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A new era: ‘Cats dominate Montana, cement status as state’s top university

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Sophomore quarterback Tommy Mellott (4) and tight end Treyton Pickering (80) carry the 307-pound Great Divide Trophy into the locker room after trouncing their rival Montana Grizzlies on Nov. 19. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ


BOZEMAN—Nov. 19, 2022 was a paramount day in the history of Montana State University football and it played out as millions around the country were able to tune in and witness Bozeman in all its beauty.

ESPN’s flagship college football broadcast, College GameDay, went live before dawn in subzero temperatures on the MSU campus. By mid-morning, the quintessential Bozeman sunshine emerged to display a snow-kissed Gallatin Valley, highlighting it for GameDay’s more than 2 million viewers from coast to coast to see.

Hundreds of fans piled up around the GameDay set on Dyche Field just across West Kagy Boulevard from Bobcat Stadium bearing clever signs and wearing many layers to brave the frigid temperatures. Producers for the show confirmed that Saturday morning was the coldest in its history.

By mid-afternoon, with the eyes of the nation upon it, the Bobcat football team had affirmed its ascension to the top of the Big Sky Conference and put an exclamation point on the day by humiliating their archrival University of Montana like never before.

Montana State exerted its authority, physically and symbolically, from start to finish during a 55-21 win that marked the second-largest margin for a Bobcat victor during the Big Sky Conference era.

“What a day for Montana State and the football program, and then our fans and then to put that game together,” MSU head coach Brent Vigen said. “I felt like from the start, the look in our eyes, the execution, just from that first drive… we didn’t let up.

“Any time you can put the numbers up we did and to hold them in check, against a good football team, I was proud of our players, excited for our coaches and obviously excited for our fans, all they got to experience today.”

Lee Corso announced his pick for the game by donning the head gear of Champ, the MSU mascot. PHOTO BY JOSHUA R. Gateley/ESPN Images

What’s in a brand? Football observers and citizens alike wondered and debated how ESPN and College GameDay would represent Montana. By and large, the presentation of Bozeman, the Gallatin Valley and the fiercest rivalry in the West was served up to newcomers with accuracy, poise, and fun.

Central to the MSU football brand is the running game.

Vigen enforced that aspect of the brand on the game’s first possession. Montana State ran the ball on all six plays of its opening touchdown drive, exerting its authority on head coach Bobby Hauck’s Montana Grizzlies, an outfit that has embraced a villain persona and projects an ‘us against the world’ attitude.

UM’s defense entered the game with the best run defense in the Big Sky Conference—the premier part of the Grizzly football brand. Yet that unit had no answer for MSU’s diverse, explosive and absurdly productive rushing attack.

Sophomore quarterback Tommy Mellott and these Bobcats rushed for 155 yards on the first two drives, building a 14-7 lead without throwing a pass.

MSU ran the ball 23 times on its first 24 plays of the game and piled up the most rushing yards Montana had given up this season before the second quarter was even half over. The ‘Cats surpassed 200 yards on the ground on its 32nd rush (and 33rd offensive play) while building a 31-7 lead by halftime.

“Their defensive rushing numbers are really good but where they get you is when they get you in passing situations,” Vigen said. “We wanted to stay ahead of the chains as best we could and we felt like we could get on the edges, which we did.”

Mellott rushed for 141 yards and two touchdowns against the Grizzlies. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

For years, folks around the Treasure State have mocked the Bobcats as the Grizzlies’ little brother.

MSU did win the national championship in 1984, but the Grizzlies overshadowed that accomplishment by winning every game against the ‘Cats for 16 years in a row, from 1986 until 2002.

Fans took advantage of the national broadcast to let everyone know their feelings. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

Saturday, Montana State fully embraced the moment, running the ball relentlessly down Montana’s throat and physically dominating the Grizzlies. It was a bitter pill to swallow for coach Hauck. From 2003 until 2009, Hauck led Montana to seven straight conference championships and three national title game appearances largely on the strength of the run game. Bobby rejoined the Griz in 2018 as the head coach who sold Missoula on the idea of a “return to dominance.”

On Nov. 19, the Bobcats rushed for 439 yards and scored 41 unanswered points on the way to a resounding, unforgettable 55-21 victory.

