Griz vs. NAU 29 (copy)

Montana senior linebacker Jace Lewis celebrates during the 30-3 win over Northern Arizona on Saturday at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Arizona. Lewis, a Townsend native, and the Griz host Montana State in the 120th Brawl of the Wild at noon Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Staidum in Missoula.

MISSOULA — Perhaps the biggest and most-anticipated Brawl of them all is on tap for this Saturday in Missoula.

Montana and Montana State will renew their rivalry in the 120th Brawl of the Wild after not playing since 2019. But it’s not just that the game is back that makes it’s so huge this year.

UM and MSU are in the midst of seasons that they expect to include deep playoff runs after the Cats made the semifinals and the Griz made the quarterfinals in 2019. The Cats are ranked No. 3 in the FCS Top 25 with a 9-1 record and have a shot to earn a top-two seed and home-field advantage through the semifinals. The Griz are ranked No. 7 with an 8-2 record and should earn a seed and first-round bye with a win.

This week’s game also marks the second consecutive top-10 showdown in the rivalry. UM was No. 3 and MSU was No. 8 in 2019, which was the first top-10 meeting since 2011, when the Cats were No. 1 and the Griz were No. 7.

“There is really nothing like it,” said Montana senior right tackle Dylan Cook, a Butte grad. “I still think I have yet to see Washington-Grizzly at its max, full capacity, and I think that’s what it’s going to be at Saturday. It’s going to be loud and rowdy, and we plan on putting on a show.”

The 2020 Brawl of the Wild was canceled when the Big Sky postponed the fall 2020 season to the spring because of the pandemic. The rivalry game was set to be played in the spring 2021 season, but UM and MSU both opted out of the conference’s six-game schedule.

UM played two games in the spring to help it get a jumpstart on this season. MSU, meanwhile, didn’t play any games while transitioning to a new coach in Brent Vigen following Jeff Choate’s departure in January 2021 to be the co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach with the Texas Longhorns.

Choate went 4-0 against the Griz by beating former coach Bob Stitt and current coach Bobby Hauck twice each. In the last Brawl in Missoula, in 2018, the Cats forced a goal line fumble in the closing seconds for one of the most thrilling finishes in the rivalry. Then in 2019, the Cats rolled to a 48-14 win in Bozeman, their largest margin of victory in the series in 34 years and their first four-game winning streak in the series since 1977.

In terms of the rivalry, Hauck said before the 2019 game that he felt “the animosity and the bitterness around it is out of hand. It’s to the point where I don’t think it’s healthy. It certainly isn’t any fun.” He said Monday that “nothing’s probably changed” in regards to that because the teams haven't played again yet since 2019.

“The thing that stands out is that both sides of it are passionate about it,” he added. “People care about the outcome and that kind of makes it what it is. I think people care here in Missoula and across Montana about how the Griz play every weekend, but it’s probably magnified a bit in this one.”

Choate could never lead Montana State to a Big Sky title. Vigen, meanwhile, has the Cats at 7-0 in league play in his first year and on a nine-game winning streak since a season-opening loss to FBS Wyoming. They have wins over then-ranked Eastern Washington and Weber State.

With nine wins overall, MSU has reached that threshold for just the eighth time in school history. A 10th win would guarantee them their first league title since 2012. Sacramento State is also 7-0 in conference play, so the teams could share the crown at 8-0 or 7-1, or one could be the outright champ at 8-0 if the other loses.

The Griz could play spoiler, but they have more than that to play for because a win should guarantee at least one home playoff game. They hurt their shot to win their first Big Sky title since 2009 when they lost to Sacramento State, their second loss in three weeks after a loss at Eastern Washington, which rose to No. 2 in the FCS. They can now finish as high as third in the conference.

The Griz had gotten off to a 3-0 start with a win over then-No. 20 Washington, making them just the sixth FCS team ever to beat a ranked FBS opponent. At that point, they looked like they might return to the level of dominance Hauck had them at when he led them to three national runner-up finishes between 2003-09 before he left for UNLV and returned to UM in 2018.

Another step in that return to dominance would be beating MSU for the first time since 2015, when senior linebacker Jace Lewis was playing at Townsend.

“As a kid, you just wait until this week to watch those games, I came to a few growing up, too,” he said. “They’re high intensity, and this is a fun game to be a part of now.”

Both teams have fought through multiple injuries to still have successful seasons. UM has gone with seven different starting offensive lineups and eight different starting defensive lineups while starting 19 different players on offense and 18 on defense.

The Griz lost quarterback Cam Humphrey for four games and have been without Gabe Sulser, a slot receiver and punt returner, since Oct. 2. They’ve been missing All-American running back Marcus Knight since the spring, and backup Nick Ostmo got injured in fall camp and has had just one carry. They got down to fifth-string running back Junior Bergen due to more injuries, although third- and fourth-stringers Xavier Harris and Isiah Childs have recently returned.

UM has also been without Cook the past two games and was missing center AJ Forbes for one game, but he returned last week. Starting right guard Colton Keintz retired after three games, thrusting Moses Mallory into a bigger role after he rotated with Keintz.

On defense, UM has been back to full strength the past four games, aside from recently missing defensive tackle Eli Alford, who’s rotated with starter Alex Gubner. The defense was hit hard by injury and illness between the third and sixth games, missing safety Gavin Robertson and defensive ends Joe Babros, Justin Belknap and DeAri Todd.

Two key players who’ve played every game are Lewis and Kalispell Glacier grad Pat O’Connell, who are both on the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the top defensive player in the FCS. It's those in-state players who've helped teach out-of-state guys about the rivalry.

“It’s a big deal,” said Humphrey, a Seattle native. “I’ve been here for a handful of years now, and it’s one of the biggest games I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m really looking forward to starting in it this year.”

For Montana State, Vigen classified starting running back Isaiah Ifanse and backup Elijah Elliott as day to day. Ifanse is on the watch list for the Walter Payton Award, which is given to the top offensive player in the FCS. The junior has the third-most rushing yards in the FCS at 1,208, as well as eight rushing TDs and a yards-per-carry average of 6.3.

Vigen also said Monday that starting right tackle TJ Session will likely miss “a few weeks.” Session, Ifanse and Elliott suffered leg injuries in Saturday's 20-13 win over Idaho on senior day. Rush Reimer replaced Session in Saturday's game and is listed as the first-string right tackle on MSU's latest depth chart. 

The Cats have been without starting defensive tackle Kyle Rygg since the season opener, when he went down with a leg injury. Starting receiver Jaden Smith missed the Idaho game but is on the depth chart with an "or" between his name and graduate transfer Nate Stewart, who missed the first eight games with a broken foot.

Like UM, MSU has dominated with defense. The name to know is linebacker Troy Andersen, a Dillon grad who’s on the Buck Buchanan Award watch list.

“My first opportunity to be part of Cat-Griz is extremely exciting,” Vigen said. “Looking forward to this week. Our guys are really excited, and it's good that we're within this week. There's no looking ahead, there's no looking back. We're in this week here with a lot to play for.”

Victor Flores, who covers Montana State for 406mtsports.com, contributed to this article.

Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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