By Thomas Stuber SKYLINE SPORTS
Montana State quarterback Tommy Mellott has thus far shown a penchant for rising to the occasion in big games for the Bobcats. The Cat-Griz contest, however, is an entirely different animal than your run of the mill game against Big Sky Conference leaders or FCS playoff games.
This game is attended by more fans, media, concessionaires, police, smokejumpers, jet pilots…you name it, and is simply beholden to just about everyone in the state. Every play is under a microscope in real time and the plays that define the wins are recounted for decades to come.
It’s just a whole different ballgame, or in today’s vernacular, it’s a unicorn.
As Cat-Griz is for any first-time starter, it’ll be a unique setting for MSU’s signal-caller, who has captured the imagination of fans, especially youngsters, around Montana. Being not only from Montana, but a Butte native has only added to Mellott’s mystique, and perhaps all that attention and awe brings too high of expectations, but he has given them good reason.
“He was able to play in this game last year and Tommy has been able to step out there in big environments, albeit that he hasn’t started in this game yet,” MSU head coach Brent Vigen said. “I think Tommy is ultra-competitive, ultra-focused and he prepares so well. That’s ultimately what it’s about. He understands he is one guy out there. He is probably the most important guy on a lot of plays and when he’s asked to make a play, I sure like our chances with those odds.
“The fact that he was in that game, in that environment last year helps him. Not putting too much on his shoulders but understanding that there’s going to be plays there for him to make. We have complete confidence in him.”
In fact, Mellott shows no statistical drop-off in games against top teams as opposed to games against lesser opponents. If anything, he’s slightly better in the big games. He has started 12 games in his career. Six against teams over .500 – four were in 2021 FCS playoffs. Oregon State and Weber State in 2022 were the others. Another six were against sub-.500 teams – all in the current season.
He’s 50 for 90 passing for 713 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions against the over .500 teams, which is a 131.5 passer rating. Throw out the Oregon State game, when he had three of his four collegiate interceptions, and his rating rises to 148.5. On the ground, he’s run the ball 127 times for 840 yards (6.6 avg.) and eight touchdowns. Against under .500 teams, Mellott is 67 for 115 passing for 905 yards and eight touchdowns against no interceptions and those numbers equate to 147.3 passer rating. He has carried the ball 54 times for 297 yards (5.5 avg.) and four touchdowns.
“I think he’s going to be ready to go,” MSU captain RJ Fitzgerald said. “He’s one of those guys that we believe in as an offense and a football team. He’s going to play his heart out and I have one hundred percent faith in his ability to do his job for the football team.”
Mellott began to show his mettle when he came off the bench late in the 2021 season against the University of Idaho to rescue a stagnant Bobcat’ offense. His three touchdowns and 68 yards rushing were key, but his biggest contribution may have been during the fourth quarter when MSU was backed up near its own goal line.
The Bobcats faced two straight 3rd and 4 situations and both times Mellott muscled way his to get exactly four yards. The drive resulted in a punt, but the field position proved valuable as he would put up the winning TD when MSU took over with a shorter field.
He didn’t get the start a week later against Montana but did play. He had just eight touches in the game and gained 31 yards – 27 running on seven carries and four receiving on one reception. Neither team got much going on offense that day as the UM special team units stole the show with several long punt returns by Junior Bergen, a touchdown by Justin Ford off a botched fake field attempt, and four field goals by Kevin Macias.
Mellott was abruptly moved into the starting role two weeks later in place of Matt McKay who had started all 11 games during the regular season before entering the transfer portal. He got his first collegiate start on an extremely windy day in a second-round playoff game in Bozeman. He threw for just 51 yards into sweeping gusts as MSU took a 26-7 win behind his 180 yards rushing and two TDs. A week later he took the FCS playoffs by storm in Huntsville, Texas accounting for five touchdowns on three TD passes, a touchdown run and a receiving score in leading the Bobcats to a 42-19 win over then No. 1 ranked and top-seeded Sam Houston State.
The next week back in Bozeman he proved that performance was no fluke as he threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 155 more and another two scores in helping the Bobcats defeat South Dakota State 31-17 to send MSU to the national title game. After getting off to a hot start in leading MSU into scoring range on its first possession, Mellott went down with a severe lower leg injury and couldn’t return as the Bobcats fell to North Dakota State 38-10.
Again, this season, Mellott has come up with big games albeit in entirely different situations. After suffering a scary concussion against Eastern Washington and missing the next two games he had to prove he’d put the injury behind him. What followed was one of the best passing games of his career against Northern Colorado and then an electric rushing game against fellow league-leader at the time Weber State. He would connect on 16 of 20 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns against UNC and ran for a Big Sky quarterback rushing record of 273 yards, including three touchdowns, against the Wildcats.
Mellott also played in the State AA championship game for Butte High in 2019. The Bulldogs lost after Bozeman broke a 14-14 halftime score with 21 unanswered points and went on to win 49-28. Mellott was stellar in defeat, however, as he passed for 291 yards with two touchdowns and ran for another 80.
Mellott’s efforts have gained the attention of opposing teams and coaches. His skills were recognized by longtime University of Montana head coach Bobby Hauck during the Grizzlies press conference on Monday.
“He’s a good player and he’s done a good job,” Hauck said when asked about Mellott. “He is leading them in rushing, and he’s done a good job.”
One of Mellott’s best skills is his ability to disect a situation, lock in late and make plays when big plays are needed. Montana is at its best when it seizes and then carries momentum, playing a style where they want to avalanche an opponent. When the Griz have been at their best this season, they have leapt to two-touchdown leads in the first few minutes of games, then unleashed their high-pressure defense.
How long will it take the cerebral yet sometimes skittish Mellott to settle in and find his groove? It will play a key factor in victory or defeat for Montana State against the rival Griz.
The Cat-Griz game kicks off at noon Saturday in Bobcat Stadium.