‘All Montanans Now’: Led by Homegrown Stars, Montana State on Precipice of National Title

On Saturday the Bobcats will attempt to end a 37-year drought when they face North Dakota State in the FCS Championships

By Victor Flores — 406mtsports.com
The Bobcats score at the 2019 Brawl of the Wild in Bozeman. Photo courtesy of MSU

BOZEMAN — A woman approached Ryan Davis after Montana State beat South Dakota State on Dec. 18 in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.

She asked Davis if he attended the game at Bobcat Stadium. The backup blocking tight end from Billings told her he played in MSU’s 31-17 win.

“She just wanted to give me a hug and tell me how proud she was of us and how proud Montana was,” Davis said Monday. “She was like, ‘You can’t put this into words.’”

The woman grew up in North Dakota and attended MSU, Davis said. She was in Bozeman the last time MSU won a national title, in 1984. The Cats will try to end that 37-year drought when they face North Dakota State at 10 a.m. (MT) on Saturday in Frisco, Texas.

Davis’ interaction on Dec. 18 exemplified the unique passion Montanans have for their college football teams. This year’s MSU roster is no different than the 115 that came before it: full of Montana natives, many of whom were stars. The enthusiasm for this year’s team has been bolstered by generational performances from several homegrown players.

But the statewide pride runs deeper than birthplaces. To some people, the 2021 Cats are made up entirely of Montanans.

“The entire program has kind of fallen in love with Bozeman and Montana, and Montana and Bozeman have fallen in love with all those players,” said Butte High football coach Arie Grey, who played wide receiver for the Cats in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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

Montana made

MSU’s three title teams were all full of Montanans.

The 1956 Cats were led by All-American defensive lineman Ron Warzeka, who was born in Great Falls and went on to play in the NFL. Butte’s Sonny Holland was a center and captain on that NAIA champion team.

Holland led MSU to the 1976 NCAA Division II title as a head coach, with fellow Butte native Sonny Lubick as an assistant. Butte Central grad Paul Dennehy quarterbacked that team and handed off to Butte’s Don Ueland, whose brothers Dan and Ron were also on that roster. Don Ueland and Dennehy earned All-Big Sky selections, as did Mark DeVore (Butte), Delmar Jones (Helena), Les Leininger (Westby), Dick Lyman (Great Falls), Ron McCullough (Great Falls), Ron Muri (Miles City) and Rick Vancleeve (Great Falls).

“(Holland) said, ‘We’re going to base this on Montana. That’s a prime recruiting area,’” said Ken Verlanic, an Anaconda native who started at guard for the ‘76 Cats. “We had out-of-state kids who were good, but we had lots of Montana kids.”

MSU’s 1984 NCAA Division I-AA championship-winning team was led by Choteau’s Mark Fellows, an All-American defensive end who recorded five sacks in the 19-6 national title win over Louisiana Tech. Joe Roberts, a safety from Missoula, helped MSU get there with a 97-yard pick-6 in the semifinals that turned a late deficit into a 25-20 lead against Rhode Island.

The 1984 Cats also got major contributions from Joe Bignell (Deer Lodge), Kelly Davis (Butte), Doug Kimball (Chester), Clete Linebarger (Conrad) and brothers Kirk and Troy Timmer (Boulder).

Bignell, an All-American tight end, set the program record for receiving yards in a season (1,149) in 1984. That mark might be broken Saturday by Lance McCutcheon. The senior from Bozeman enters the title game with 1,113 receiving yards on the season, so his per game average of 79.5 yards would be more than enough to surpass Bignell.

Most of McCutcheon’s yards came on passes from Matthew McKay, but the former North Carolina State QB entered the transfer portal shortly before MSU’s playoff opener against UT Martin. McKay’s transfer announcement came after he lost his starting job to Tommy Mellott, a freshman from Butte.

No matter what happens Saturday, Mellott has already secured legend status among MSU fans. In the three playoff wins, Mellott has completed 52.2% of his passes for 449 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He rushed for 411 yards and six TDs in those three games as well, and he caught a TD pass in the 42-19 quarterfinal win at top-seeded Sam Houston.

“I think it’s every Montana boy’s dream to go and play for Montana State and be the quarterback,” Mellott said after the UT Martin game Dec. 4.

Mellott’s 180 rushing yards against UTM and 34 carries against South Dakota State are both program playoff records for a QB.

Mellott, like the vast majority of his teammates, signed with MSU before Brent Vigen succeeded Jeff Choate as head coach. Choate coached the Cats from 2016-20 and is now the co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach at Texas.

“That guy was a part of our blueprint: highly intellectual, good student, Montana kid. Tommy fit that to a T,” Choate told Greg Rachac of The Billings Gazette and 406mtsports.com.

The MSU Bobcats take on the Idaho Vandals. photo by Dean Hendrickson

Mellott isn’t even the most legendary Montanan who played QB on his own team. That distinction goes to Troy Andersen, a senior linebacker from Dillon who played running back as a freshman and QB in 2018. He was an All-American that year, as he was this season and in 2019, when he primarily played outside linebacker but often lined up on offense.

