A New Era: “Cats rule Montana, cementing its status as the top university in the state

By Colter Nuanez SKYLINE SPORT

BOZEMAN – Nov. February 19, 2022 marked a landmark day in the history of Montana State University football, and it played out as millions across the country tuned in and witnessed Bozeman in all its glory.

ESPN’s flagship college football show, College GameDay, went live before dawn in sub-zero temperatures on the MSU campus. By mid-morning, signature Bozeman sunshine emerged to reveal a snow-capped Gallatin Valley, highlighting it for the more than 2 million GameDay viewers from coast to coast.

Hundreds of fans crowded around the GameDay set at Dyche Field just across West Kagy Boulevard from Bobcat Stadium, wearing clever signs and wearing lots of layers to brave the freezing temperatures. The show’s producers confirmed that Saturday morning was the coldest on its history.

By mid-afternoon, before the nation’s eyes, the Bobcat football team had confirmed their rise to the top of the Big Sky Conference and marked the day by humiliating their arch-rival University of Montana like never before.

Montana State demonstrated its physical and symbolic authority from start to finish in a 55-21 win that set the second-largest margin for a Bobcat winner during the Big Sky Conference era.

“What a day for Montana State and the football program, then for our fans, and then for putting this game together,” said MSU head coach Brent Vigen. “I felt it from the start, the look in our eyes, the execution, just from that first ride… we didn’t let up.

“Anytime you can line up the numbers we made and keep them in check I’ve been proud of our players, excited for our coaches and obviously excited for our fans, everything they got to experience today.”

Lee Corso announced his pick for the game by donning the hat of Champ, the MSU mascot. PHOTO BY JOSHUA R. Gateley/ESPN Images

What is in a brand? Football watchers and citizens alike asked and debated how ESPN and College GameDay would represent Montana. Overall, the presentation of Bozeman, the Gallatin Valley, and the West’s fiercest rivalry was served up to the newcomers with accuracy, aplomb, and fun.

At the core of the MSU football brand is the running game.

Vigen enforced this aspect of the brand on the first possession of the game. Leading the ball on all six plays of its first touchdown drive, Montana State exercised its authority over head coach Bobby Hauck’s Montana Grizzlies, a team that has taken on a villain personality and projects an “us against the world” attitude.

UM’s defense came into play with the best running defense in the Big Sky Conference – the leading portion of the Grizzly football brand. Yet this unit had no answer to MSU’s multifaceted, explosive, and absurdly productive attack.

Sophomore quarterback Tommy Mellott and these Bobcats ran 155 yards on their first two drives and built a 14-7 lead without throwing a pass.

MSU ran the ball 23 times in the game’s first 24 games and amassed the most frenzied yards Montana had conceded this season before the second quarter was even halfway over. The ‘Cats surpassed 200 yards on their 32nd rush (and 33rd offensive play) and built a 31-7 lead at halftime.

“Their defensive rushing numbers are really good, but where they get you is when they get you in transient situations,” Vigen said. “We wanted to stay ahead of the chains as much as possible and felt we could push the limits, which we did.”

Mellott rushed for 141 yards and two touchdowns against the Grizzlies. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

People around the Treasure State for years mocked the Bobcats as the Grizzlies’ little brother.

MSU won the national championship in 1984, but the Grizzlies overshadowed that feat by winning every game against the Cats for 16 straight years from 1986 to 2002.

Fans took to the national broadcast to share their feelings with everyone. PHOTO BY JACK REANEY

On Saturday, Montana State seized the moment like never before, relentlessly running the ball down Montana’s throats and physically dominating the Grizzlies. It was a bitter pill for Coach Hauck, who led Montana to seven straight conference championships and three appearances in national title fights in the early 2000s, largely due to the strength of the running game.

The Bobcats rushed for 439 yards and scored 41 unanswered points en route to a stunning, unforgettable victory.

As the final seconds ticked off and the Bobcats big boys hoisted the 307-pound Great Divide Trophy, Bobcat fans cheered with delight. The momentum now belongs to Montana State University in every conceivable element.

