Montana State’s nightmare season ended in a dream in Missoula.
MSU shocked the Montana Grizzlies Nov. 19 with a 24-17 win in front of 26,000 fans at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Before this unexpected Saturday, the Bobcats struggled to form an offensive identity with a true freshman quarterback at the helm and a first-year head coach guiding the once-proud program.
Turnovers plagued Montana State for all of October and most of November as MSU stumbled to six consecutive Big Sky Conference losses—a disappointing start for a team that qualified for the playoffs eight times since 2002 and hung Big Sky Conference champion banners on six occasions over the same span.
But quarterback Chris Murray steadily settled in, Jeff Choate galvanized his team despite losses—and a mantra of rebuilding—and the Bobcats finished 2016 with a sudden surge.
Montana State turned the ball over 23 times during a six-week losing streak that included narrow defeats to North Dakota, Sacramento State and Northern Arizona, and they suffered beat downs at the hands of Weber State, Eastern Washington and Southern Utah. In MSU’s home finale however, Murray and the offense took care of the ball, the Bobcats found consistency offensively and MSU ground down UC Davis.
In the Nov. 12 home finale for 14 seniors, including memorable contributors like running backs Chad Newell and Gunnar Brekke, and offensive lineman J.P. Flynn, MSU ran the ball with authority. Newell rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown, pushing him past 2,000 yards in his storied career and scoring a touchdown to lead MSU to a 27-13 victory, the Bobcats’ first Big Sky win this season.
The win proved to be a breakthrough and Montana State carried the momentum into the 116th Brawl of the Wild showdown against its fiercest rival, the Montana Grizzlies.
Playing loose with the monkey of winning their first conference game off their collective back, MSU came to Missoula with nothing to lose—but the Bobcats gave up a 58-yard touchdown to Grizzly wide receiver Justin Calhoun on UM’s first offensive snap.
Thereafter, a dominating performance by MSU’s offensive line knocked Montana’s defense on its heels all afternoon, a flustering defensive showing and a thoroughly well executed game plan in Choate’s first rivalry game helped the Bobcats shock the Griz and the rest of the Treasure State.
Montana State rushed for 368 yards, including 142 yards and two touchdowns by the electric Murray. The Bobcats consistently knocked Montana’s front seven off the ball, creating lanes that allowed MSU to average 5.9 yards per rush and pile up more than 38 minutes of possession. With former Griz defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak calling the defense for the Bobcats, MSU held Gregorak’s former team to 305 yards of offense and just 13 first downs.
“Going out like this, this is a dream come true,” said Montana State senior captain Chad Newell after rushing for 72 yards and a third quarter touchdown that gave MSU a 17-point lead. “Five years ago, this is what I came here to do. We got it done today.”
Montana State’s season ends with a 4-7 record, including 2-6 in Big Sky play. The loss drops Montana to 6-5 as the Griz, once the No. 6-ranked team in the country, lost four out of five down the stretch. UM finishes Bob Stitt’s second season at 3-5 in Big Sky play, just UM’s second losing conference record since 1992.
Colter Nuanez is the creative director and senior writer for “Skyline Sports” (skylinesportsmt.com), an online newsgathering organization providing cutting edge coverage of Montana State University and Big Sky Conference sports. The award-winning sportswriter has worked for newspapers and magazines across the West and has covered the Big Sky since 2006.