By Colter Nuanez SKYLINE SPORTS
The 121st rendition of the fiercest rivalry in college football will once again highlight some of the best football players who grew up in the Treasure State. Those Montana-made products will certainly have an influence on a contest with serious playoff ramifications.
A total of 93 in-state products (including Montana senior safety Robby Hauck, who was born in Boulder, Colorado, and prepped in Las Vegas and San Diego but calls Missoula his home town) will play in Saturday’s rivalry showdown at Bobcat Stadium.
A total of 51 players from the No. 12 Grizzlies hail from in-state, the second-most since 2005 behind only last season’s 53 Montanans on Montana. And No. 3 Montana State’s roster features 42 in-state products entering the game on Saturday, up from 38 last season.
The upcoming rivalry game has postseason ramifications for the third year in a row,. In 2019, Montana State routed Montana as the then-No. 8 Bobcats blasted the No. 3 Griz 48-14 in Bozeman. Both teams earned playoff seeds and first-round byes; UM advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2019 FCS Playoffs and MSU advanced to the semifinals that season, marking the first run to the Final Four for the Bobcats since 1984.
Last year, Montana beat Montana State 29-10 in Missoula, snapping a four-game losing streak to MSU and thrusting themselves into a playoff seed again. The loss was Montana State’s only Big Sky Conference loss of the season, yet the Bobcats still received a seed and eventually ended up on the FCS national title game.
The Bobcats enter this year’s game with a 9-1 record, including a 7-0 mark in Big Sky Conference play, identical to a season ago. MSU is certainly into the playoffs for the fourth straight year and the eighth time since 2010. A victory could give Montana State at least a share of its first league title since 2012. A loss and MSU could still get a Top 8 seed and a bye, again.
Montana enters the game on a two-game winning streak to get to 4-3 in league play and 7-3 overall. Montana will certainly be into the playoffs for the third year in a row and the 24rd time since 199 with a win. A loss will mean a 7-4 Griz team would likely need help to get into the 24-team tournament.
During the Big Sky Conference era beginning in 1963, Montana State won the first six rivalry games against Montana and 12 of the first 15. Montana won in 1978 and again in 1981 and 1982 before MSU ripped off its most recent three-game winning streak until the current one between 1983 and 1985.
In 1986, Montana won 59-28 in Missoula, starting an era of domination that reached 16 consecutive victories during a stretch that became known as simply: “The Streak.”
Since Montana State won in Missoula 10-7 in Missoula in 2002, the rivalry is almost dead even with 10 wins for the Griz, nine wins for the ‘Cats. MSU had won four of its last five in Missoula before last year’s loss while Montana had four straight wins in Bozeman between 2007 and 2015 but lost in 2017 and 2019, the last two trips to Bobcat Stadium for the Griz.
When Bobby Hauck first took over at Montana leading up to the 2018 season, the Griz roster boasted 29 in-state players. Now UM has more than 50 for the second year in a row.
Montana State had one of its highest number of in-state products in former head coach Jeff Choate’s four years in 2019 with 46. The 2016 Bobcats had 52 Montana kids while the 2017 team had 46 and the 2018 team featured 45.
This year’s Bobcat team has five offensive starters and four defensive starters from Montana. A total of 16 Montanans dot the Bobcats’ two-deep, a number that could increase by at least one player depending on if junior running back Lane Sumner is a go on Saturday.
“It goes without saying that the magnitude and significance to the people in our state is significant,” Montana State second-year head coach Brent Vigen said. “I could tell that the day I got the job. It matters so much to so many. It’s all the small towns with split loyalties, families with split loyalties, it’s all that which creates a rivalry like we have and it’s a great thing. We have over 40 players from Motnana and I assume they do as well
“I’m sure they have former teammates on the other team in some cases. And to be on the right side of it matters.”
The Griz have as many as three starters on offense and six starters on defense (including Robby Hauck) who claim Montana roots. 13 more in-state products, all on defense, appear on the two-deep. And Montana has an in-state product at punter.
Between the two rosters combined, a total of 62 players (32 for UM, 30 for MSU) played Class AA football in high school. A total of 15 players played in Class A, including 9 for the Griz. A total of nine players cut their teeth in the Class B ranks, including five who play for Montana. And a total of four players prepped in the Class C ranks, including three for the ‘Cats.
Bozeman and Missoula are the two most represented Montana towns. A total of 18 players from Bozeman, including 15 who went to Bozeman Senior High and three more from 3-year-old Gallatin High School, will be a part of Saturday’s rivalry, including 10 former Hawks who are now Bobcats.
A total of 17 Missoula natives will be a part of the game, including 14 who stayed home to play for the Grizzlies. Sentinel is the most well represented with nine alums, including eight Griz. Three former Big Sky players, all Grizzlies, will play and three from Loyola, two Griz and one ‘Cat, are part of the tally. Two from Missoula Hellgate, one on each side, are also part of the rosters.
Billings has 10 players in the game, including six that went to West, two that went to Senior, two that went to Central but none that went to Skyview. Five former Golden Bears are now Bobcats and a sixth is a Griz while one each are former Senior Broncs and Central Rams will suit up.
