prepare for any eventuality. If they play one guy at quarterback the whole game, we’ll be ready for it, whoever that is. If it’s 15, then we’ll be ready for him.”
The Cats’ variability doesn’t stop at the quarterback. They’ve had 19 players run the ball this season and have scored 33 rushing touchdowns to 10 passing. Six players have run for 100-plus yard in a game this season, and the Cats have seven players averaging at least 25 rush yards per game, highlighted by Logan Jones’ 66.7 yards.
Then there’s versatile receivers Kevin Kassis and Travis Jonsen that the Griz have to contain. They’re far and away the top targets, combining for 85 catches for 1,068 yards.
Fortunately for the Griz, they have a pair of devouring defenders in linebackers Dante Olson and Jace Lewis who’ve excelled at roaming the field to make tackles from sideline to sideline.
“Just read a key and go get the ball,” Olson said of adapting to different ball carriers. “That’s what football is. So, that’s what it comes down to, right?”
“That’s right. Tackle,” Hauck answered.
WRs win against MSU’s secondary
Montana’s pass offense has been a strong suit since its season opener, when it threw for 427 yards. The Griz feature a diverse group of pass catchers averaging 299.3 yards per game, fourth in the Big Sky, while Montana State is allowing 242.6 passing yards per contest, fifth in the league.
Griz quarterback Dalton Sneed has been more of a pocket passer since his Oct. 19 injury. He has a top-end target in Samori Toure, who’s eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards this season. Toure is on a tear the past three games, tallying 462 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.
Beyond Toure, there’s shifty Jerry Louie-McGee, sure-handed Mitch Roberts and running back Marcus Knight out of the backfield. The availability of deep threat Sammy Akem, who’s missed the past seven quarters following an apparent injury, isn’t known.
Protecting Sneed will give him the time to find his targets, including tight ends.
“They’ll pressure you a little bit. They’ll man you some,” Hauck said of Montana State’s defense. “A mix of fronts. Like to bring the corner some. That’s it.”
Montana will gladly pass for 450-plus yards and several touchdowns if it can. Establishing the run, though, will be key to pick up short-yardage downs and not allow MSU to drop more defenders into coverage.
“They do multiple different things,” Sneed said of MSU’s defense. “As far as our offense, I think we’re doing a good job of executing. I think we need to do a better job of helping our defense and having more sustained drives and keep them off the field.”
3 keys to a Cats win
Keep your QB upright (whoever that may be)
As Choate pointed out this week, Montana is a high blitz-percentage defense. The Grizzlies rank second in the Big Sky Conference with 29 total sacks.
During a mid-week interview with UM play-by-play voice Riley Corcoran, Hauck said he wouldn’t be surprised if Andersen played quarterback the entire game. Of course, the Bobcats didn't send out invitations to watch practice this week, so that’s merely speculation.
Besides, Andersen is playing incredibly well from his outside linebacker position right now, and he's only attempted three passes all year.
In any event, Rovig has for the most part done what’s asked of him — manage the offense, don’t force anything and protect the football. Yeah, his accuracy could be better, but he’s been giving his receivers chances to make plays late in the season.
In his last two games, Rovig has completed 68% of his passes (27 of 40). He has 10 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight starts. Pretty good trends, to be sure.
“If the ball’s in our area we’ve got to go up and get it,” Kassis said. “We’re not an Air Raid offense, so when you get those opportunities you want to come down with it, especially with how effectively we run the ball.”
But if Rovig (or whoever) is under duress and forced to get rid of the ball before he wants to, that can cause problems. If MSU’s running attack is operating at its regular level — No. 1 in the Big Sky Conference at 259.9 yards per game — it will likely take a lot of pressure off the passing game.
Its’ a byproduct of a run-heavy offense, but MSU’s offensive line has surrendered the fewest sacks in the Big Sky this year (12). Keeping the quarterback upright this week seems like it will matter a lot.
Win on 3rd down
The Bobcats are ranked last in the Big Sky in offensive third-down conversions (33.1%). The Grizzlies are ranked No. 1 (46.3%). Each team’s defense ranks in the top five in getting off the field on third down.
Something’s got to give.
Montana State put a lot of time and effort into being better defensively on third down this year under new coordinator Kane Ioane, and it’s paid off for the most part. But it will no doubt be a challenge to slow Sneed and his offensive weapons in this critical facet of the game.
“He’s a young man that makes the whole thing go,” Choate said of Sneed. “You talk about all these component parts but he’s a courageous leader, you can just tell that. He’s a tough kid, built thick in the lower body, hard to bring down in the open field, accurate passer, very strong arm, and he has that confidence, that swagger you can kind of just see.”
By the same token, will MSU’s offense stay “on schedule” and ahead of the sticks in order to maintain manageability on third down? And will it convert at a greater clip?
If the Bobcats can flip the script on offensive third-down trends on Saturday, it will help them immensely.
Throw for 150-plus yards
We listed this as a crucial element in the run-up to last year’s game and it proved to be spot on. It might be again.
It’s no secret what the Bobcats are going to try to do, and that’s run the ball in an effort to soften things up at the line of scrimmage and wear the Griz down. It’s worked in each of the past three matchups with Montana, as MSU averaged roughly 306 rushing yards in those three wins.
But balance is beneficial to any offense, as we saw last year, with Andersen throwing for 158 yards — including a 45-yard deep ball to Jonsen that set up a fourth-quarter touchdown.
If the Bobcats can supplement their running game with a degree of success through the air, it could go a long way.
Though Choate made sure to point out that the Bobcats won’t stray from their strengths.
“Our preparation has got to be excellent, but it can’t be different,” Choate said. “I’m not changing the schedule, none of that. We’re all a creature of habit and we’ve kind of got to stay to our routine and stay focused. But I think our guys will be excited. It’s going to be hard not to be excited.”