Andersen is a top-three finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award and will learn Friday in Frisco if he’s the winner of the FCS’ defensive player of the year honor. One of the other two players he’s going up against is Montana linebacker Pat O’Connell, of Kalispell.

“It’s cool that there’s two of us in there,” Andersen said Dec. 8.

The pride Montanans have for their own largely comes from their work ethic, Andersen said.

“It’s a giant state, but it’s kind of one big small town. Everybody knows each other, so they really want to see each other do well,” he said last week. “Regardless of where you’re from, if you see Montana kids playing for the Bobcats, you want them to do well. I think we take pride in that. You wouldn’t want to let down your town or your friends.”

Andersen is one of two Dillon natives who start for MSU, fullback RJ Fitzgerald being the other. McCutcheon is one of three former Bozeman Hawks in starting roles: Callahan O’Reilly is a first-string linebacker, and Justus Perkins is the first-string center.

Chase Benson (Helena) is an All-American nose tackle. When he’s missed time because of injuries this season, Byron Rollins (Missoula) has been his main replacement.

Fellow Missoula Sentinel graduate Rylan Ortt filled in for injured nickelback Ty Okada the last two games, and he played well.

Backup/third down defensive end Brody Grebe (Melstone) has 5½ sacks this season.

“If you want to be the best team you can be in Montana, you have to have the best Montana guys,” Grebe said. “Being from Montana and knowing that other Montana guys are making a difference and we’re succeeding with a large number of Montana guys, that’s a pretty special deal.”

Backup tight ends Davis (a Billings Skyview grad) and Treyton Pickering (Sunburst) have seen significant playing time this season. Pickering has 140 yards and three TDs on 15 catches, including a 33-yard reception against SDSU.

When healthy, Lane Sumner (Huntley) has seen the field often at running back and kick returner.

MSU lists 38 Montana natives on its tentative FCS title game roster.

“If you recruit Montana, you’re going to get quality football players that can compete at a very high level,” said Bozeman High football coach Levi Wesche. “To see this lower population state being able to churn out hardworking, talented football players that are making noise on the national stage, how can you not be excited about that if you’re from the state?”

Map showing hometowns of the current MSU Bobcats, including two from Kalispell.

Bobcat built

Montana’s homegrown pride is mostly positive, but it can turn territorial. People from other states don’t always feel welcome when they come to this one.

Grey, Wesche and several MSU players went out of their way to make it clear that MSU is not exclusionary. The Cats are “built on Montana natives,” Mellott said, but they wouldn’t be playing for a national title without players from beyond the state’s wide borders.

“A lot of guys have bought into what it means to be Bobcat built, be from Montana,” Mellott said last week. “All these guys have been here for a few years now, so if they’re from Portland or if they’re from California, they’re all Montanans now.”

MSU’s head coaches in 1956 (Tony Sorti) and 1984 (Dave Arnold) were not from Montana. Neither is Vigen and nor is Choate. Vigen, a North Dakotan, will at least be remembered for getting MSU to its first national title game in 37 years. Cat fans often refer fondly to Choate, who was born in Ohio and grew up in Idaho, as the “Griz Slayer” — he went 4-0 against Montana.

Mellott’s second TD pass against SDSU was to McCutcheon, while his first was to Nate Stewart, an Akron transfer and Pennsylvania native. Mellott’s TD reception at Sam Houston was from Willie Patterson, a Tacoma, Washington, native who also caught a TD pass in that game. Fellow Washingtonian Isaiah Ifanse, arguably MSU’s best running back ever, broke the single-season record for rushing yards in that 42-19 quarterfinal win.

Ifanse is one of two MSU offensive players to receive All-America honors this season. The other is Lewis Kidd, an offensive lineman from Minneapolis. Kidd is in his sixth season with the Cats.

“It’s like my second home,” Kidd said Monday, referring to Bozeman and Montana. “Just so many great people, so many great relationships built. It’s truly awesome, truly a blessing, a really special place here, and it’s really important to not take that for granted.”

Like Kidd, MSU D-end Daniel Hardy has received All-America selections this season and has fallen in love with the town and state. People have come up to Hardy (of Beaverton, Oregon) at the grocery store and told him how much they love the Cats. At restaurants, children have hopped out of their seats to give him a high five.

“When you’re part of this program, you’re pretty much a Montanan,” Hardy said Monday. “That’s how people see you. That’s how they embrace you. Everything you do is a representation of this state, this school, and it’s a sense of pride that you have to carry with you.

“I love this state. You know how much I’ve talked about the fans and how great they are. I’ve never felt like an outsider here.”

Hardy and Kidd noted that Montana doesn’t have a professional sports franchise. After MSU and UM, the next-closest Division I college is hundreds of miles away. As a result, the Cats and Griz are akin to Alabama or the Green Bay Packers in the eyes of many Montanans.

On the plane ride back from Sam Houston, someone told Hardy that the SDSU game — MSU’s first home semifinal game since 1984 — was already sold out.

“Being the pinnacle of sports here in Montana is just amazing. It’s almost like you’re a hometown celebrity in a way, even though you’re not from here,” Hardy said. “It means a lot to be able to have the opportunity to bring a championship home.”

Aerial view of Bobcats Stadium. Photo by Rex Connell

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