By Colter Nuanez EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – Tucker Yates knocked his opponent on his heels, threw Cy Sirmon to the side and dove at the ball carrier barreling toward the goal line.
On Nov. 17, as Montana State’s senior nose tackle thrust his hips and put his head perfectly across the bow, he punched the ball out of Adam Eastwood’s hands in a moment that will never be forgotten in the 121-year history of the fierce Treasure State rivalry.
In an ending that was fitting, storybook, shocking and thrilling all at once, Yates’ final punch helped the Bobcats swing the pendulum back even further in a rivalry owned by the Grizzlies for most of the modern era.
Yates’ enormous goal-line play served as the crescendo to one of the wildest contests during the 118-game series. And the final forced fumble of Montana’s fumble-ridden season helped Yates and his fellow Montana State seniors cement their place as Bobcat legends.
When Derek Marks fell on the ball in the final seconds, MSU owned a 29-25 victory, which took a 22-point fourth quarter for the Bobcats to erase a 15-point deficit and solidify their first three-game winning streak over Montana since 1983-1985.
“Great team win, an unbelievable team comeback and we couldn’t be happier,” Marks, a Belgrade native, told ROOT Sports TV after moving to 3-0 in his career against the Griz. “This is the dream and beating Montana is the new standard. Three years in a row, that’s unbelievable.”
With the shock setting in for the Washington-Grizzly Stadium record crowd of 26,508 fans, Yates rose from the pile and the four-year starter from Colstrip walked slowly toward his team’s sidelines as the rest of the Bobcats burst into bedlam. One of just eight players recruited by former head coach Rob Ash who made it to his final season had a signature play that helped propel MSU into the FCS playoffs.
“Amazing college football game,” Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate said. “I just can’t say enough about the heart that was shown by both teams on that field today. I have a ton of respect for the University of Montana, that group of men and how they played today. … The people of Montana should be proud of both of these teams.”
The Bobcats have won four times in Missoula this decade alone. Montana State moved to 7-4, the team’s best mark since its last playoff berth in 2014. The seventh win, combined with a schedule that featured losses to three of the Top 10 teams in the FCS, coupled with North Dakota’s 31-16 loss at Northern Arizona on Saturday, earned the Bobcats an at-large postseason berth.
Montana State will host the Southland Conference’s Incarnate Word from San Antonio, Texas, on Saturday, Nov. 24, in Bozeman. The winner of that game will visit No. 1 overall seed North Dakota State in the second round.
But no matter their playoff result, on this sun-kissed Saturday in the Garden City, the memorable moment belonged to the Bobcats.
Tough-running true freshman Isaiah Ifanse landed an impressive backflip during the postgame celebration. Senior captain defensive tackle Zach Wright took a head butt to his bare forehead and rejoiced in tasting the blood that streamed down his face.
Choate took an ice bath and kept charging toward the middle of the field, the emotion pouring from within him. As he embraced tortured defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak—an assistant at Montana for 12 seasons—Gregorak beamed after watching his defense force two crucial fumbles in the final six minutes. With three fingers raised above his head for the duration of MSU’s celebration at the center of Montana’s home field, Choate exclaimed, “Three in a row and don’t think this is going to stop any time soon.”
“Quite honestly, processing all this is probably not going to hit me for a while,” Choate said. “I think this is a game that will be remembered for a long time for the courage of the young men who fought in it and for the excitement that was provided.”
For the third straight season the Bobcats cut into the Grizzlies’ all-time lead in the series. UM now holds a 72-40-5 advantage and since both teams joined the Big Sky as charter members in 1963, Montana leads 30-25. Since the construction of Washington-Griz in 1986, the Griz own a 24-8 advantage. But since Travis Lulay led MSU to a 10-7 victory in Missoula in 2002 to snap MSU’s long streak of futility in the rivalry, UM’s advantage slims to 9-8.
“It’s hard to quantify this win,” Choate said. “This is such a big deal in this state. It’s awesome. These kids are absolutely unbelievable. We’ve been through a lot together for a long time. It’s extremely rewarding for them.
“I’m the 32nd head coach at Montana State. There [are] going to be more after me,” Choate added. “This is about them and their legacy. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer at Skyline Sports, an online news-gathering organization providing comprehensive coverage of Montana State and Big Sky Conference athletics at skylinesportsmt.com.