BOZEMAN (AP) – The University of Montana football team can take an unblemished record into the FCS playoffs with a win over rival Montana State Saturday, while a win by the Bobcats would simply make their season.
“Really, it’s funny,” said MSU linebacker Will Claggett. “You could go 0-10 and if you beat the Griz, it’s a great season. It’s huge. The biggest game in the state.”
The 107th meeting of the two teams is set to kick off at 12:37 p.m. Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.
No. 3 Montana (10-0, 7-0 Big Sky) is looking for its second consecutive sweep of league teams and its first unbeaten regular since 1996. Montana State (6-4, 4-3) would take some pride into the offseason with an upset of the league champions.
The challenge for coaches Bobby Hauck and Rob Ash is to channel all the emotion that comes with the intense rivalry.
“I think we’ll have two teams that will be sky high for a football game and I think … my mission is to make our guys channel that emotion in the right direction,” Ash said.
Hauck said the temperament of the team is a little different during the Cat-Griz game, but said: “We’re pretty demanding about being assignment-conscious and doing things right. Our guys on Saturday will hopefully be focused on doing their job, doing their 1/11th.”
It will be the first Cat-Griz game for Ash, but he’s been hearing about its importance since he was hired in June, and has even received unsolicited advice.
“I’ve literally been getting that all year,” he said, from play suggestions to ideas for motivational speeches and to be prepared for trick plays. “But it just shows the passion that people have for this game and I think it’s exciting and I’m eager to be a part of it.
“This is a game that polarizes the state and invigorates the state at the same time,” Ash said.
Griz senior linebacker Muckie Foreman of Spanaway, Wash., said he quickly learned how intense the Cat-Griz game is.
“It’s always a constant battle,” he said. “They have good players, a good team and good coaching. It’s always fun to go out there and play against guys that all year long you’ve been mouthing back and forth to. What it boils down to is bragging rights at the end of the season.” Montana State comes into the game after snapping a two-game losing streak with a 50-36 victory at Portland State, a team that the Grizzlies edged 34-31 the week before.
The PSU win gave the Bobcats their confidence back.
“It was exactly what we needed,” Ash said. “Our fan base and our players feel a lot better about things now.”
Earlier this season, Hauck has said he was looking forward to the playoffs when he could face a team that hadn’t been preparing for him for a year. Portland State coach Jerry Glanville said he devoted a couple practices a week to preparing for the Grizzlies.
Ash says he hasn’t had time for such preparation.
“I’ve had a tough enough time just trying to catch up with all the teams in this league that we’ve played,” Ash said. But he acknowledged having seen a lot of film on Montana while preparing for other games.
“They seem to play who we’re playing the week before we play ’em,” he said. “We haven’t done any preparation or practicing about them until this week.”
Montana is led by quarterback Cole Bergquist, who averages 214 yards passing and has thrown 17 touchdown passes this season, while Bobcat quarterback Jack Rolovich averages 222 yards passing and has 14 TD passes.
Hauck said it could be a game-day decision on whether leading rusher Lex Hilliard will play. Hilliard, who averages 92 yards rushing and has 12 touchdowns, missed last week’s game with an injured thumb. Bergquist is the team’s second-leading rusher.
Demetrius Crawford leads the Bobcats with nearly 76 yards rushing. Crawford, Aaron Mason and Isaiah Taito have each scored three rushing touchdowns.
The Grizzlies will be without leading receiver Ryan Bagley, who appeared to suffer a broken arm in last week’s game at Idaho State. He averages 69 yards receiving and has six TD catches. Eric Allen has five touchdown receptions and Mike Ferriter, who suffered a similar arm injury last season, averages 62 yards receiving and has four TD catches.
Josh Lewis leads the Bobcats in receiving with 46 yards per game and three touchdown catches.
Defense could be the key to the outcome. Montana is tied for second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 13.5 points per game, while the Bobcats have returned six interceptions for scores.
The Grizzlies will need to set aside distractions from earlier this week, after three players were arrested in a house break-in and an arrest warrant was issued for a former player.
“We need to focus in as a football team and get ready to play,” Hauck said. “Distractions are what they are — they test you mental toughness and to see if you can get by things and focus on the job at hand. Because the game is coming. Whether it’s good timing or not, the game’s going to be played on Saturday and we need to be ready.”
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