When the final seconds finally ticked off the clock and the big boys on the Bobcats hoisted the 307-pound Great Divide Trophy, Bobcat fans chanted in glee. The momentum now belongs to Montana State University in every element imaginable—sports, enrollment, research expenditures, and donations.

“Maybe we learned some things from last year but I said it at the beginning of the week: the makeup of how we can beat teams is so different than this time last year. So different,” Vigen said. “I think that showed today.

“We didn’t put up 561 yards of offense last year. We didn’t punt today. We were relentless.”

“Pretty tough to make that look pretty,” Bobby Hauck muttered as he sat at the press conference table within the Bobcat Athletic Complex following his fifth loss in 11 matchups with the ‘Cats as the Griz head coach.

“They whipped us and whipped us good,” Hauck said. “It felt like the inverse of last year a little bit and not as enjoyable on this side, certainty. They did a good job and we didn’t coach well enough and we didn’t play well enough to get it done today.

“The plus-one run game, getting an extra guy to the point of attack… we didn’t stop it. We didn’t play well enough, and it just goes back to that.”

Hosting a national television broadcast comes with pressure and a spotlight, even if you’re Ohio State or Alabama. That spotlight is especially bright when you’re the first Big Sky Conference school to host the iconic and ultra-popular College GameDay show.

From the moment the four-hour show opened with an homage to life in Montana, to Vigen’s sharp, short interview on the GameDay stage to the final knee, Montana State seized the opportunity to put its thriving university on the grandest stage.

“Early in the week, we talked to everyone about how ESPN was coming here because of you guys, our players, and they wouldn’t be coming here without our record,” Vigen said. “And ultimately, what goes on is about the fans. We had a couple of guys get interviewed on Tuesday night or whatever. But our guys were absolutely focused on the game.

“We have a group who is completely focused on playing for each other. And we certainly didn’t want this opportunity to slip away.”

Head coach Brent Vigen congratulates players after a scoring drive. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

The fact that the Bobcats not only washed away the taste of last year’s 29-10 loss to Montana in Missoula but also gave the ‘Cats a slice of the Big Sky title (shared with undefeated Sacramento State) was icing on the cake.

And the fact that the dominating win came against a Griz squad picked in the preseason to win the Big Sky… and capped an 8-0 run through the Big Sky… and made Vigen 22-2 against the rest of the FCS…

All of those things muted any feelings of longing for popular former head coach Jeff Choate, the anointed “Griz Slayer.” Choate left MSU to become co-defensive coordinator at Texas in 2021.

Vigen took the reins from Choate and led Montana State to the FCS title game for the first time since 1984. The only blemishes: last year’s rivalry game loss in Missoula and a 38-10 defeat at the hands North Dakota State, the juggernaut of the modern era in the FCS.

Beating the Grizzlies has been among—if not THE—top priorities for Montana State. So much of that stems from how one-sided the rivalry was for nearly a generation. After Saturday’s reckoning, the rivalry record for the last 20 years is an even 10-10 split. The ‘Cats have won five of the last six.

Choate became a deity among Bobcat fans because of his charismatic, intense way of preaching his vision. Then he went out and bludgeoned the Grizzlies four years in a row, no matter the exterior narratives.

That came to a head in 2019, when Montana State rolled to a 48-14 victory behind 368 rushing yards. Then came the pandemic. Then came Choate’s restless nature, resulting in him being a finalist for the Boise State head coaching job and, ultimately, jumping to Texas.

Despite Vigen leading the Bobcats on one of their most successful runs in school history last season, questions lingered. Could the stoic coach from North Dakota beat the Grizzlies? Would his steady demeanor and attention to detail serve MSU well against the rival, the showdown that has had such a weighted priority for MSU for so long?

All those questions were answered Saturday. And it came on a national stage, helping Montana State University launch itself even further into the stratosphere.

“Having the amount of eyes that was on this program, it was awesome to see,” MSU senior captain fullback R.J. Fitzgerald said. “As a football team, we did a great job of taking in that atmosphere of, it’s College GameDay and it’s a special moment to have those guys come to your state and come to this university and this rivalry.

“At the end of the day, this came down to the football between the white lines and we got the job done. Big Sky champs, that’s pretty awesome. Last two years, we’ve finished second and it’s pretty amazing to finally hoist that Big Sky championship trophy.”

Fitzgerald celebrates after the Bobcats score a touchdown on special teams. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

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