The 119th Brawl of the Wild kicks off at noon MT Saturday from Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman. Unlike last year, both teams have seemingly earned berths into the playoffs already, and now postseason seeding and the possibility for a Big Sky title will be on the line for the third-ranked Griz (9-2, 6-1 Big Sky) and the eighth-ranked Bobcats (8-3, 5-2).
We asked 406mtsports.com beat writers Frank Gogola (Montana Grizzlies) and Greg Rachac (Montana State Bobcats) their thoughts leading up to the game.
Q: What is the tone coming out of each program this week? Business as usual or does it mean much more?
FG: Montana abstained from saying anything at the press conference Monday that could be used as bulletin-board material at Montana State. There might be some more energy and MSU-specific chants going on at practice, but the team has tried to shut out the noise by closing practice this week. The sense I’ve gotten is that it means more than a regular game, but I’d bet the preparation this week doesn’t change much because coach Bobby Hauck emphasizes organization and likes to stick to the same schedule.
GR: It’s never business as usual this week, but with both teams being ranked in the top 10 -- which has happened only one other time in the history of this game -- there seems to be a little bit more buildup.. Both teams are also locks to make the postseason, and playoff seeding is likely on the line. The Bobcats don’t seem too caught up in the hype machine. They’re very aware of who they’re playing, but they’ve talked a lot about remaining poised and focused so they can go out and make plays on Saturday. That was one of coach Jeff Choate’s key points early this week.
Q: How do you think the team you cover has been coping with the pressure of this week both in the sense of their goals for this season and in the larger historical context of their team within the rivalry?
FG: Hauck said he hadn’t even thought about if there was more pressure because the Griz had lost three in a row. Remember, he hasn’t lost all three of those, so he might not think about it that way. The seniors, though, are trying to avoid going 0-4 against the Cats. Surprisingly, Hauck didn’t mention the Big Sky title being on the line during his press conference on Monday. I think that means the focus for the Griz is solely on beating MSU. They can still win the league title even with a loss to the Cats, although that might not mean much in the moment.
GR: It doesn’t seem to me that the Bobcats are feeling all that much pressure to begin with. Montana State’s seniors have yet to lose to the Grizzlies, and that has given the team a little extra belief this week. From the Bobcats’ perspective, all the pressure is on Montana. The Grizzlies haven’t lost four in a row to MSU since the 1970s. MSU’s Travis Jonsen, though, shrugged off the notion of MSU worrying about keeping its winning streak intact, saying the goal is to “prepare hard and play hard, and if we win, then we’ll get the prize.”
Q: What has been the point of emphasis for each team in their preparations, especially given the emotional ending to last year’s Brawl?
FG: Montana’s issues were crystallized in the goal line fumble against MSU last season, displaying its O-line struggles, its inability to pick up short yards, its fumble issues and blown fourth-quarter leads. The Griz have addressed all those issues and fixed them. The offensive line is more experienced and deeper. JUCO transfer Marcus Knight has been a revelation at running back, totaling 19 TDs, the third most in a single season in school history. The Griz have lost fumbles only seven times in 11 games, down from 13 last year. They’re outscoring teams 101-40 in the fourth quarter (they were outscored 134-72 last year) and 248-93 in the second half.
GR: I think the Bobcats are trying to treat this week preparation-wise the same as they have each week to this point of the season. Jeff Choate has on multiple occasions talked about the fact that the Bobcats “are who we are,” and they’re not going to deviate from that now. It’s no secret that MSU will try to establish its ground game just like it has against every other opponent. If there is an X-factor within that framework it’s running back Isaiah Ifanse, who has been hobbled due to injury for most of the season but finally looked healthy again last week at UC Davis, rushing for 77 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown. By and large, the Bobcats have turned the page from last year’s emotional ending.
Q: What do you think will make the difference ultimately for who wins on Saturday?
FG: The main areas I’ll be watching are the battle in the trenches, especially with who’ll be the most physical. The Griz showed they could impose their will against a Weber State team that somewhat resembles Montana State with a strong run game and a defensive line that’s highly thought of in the league. It'll be interesting to see how Montana's wide receivers match up with Montana State's secondary. The turnover battle will also be huge in what could potentially be a tight ball game. While Montana collapsed in the fourth quarter last season against MSU, those struggles have been fixed, and the Griz are 9-0 this season when they take a lead into the fourth quarter.
GR: Turnovers and explosive plays, and of course the battle in the trenches. The Bobcats’ defensive line has turned up its physicality in the past few weeks, and MSU’s defense has forced at least one turnover in 21 consecutive games. But the question will be how Montana State will be able to limit Montana’s big plays on offense. The Dalton Sneed/Samori Toure connection can strike fear into the heart of a defense. Last week the Bobcats confused and flustered UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier into a touchdown-less performance. Can they take a page out of that book to use this week?
Q: What has been your favorite moment in the buildup to this week?
FG: As for Cat-Griz specifically, Hauck saying that he couldn’t figure out why MSU would name its mascot “Champ” was some good-natured ribbing. I hope Hauck’s message about the rivalry getting out of hand resonates with people after seeing fans get too worked up on social media or in emails I receive. In the larger scope of the season, there’s so many good individual stories. Left guard Angel Villanueva has been an inspirational one, dropping 40 pounds to win back the starting job in his senior season. Then there’s the resurgence of Samori Toure, and the emergence of transfers like Marcus Knight, Dylan Cook and Patrick O’Connell. Dalton Sneed was playing at an MVP level before an injury but has now returned. And how could you not mention defensive lineman Alex Gubner intercepting four passes this season; that led to maybe Hauck’s best quote of the season, when he attributed Gubner’s success intercepting passes to “this Voodoo BS defense we run.” Those are just a few.
GR: Watching Troy Andersen continue to evolve as a versatile football player has been quite something. Before this year we knew what he could do as a ball-carrier and a running quarterback, but the way he has adapted to his new primary position as an outside linebacker has been a sight to see. You could make the argument that nobody has played as well defensively for MSU as Andersen has in the past four weeks. His ability to pressure the quarterback, defend against the run and run stride for stride with receivers in coverage underscores his incredible athletic ability. All this while he still maintains a vital role on offense. He’ll have to have another big game this week.
Frank: How badly do Coach Hauck and the Grizzlies want to get back into the winning column of this rivalry?
A: Hauck said he thinks about the rivalry a lot, so I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s been eager to avenge last year’s loss. The Griz have been on a revenge tour in the Big Sky, going 2-0 so far by crushing UC Davis on the road and blitzing Portland State on the road after getting upset by both of them at home last year in unthinkable ways. Up next is Montana State for the trifecta.
Greg: Do you think Coach Choate and the Bobcats are feeling any extra pressure having won more games in a row than Montana State has in decades?
A: It doesn’t seem to me like the Bobcats are feeling much pressure this week. They’re the team that has won the past three rivalry games and they’re the ones that seem to have the most swagger right now. I think MSU knows that it isn’t favored to win the game -- whether it’s in Vegas or in the minds of media, fans and observers -- so they way they see it the pressure is squarely on Montana. The Bobcats are simply trying to keep their poise this week so they can go out and execute and perform well on Saturday.