Helena has seven players in the game, including five who play at Montana. Both Bobcats are former Helena High Bengals while four of the five Griz also played at Helena High. Griz senior Marcus Welnel is the only Capital product in the game.
Great Falls has three former players in the game, including two total from Great Falls High, one on each side, and one CMR alum playing for the Griz. Three former Kalispell Glacier alums, all Griz, will play in the game.
And Butte has seven players in the rivalry, including five for Montana and four that went to Butte High. Montana State has two Mining City natives, both former Bulldogs, on its roster.
Dillon, Hamilton, Laurel and Polson each have a pair of players in the game. Both former Beavers play for Montana State while both former Broncs and both former Pirates play for the Griz. Red Lodge has three alums, including two Bobcats, in the rivalry while and Huntley Project have one each on Cat and Griz rosters.
A total of 26 Montana towns are represented with players from Anaconda, Eureka, Boulder, Fairfield, Havre, Savage, Melstone, Florence, Frenchtown, Phillipsburg and Sunburst are all represented, all making up the fabric of this historic game.
Here’s a look the 42 Montana products on the UM roster headed into the 121st rendition of the fierce rivalry in Bozeman on Saturday afternoon.
Tommy Mellott, quarterback, sophomore, Butte—The baby-faced kid from the Mining City took the state and the FCS by storm last season. Matthew McKay’s regression peaked in MSU’s 29-10 loss at Montana caused McKay to get benched, then to transfer.
Mellott took over the role as starter and has thrived. He led Montana State to three straight playoff wins and a bid in the FCS national championship game. This year, he is 7-1 as a starter, making him 10-2 as Montana State’s starting quarterback.
So far this season, he has been the dual-threat MSU expects and needs him to be. Despite getting knocked out early of a 38-35 win at Eastern Washington and missing the next two weeks, Mellott still leads Montana State and ranks fifth in the Big Sky Conference with 705 rush yards.
He’s scored seven rushing touchdowns. Junior quarterback Sean Chambers has 622 rush yards (9th in the league) and is second in the Big Sky in rushing touchdowns (16).
Mellott has also shown flashes as a solid passer. He is completing 58.3 percent of his passes. He has thrown for 1,223 yards (156.4 yards per game) and has thrown nine touchdowns compared to four interceptions.
R.J. Fitzgerald, fullback, senior, Dillon — Fitzgerald is as passionate a Bobcat as any Montana State player even though he comes from Griz roots. The man who wears Montana State’s legacy No. 41 number is one of the best fullbacks in the Big Sky Conference and has made sure MSU keeps that position around.
But growing up, many assumed Fitzgerald would play for the Griz if he got a Division I opportunity. His father, Greg and his uncle, John, each played for Montana during the glory years of the mid-1990s. His mother, Keeley, also went to UM.
Instead, he walked on to the Bobcats, played as a true freshman tone setter on Jeff Choate’s second team, and carved out a place among MSU’s most popular players.
Callahan O’Reilly, linebacker, senior, Bozeman — The former high school quarterback has quietly yet impressively had one of the most solid careers of any former Hawk in recent memory and a memorable run amongst his Bobcat linebacker standout peers.
This season, he’s even gotten to get in the end-zone a few times. He’s scored three touchdowns among his seven carries and has continued to stand out on special teams as a captain who will play his final regular-season home game on Saturday.
This season, he’s been a turnover-forcing machine. He leads the Big Sky in takeaways with seven — four interceptions and three forced fumbles. His forced fumble at Eastern Washington gave MSU the ball back after a Sean Chambers pick and led to the game-winning touchdown in a 38-35 win that proves to be enormous with MSU entering this rivalry game undefeated.
As a sophomore in 2019, O’Reilly burst onto the scene in his second season playing linebacker. He rolled up a team-high 91 tackles and added a 73-yard touchdown on a fake punt. As a junior in 2021, O’Reilly kept improving, evolving into a second-team all-conference selection after racking up 105 tackles, second to only Troy Andersen on last year’s MSU squad. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder has six interceptions over the last two seasons.
Brody Grebe, defensive end, sophomore, Melstone — Grebe is the pride of the town that’s the smallest of any Montana community represented in this game.
Melstone, which is in eastern Musselshell County pretty much right in the center of the state, boasts a population of 126. That’s half the size of Treyton Pickering’s home town of Sunburst, a North Toole County town near Canada that boasts 333 residents.
Grebe isn’t just a novelty. Instead, he’s more like a prodigy. His teammates boast that his measureables are comparable to Hardy, a freaky athlete who tested outside the box on his pro day, helping him earn a shot with the L.A. Rams of the NFL.
Grebe isn’t quite as long or lean or refines as Hardy. But his performed well this year despite the target put on his back. As a redshirt freshman, the former Class C star turned prep school project turned hot commodity flash, rolling up 5.5 sacks in spot pass rush duty.
That helped him land on the Big Sky’s preseason all-conference team despite not starting last season. He has 25 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks. He’s also gotta be among the league leaders in being held, although Skyline Sports admits that’s not yet an official statistic.