“Maybe we learned some things from last year, but I said it earlier in the week: the way we can beat teams is so different than this time last year. So different,” said Vigen. “I think that showed today.

“We didn’t put on a 561-yard offense last year. We didn’t bite today. We were relentless.”

“Pretty hard to make that look pretty,” muttered Bobby Hauck as he sat at the press conference table at the Bobcat Athletic Complex after his fifth loss in 11 matchups as head coach of the Griz against the Bobcats.

“They whipped us and whipped us well,” Hauck said. “It felt a bit like the opposite of last year and not as comfortable on this side, certainty. They did a good job and we didn’t train well enough and we didn’t play well enough to make it today.”

“The plus one run game of getting an extra man to the attack spot…we didn’t stop it. We didn’t play well enough and it just comes down to that.”

hosting a national tv show comes with pressure and a spotlight, even if you’re from Ohio or Alabama. As the first Big Sky Conference school to host the iconic and hugely popular pre-game show, it’s particularly tense.

From the moment the show opened with a tribute to Montana life, to Vigen’s sharp, brief interview on the College GameDay stage, to the final knee, Montana State jumped at the opportunity to grow its thriving university to the greatest to set the stage.

“Earlier this week we spoke to everyone about ESPN coming here because of you, our players, and without our recordings, they wouldn’t come here,” Vigen said. “And at the end of the day, it’s about the fans. We had some guys interviewed Tuesday night or whatever. But our boys were absolutely focused on the game.

“We have a group that is totally focused on playing for each other. And we definitely didn’t want to let this opportunity pass us by.”

Head coach Brent Vigen congratulates the players after scoring. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ

The fact that the Bobcats not only washed away the flavor of last year’s 10-29 loss to Montana in Missoula, but also gave the ‘Cats a slice of the Big Sky title (shared with unbeaten Sacramento) was the icing on the cake the cake.

And the fact that the dominating win came against a Griz squad picked preseason to win the Big Sky… and capped an 8-0 run through the Big Sky… and Vigen 22-2 against the rest of the FCS made …

All of these things dampened any feelings of longing for beloved former head coach Jeff Choate, the anointed “Griz Slayer.” Choate left MSU to become co-defensive coordinator at Texas in 2021.

Vigen took over the reins from Choate and led Montana State to the FCS title shot for the first time since 1984. The only blemishes: last year’s loss in the rivalry game in Missoula and a 38-10 loss to North Dakota State, the USA’s modern-day juggernaut in the FCS.

Beating the Grizzlies is one of, if not the, top priorities for the state of Montana. Much of this is due to how one-sided the rivalry was for nearly a generation. As of Saturday’s reckoning, the rivalry record for the past 20 years stands at an even split of 10-10. The ‘Cats have won five of the last six.

Choate became a deity among Bobcat fans because of his charismatic, intense way of preaching his vision. He then went out and bludgeoned the Grizzlies four years in a row, regardless of the outside narratives.

That came to a head in 2019 when Montana State rolled behind 368 rushing yards in a 48-14 win. Then came the pandemic. Then came Choate’s restless nature, leading to him becoming a finalist for the job as Boise State head coach and eventually jumping to Texas.

Although Vigen led the Bobcats in one of their most successful runs in school history last season, questions remained. Could the stoic North Dakota coach beat the Grizzlies? Would his consistent demeanor and attention to detail benefit MSU against the rival, the showdown that has been such a weighted priority for MSU for so long?

All of these questions were answered on Saturday. And it got on a national stage, helping Montana State University venture even further into the stratosphere.

“So many eyes were on this program, it was great to see,” said MSU senior captain fullback RJ Fitzgerald. “As a football team, we’ve done a great job of capturing that atmosphere, it’s College GameDay and it’s a special moment that these guys come to your state and come to this college and this rivalry.

At the end of the day it came down to the football between the white lines and we got the job done. Big Sky Champions, that’s pretty awesome. We’ve finished second for the last two years and it’s quite amazing to finally be able to lift that Big Sky championship trophy.”

Fitzgerald celebrates after the Bobcats scored a special teams touchdown. PHOTO BY JASON BACAJ