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Cat-Griz: When Montana has the ball

Marcus Knight
Posted at 6:48 AM, Nov 22, 2019

Saturday's 119th Cat-Griz football game is a traditional strength-vs.-strength matchup between No. 3 Montana and No. 8 Montana State. Statistically speaking, the Grizzlies (9-2 overall, 6-1 Big Sky Conference) bring in the better offense, while the Bobcats (8-3, 5-2) have the better defense.

Montana ranks second in the Big Sky in scoring offense, putting up nearly 38 points per game. Montana State, meanwhile, is third in the conference in scoring defense, allowing just a shade more than 22 points per game. The stats tell a similar story the deeper you dive, too: Montana is fourth in total offense, and Montana State is third in total defense.

But both sets of numbers might be skewed. Montana scored just three points at FBS Oregon, and quarterback Dalton Sneed missed two games -- though Cam Humphrey filled in admirably in wins over Eastern Washington and Portland State. But Sneed is a difference-maker, and he's been phenomenal this season, completing 66.9 percent of his passes for 2,525 yards and 19 touchdowns. He's added 224 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

The knock on Sneed? He has a propensity to turn the ball over, throwing eight interceptions this season. Remember, it was his fumble in last year's game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium that set up the Bobcats' go-ahead touchdown before the wild goal-line finish.

This year's Bobcat defense hasn't been quite as opportunistic as last year's that forced 23 turnovers and helped the team lead the Big Sky in turnover margin. MSU has forced only 17 turnovers this season -- eight fumbles and nine interceptions. The Bobcats have gotten better at getting to the quarterback, recording 27 sacks this season, including Bryce Sterk's 11, which rank second in the Big Sky.

Like the Grizzlies' offense at Oregon, MSU's defense had a rough day at Texas Tech, giving up 45 points. The Bobcats also gave up 28 or more points in three consecutive games in the middle of the season -- 31 to Northern Arizona, 28 to Cal Poly and 34 to Sacramento State -- before improving on that side of the ball over the second half of the season. They haven't given up more than 17 points in their past four games, but it must be noted: Two of those games were against Southern Utah and Northern Colorado, two of the worst offenses in the Big Sky.

So, who has the edge when Montana has the ball?

That's going to depend on Marcus Knight and the offensive line. If Montana can get its rushing attack -- which has been average much of this season -- going, the Grizzlies will likely light up the scoreboard again. Knight has had his moments this season, and he leads the conference with 18 rushing touchdowns. When he's effective, that makes things easier for the talented Griz receivers.

Montana State has been inconsistent against the run, but teams are gaining only 3.6 yards per carry against the Bobcats. If they can limit Knight with their front seven, MSU will stand a better chance against Sneed and his dangerous weapons in the passing game. If they can't and have to bring Brayden Konkol closer to the line of scrimmage for more run support, receiver Samori Toure will likely add to his string of big games for the Grizzlies.

Kickoff for the 119th Cat-Griz football game is scheduled for noon Saturday at Bobcat Stadium.