Justus Perkins, center, sophomore, Bozeman — The former walk-on has transformed into an integral part of one of the most integral units on the Bobcats.
Montana State’s offensive line lost All-American tackle Lewis Kidd to the NFL and also had to find a replacement for two-time All-Big Sky guard Taylor Tuiasosopo after he graduated. Starting right tackle T.J. Session transferred to Cal in the off-season, marking the second time (Conner Wood, Missouri) in the last few years a promising, starting tackle transferred to the Power 5.
MSU entered the year with the reality they would have to start mostly underclassman and that Perkins, a Bozeman High product who earned the starting center job from the beginning of his redshirt freshman season, would be the only returning starter and the most veteran of the group.
He’s been outstanding, helping lead and guide an offensive line featuring three sophomores (left tackle Rush Reimer, left guard J.T. Reed, Perkins) along with redshirt freshman right tackle Jacob Kettles. Junior right guard Cole Sain is the only upper classman.
Taco Dowler, wide receiver, freshman, Billings — Dowler first rose to the starting lineup when the Clevan Thomas eligibility debacle could not be cleared up quickly. But also, Dowler is a former Montana Gatorade Player of the Year and a star in the making. He had Montana State’s first punt return for a touchdown since 2013 when he took one to the house against Morehead State.
And his 65-yard catch and run to set up the game-winning field goal in a 41-38 win at Northern Arizona was one of the plays of the season.
Lane Sumner, running back, junior, Huntley Project — When he’s healthy, Montana State’s muscle hamster is truly one of the best running backs in the country. And that’s been true dating back to 2019. The issue has been staying healthy.
Sumner rose up the depth chart last summer and became the starter for the ‘Cats with All-American Isaiah Ifanse out indefinitely (at least to this point fo the season) and San Diego State transfer Kaegun Williams out for the season, too. Sumner rushed for 176 yards in a 40-17 win over McNeese State in the season opener. He missed the next month but returned to the lineup to rush for 100 yards against Idaho State and 130 the following week against Northern Colorado. His 12 carries for 44 yards against Weber State on October 22 marked his last appearance.
The former Class B state champion sprinter is questionable for the game on Saturday.
Nolan Askelson, linebacker, junior, Billings — Askelson has only been a “part-time” starter this season but he’s been solid as a rock in the middle of MSU’s defense for the last three seasons when healthy. The former Montana Class AA Defensive Player of the Year out of Billings Senior has 59 total tackles, including two tackles for loss, so far this season, which has been a huge bounce-back year after he was knocked out in the first month of the season last fall.
Marcus Wehr, offensive line, sophomore, Billings — The converted defensive lineman was a starter at right tackle for the first half of the season and played at a high level. He suffered a season-ending injury during a 37-14 win at Northern Colorado.
Treyton Pickering, tight end, junior, Sunburst – Pickering is from the second-smallest town of any player in this game. But he’s played big this season, using his formidable 6-foot-4, 237-pound frame to make an impact as an in-line blocker and a pass-catcher in the middle of opposing defenses. The grandson of a former NFL player had a career-best 98 yards on five catches against Morehead State and he has 14 catches for 208 yards total so far this season.
Kenneth Eiden VI, defensive end, redshirt freshman, Bozeman — Eiden was one of the most dominant high school defensive ends in Montana history during his time playing for the Bozeman Hawks. He was a three-time first-team all-state pick at defensive end and earned 2019 Class AA Defensive MVP honors during a career in which he notched more than 40 sacks.
The explosive, savvy 6-foot-1, 240-pounder has shown a similar penchant to rush the passer, rolling up four sacks and six tackles for loss in a pass rush specialist role this season. He’s also come in for longer stretches to spell Grebe when Grebe was ejected for targeting against Northern Colorado and limped off the field against NAU. Grebe did not play last week, giving Eiden his first start.
Rylan Ortt, safety, sophomore, Missoula — The lone Missoula Sentinel product on the Bobcats (eight former Spartans play for the Griz) missed the first two months of the season because of failing an NCAA administered drug test the end of last year. Ortt has returned to the starting lineup the last two weeks and show flashes of standout play and also moments of rust. He has seven tackles in each of the last two contets.
Paul Brott, defensive tackle, redshirt freshman, Billings West – The third Brott brother to play at MSU, showed his strength and aggressiveness in the 2020 Class AA state title game, helping West compete with one of Sentinel’s best ever teams.
Brott has used similar skills to work his way onto the two-deep and will back up stud sophomore Sebastian Valdez at MSU’s defensive tackle spot.
Jory Choate, linebacker, senior, Bozeman — The son of former Montana State head coach Jeff Choate has carved out a niche all on his own. The former walk-on now plays on all of MSU’s special teams. The former Bozeman High standout has four tackles this season.
Joey McElroy, offensive guard, senior, Missoula — The former multi-sport athlete at Loyola endured a brutal knee injury and has returned to provide depth along the offensive front and on kick teams. McElroy is JT Reed’s backup at left guard.
Alex Johnson, linebacker, redshirt freshman, Helena – One of the most improved players on the team is a No. 2 on the depth chart and has contributed 17 tackles over the last two seasons.