BOZEMAN — In 2018, the Montana State Bobcats sealed their rivalry game with a fumble recovery at the end of the contest. Saturday, MSU essentially won their rivalry game by forcing a fumble at the start.
Montana's Samori Toure fumbled the first offensive play of the game, and just like last year at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, senior Derek Marks recovered to give the Bobcats all the momentum.
"It’s kind of funny how last play last year, fumble recovery. First play this year, same thing. It was fun," said Marks.
Montana State scored five plays later, a reverse to wide receiver Kevin Kassis, and the rout was on the rest of the day at Bobcat Stadium as MSU (9-3 overall, 6-2 Big Sky Conference) won 48-14.
That was only the beginning of the Bobcats’ attack, which saw MSU take a commanding 24-0 lead. After the fumble, Montana State’s defense forced consecutive three-and-outs against the Grizzlies, resulting in a Tristan Bailey 25-yard field goal and an 18-yard touchdown run by Logan Jones.
Tyrone Marshall’s 29-yard touchdown around the left side brought the score to 24-0 early in the second quarter. Montana State’s defense held the Grizzlies to only three first downs in the opening quarter, with UM only advancing past midfield once, though the drive ended with a failed fourth-down attempt two plays into the second quarter.
"We got down and it kind of got us out of our plan a little bit, which involved running a little bit more than we ended up doing," said Montana coach Bobby Hauck. "We had some good runs that got called back, that didn’t help. The game didn’t play out in our favor in any form or fashion. Part of that’s us and part of that is them doing a really good job."
The Grizzlies (9-3, 6-2) did find the end zone on a pair of Marcus Knight touchdown runs, his 19th and 20th of the season, third-best in a single-season in UM history. But Isaiah Ifanse broke loose for a 38-yard score in-between Knight’s efforts, to keep MSU out front 31-14 at halftime. Bailey missed a 52-yard field goal to end the half.
Montana’s daunting run defense, which had allowed only an average of 112.6 rushing yards per game, gave up 207 yards on 28 carries in the first half, a Montana State average of 7.4 yards per carry.
"We came to play, and our fans supported us throughout the whole thing. The energy out there was fun. Seeing the offense pound the ball in the run game and to hear fans celebrate that, it was unbelievable," Marks said.
"That’s who we are every week," said Montana State head coach Jeff Choate. "You’re not the team you were yesterday and you’re not the man you were yesterday, so this was all about winning in the present, doing what we had to do to be successful today, and you get nothing for being the most physical team last week. I’m sure Bobby would say the same thing. It’s all about settling it in-between the white lines.
"Like I told our guys, to win this thing we have to control the four corners between the white lines and after that we can control the four corners of the state. That’s what this was about.
Both defenses settled in during the third quarter, with Montana State’s defense recording a pair of sacks to stall Montana’s offense. Bailey added a 30-yard field goal for the only points in the period, giving MSU a 34-14 lead.
The Bobcats opened the fourth quarter with a six-play drive, all runs, with Ifanse taking a direct snap 3 yards into the south end zone for his second touchdown of the game. The heralded sophomore added a third score in the fourth quarter on a fourth-and-1 play from the 17, officially shaking the Bobcat Stadium stands.
"Good day for them, bad day for us certainly. They beat us in all three phases. They played really well, they gave us some stuff we didn’t expect and capitalized on it. We did not play well in any of the three parts of the game. It’s a bad day to do that," Hauck said. "You see the reaction at the end of the game here at the stadium. This game’s everything to them. Their sole focus is to beat us, and maybe we need to start doing that ourselves."
"It’s one of the things that our seniors talked about a year ago, how important it was to them," Choate said of MSU's seniors trying to finish their careers undefeated against the Grizzlies. "Their advice to me was that, ‘You have to treat more games like the Montana game.’ Obviously it’s win-or-go-home from here on out, and I think we certainly have secured a berth in the tournament, and let’s go."
Montana State, which was without all-everything Troy Andersen, finished with 488 offensive yards to the Grizzlies’ 241, while dominating the time of possession (37:08 to 22:52).
But it was again the ground game and a stifling defense that lifted Montana State to its fourth consecutive win in the rivalry. Ifanse rushed for 171 yards and three scores, Logan Jones added 121 yards and a touchdown, while Tyrone Marshall finished with 81 yard and a score.
"It’s awesome. I remember as (redshirt freshmen) and the game was here and that year Missoula beat us, home field. I remember just talking to Mitch (Brott), Walker (Cozzie), Marcus (Ferriter), all of us, we said we’re never going to lose to those guys when we’re playing," said senior Brayden Konkol. "And just to see that, the work we put in, here we are four years later and it to actually happen, it’s awesome."
MSU finished with six sacks, five tackles-for-loss, a Konkol interception and an astounding eight pass breakups in the win.
Senior Josh Hill finished with a team-high nine tackles to go with a half sack and half tackle-for-loss. Bryce Sterk had 2.5 sacks and five tackles in the win.
Montana was led by Dante Olson’s 16 tackles, while Dalton Sneed finished with 195 passing yards, 64 to Mitch Roberts.
"It’s surreal, man," Marks said. "I don’t know what’s better: beating them four years or knowing that there’s seniors on that team that have never beat Montana State. That’s a great feeling. We’re winners, we’re state champs four years in a row. It feels great. I don’t know if I can put it into words right now, but it’s awesome."
"I probably never want to find out what it feels like on the other side," Choate added. "I think this is a great rivalry, and obviously, what makes it a great rivalry is that there’s balance. It’s not a great rivalry when one side is dominating all the time. There needs to be balance. There’s a mutual respect and certainly that’s something that I think will propel this thing forward to become an even better rivalry."
Both the Bobcats and Grizzlies will tune in for Sunday’s FCS playoff selection show, which will be broadcast on ESPNU beginning at 10:30 a.m. (MST).