The Brawl is Back

After a one-year hiatus, the 120th Brawl of the Wild returns to Missoula without ESPN's College GameDay

By Micah Drew
The Bobcats score at the 2019 Brawl of the Wild in Bozeman. Photo courtesy of MSU

Montana’s two United States senators aren’t often on the same side of an issue, but Steve Daines and Jon Tester joined forces on Nov. 5 in an appeal to ESPN. 

“There’s one thing we agree on, Jon, and that is for ESPN’s College GameDay, I think the best game’s going to be in Montana, the Brawl of the Wild,” Daines said in the senators’ joint video statement. 

“No doubt about it. It’s going to be in Missoula where the Grizzlies are going to take on the Bobcats, and I got a notion that it’s going to be one heck of a game guys. You’ve got to be there.”

Nationwide, those with Montana ties chimed in across social media, including a plea by University of Montana alumnus J.K Simmons, to get ESPN’s premier three-hour pre-game show to broadcast live from the 120th Brawl of the Wild in Missoula on Nov. 20.  

The show has only featured Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams a handful of times, usually opting to visit top-ranked Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) powerhouses. Despite the attention and trending social media tags, College GameDay announced last weekend it would visit the game that has implications for the FBS playoffs between Michigan State and Ohio State in Columbus. 

In Missoula, however, playoff spots are also on the line in the FCS bracket. The Griz have won the championship twice, most recently in 2001, and the Bobcats won in 1984. 

According to the latest FCS coaches poll released this week, the Bobcats are ranked No. 3, with the Griz a few spots back at No. 7. The Brawl will be the only top-10 matchup in the FCS this weekend.  

Zooming in, a Montana State win would seal a share of the Big Sky Conference title, as the Bobcats are currently tied at 7-0 in conference play with Sacramento State, who will play U.C. Davis this weekend. 

The Grizzlies enter Washington Grizzly-Stadium ahead of a game against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in Washington-Grizzly stadium in Missoula on on Oct. 30, 2021. Phto by John Sieber/UM Athletics

The Griz began their 2021 campaign with a stunning 13-7 upset over the University of Washington in Seattle, just the fifth win all time for an FCS school over a ranked FBS opponent, as UW was ranked No. 20 at the time. The Seattle Times called the game “one of the most embarrassing performances in program history,”

Montana was paid $675,000 to play the Huskies and were 22.5-point underdogs. The defensive beatdown started commentary that the Griz line might be good enough to carry them to a national title — the Huskies were held to 65 rushing yards on 27 carries and only scored on the opening drive. 

But the Griz momentum stalled just three weeks later with a tight loss to Eastern Washington in the conference opener, extending a six-game losing streak on the red turf in Cheney, Wash. With only one other loss this season, to Sacramento State, the Griz bring an 8-2 record to the Brawl. 

By contrast, Montana State had a muted start to the season, losing a close 19-16 opener to the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Similar to its in-state rivals, the Bobcats were paid to visit Wyoming and were 19-point underdogs. The game came down to a Bobcat drive in the waning seconds that would have set up a field goal if not chance for a Hail Mary for the win, but a ruling that running back Isaiah Ifanse came up just shy of a first down kept the Bobcats out of the early-season limelight. 

Since then, MSU has dispatched all its opponents, holding three separate teams to a single touchdown and pulling off a win against Eastern Washington two weeks ago.  

Saturday’s meeting will be the 120th to take place since 1897, and a chance for the Griz to regain the Great Divide Trophy after four straight losses, the most since the 1970s. 

Montana leads the overall series 72-41-5, but since the turn of the century, its record is just 11-9. 

UM head coach Bobby Hauck previously coached the Griz from 2003-2009 and oversaw five Brawl wins, but has yet to win one during his return to campus. Montana State, meanwhile, is under the direction of first-year coach Brent Vigen, who spent 15 years working with FCS powerhouse North Dakota State and six years at Wyoming before taking the Bozeman job. 

The last Brawl, in 2019, featured a reversal of the teams on paper — Montana was ranked No. 3 and MSU was ranked No. 8 — and Montana State delivered a 48-14 offensive-heavy performance.

Now, 723 days later, Washington-Griz stadium is prepared to welcome the Brawl back. And even without the ESPN crew in attendance, fans are ready for what they consider the best game in the country.

The Bobcats at the 2019 Brawl of the Wild in Bozeman. Photo courtesy of MSU

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