You want high stakes? This year's Brawl has it all

Posted at 3:09 PM, Nov 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-13 16:45:13-05

BILLINGS — If you take your rivalry games with added pregame suspense, this is it.

Each November, on the third weekend of the penultimate month of the year, the Cat-Griz game (colloquially known as the Brawl of the Wild) serves as a celebration of football in the Treasure State, typically with improved playoff positioning for the winner and sometimes a conference title sprinkled in.

And they've all been great. But the 122nd gridiron battle between Montana and Montana State, which kicks off Saturday at noon from Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, is one of the most important we've seen in recent years simply because of what's at stake.

Yearlong bragging rights and possession of the Great Divide Trophy seem less consequential this time around.

Whoever wins Saturday's top-five matchup between UM and MSU will be the outright Big Sky Conference champion, and that is no small feat; in a league with 12 teams, it's not an all-too-regular occurrence.

Five times in the previous 10 years has there been a standalone league champ, and that includes the haphazard Spring 2021 COVID "season" in which the Grizzlies and Bobcats opted out of the conference schedule altogether.

There's no question that Montana, 9-1 overall and 6-1 in the Big Sky so far this year, is starving for a conference crown.

The Grizzlies haven't won one since 2009 — no, 2011 doesn't count no matter how much people still scream and yell about it — and that came during an era in which league titles (and national championship game appearances) seemed to grow on trees in Missoula.

The Bobcats, 8-2 overall and 6-1 in the league so far, finally ended a nine-year Big Sky championship drought last season, sharing the title with Sacramento State. The Cats have a history of stacking league crowns on top of one another, and they don't want to break that trend now.

More importantly, though, postseason positioning is up for grabs. Prime positioning.

Provided South Dakota State doesn't suffer a home upset versus Missouri State, the winner of Saturday's Cat-Griz game likely has the inside track to the No. 2 seed for the FCS playoff bracket, which would guarantee them home field advantage until the neutral-site championship game in Frisco, Texas.

The loser might still attain at top-five seed, but that team's playoff road could be a bit more taxing.

The Grizzlies' only loss so far this year was a dud — a 28-14 loss at Northern Arizona on Sept. 23. But they have since reeled of six straight wins, including against ranked UC Davis, Idaho and Sacramento State.

It seems Montana is playing its best football at the right time, and the Griz are doing it with a complementary style that no-doubt warms the heart of head coach Bobby Hauck. The defense has been dominant, and the offense has evolved into an efficient unit doing more than enough to win games.

It looks as if "Bobby Ball" is in full effect. The "Return To Dominance" we've been waiting for seems more real now, too.

By contrast, the Bobcats' two losses came on the road against defending national champ and No. 1-ranked South Dakota State and to ranked league foe Idaho. Those losses were by a combined seven points.

Brent Vigen's team has won its games largely on the strength of an explosive ground game helmed by quarterbacks Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers and complemented by a deep running back group.

The Brawl rivalry has taken on new life in the wake of Montana's complete and total dominance through the mid-1980s and '90s. Since 2002, when the Bobcats finally snapped the Grizzlies' 16-game winning streak, MSU owns a slim 10-9 advantage — no, 2011 doesn't count no matter how much people still scream and yell about it.

What's more, Montana State has won five of the past six matchups, and the Cats have done it on the strength of what has been an unyielding rushing attack. In those five wins, the Bobcats took Montana's soul to the tune of 348 rushing yards per game and 22 total rushing TDs.

In the Grizzlies' lone win in that stretch, a 29-10 home victory in 2021, their defense held the Cats to 96 rushing yards and no touchdowns on the ground.

The formula for victory has been clear, and this year's game could be decided by an an anticipated matchup between the Bobcats' rushing attack versus the Grizzlies' active and aggressive 3-3-5 defense.

But no matter how it's decided, the winner will reap great spoils: an outright Big Sky Conference championship, perhaps a top-two playoff seed and, at the very least, the potential to ride home field advantage all the way to Frisco.