Big Sky notes: Something's gotta give Saturday
Daily Inter Lake | November 16, 2023 4:16 AM
It’s that time of year again: When something has to give.
The last two Brawls of the Wild saw the Montana State Bobcats bring their highly-ranked rushing offense up against one of the Football Championship Subdivision’s best rush defenses in the Montana Grizzlies’.
Saturday — at noon, inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium — will be no different. The Griz allow 2.92 yards a carry and 84.8 yards a game, which sits fourth in the FCS. The Cats average 7.46 yards a carry and 302.1 a game on offense and that ranks second nationally.
Two years ago MSU managed 96 rushing yards in a 27-10 loss at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Last year MSU gashed the Griz for 439 yards in a 55-21 win at Bobcat Stadium.
“I think we played really well,” MSU coach Brent Vigen remembered. “Our third touchdown was off a bad (punt) snap. Our defense made some plays and it became a tidal wave. It is a battle of wills. We want to run the football, and they’ve been very good at stopping it. Something has to give.”
New Blood, Old Horse
With the Grizzlies sitting at 9-1 (and ranked No. 3 in the FCS; the Cats 8-2 and ranked No. 4), it’s easy to forget they changed coordinators after last season. Often there’s an adjustment that can predict a mundane period. But while their 28-14 loss at Northern Arizona was certainly mundane, the Grizzlies have looked better on both sides of the ball.
On defense they’ve kept the same odd-front look, albeit with some changes due to personnel.
Vigen is impressed. “They fly to the ball and tackle as well as anybody we’ve seen,” he said.
The defense has been, despite the losses of, among others, Patrick O’Connell and Robby Hauck, more sustainable. A couple holdovers might be key: linebacker and top tackler Braxton Hill and defensive tackle Alex Gubner.
It’s hard to quantify defensive tackle play — he’s tied for ninth on the Griz in tackles with 29, with three sacks and seven tackles for loss — but Gubner takes on tacklers, shakes them and closes fast.
“Rush defense, you play it inside-out,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said Monday. “Alex has played really well. He’s quick off the ball, plays really hard, good technician. He’s just kind of turned into a really relentless guy. I’m excited and proud of the way he’s played.
“I love playing behind ‘Gub,’ “ Hill added. “He’s a beast. He brings it every day. Brings it on the offseason. We’ve become really close over the past few years. He’s a terrific player.”
According to Colter Nuanez of skylinesportsmt.com Saturday’s Cat-Griz will be the first to decide the outright, sole Big Sky Conference champion. Several others have had implications, certainly: in 2003 MSU’s 16-6 win forged a three-way tie atop the Big Sky with Montana, MSU and Idaho State all at 5-2.
This is also the first time both teams have been ranked in the top five in the FCS polls heading in.
Asked what that added to the game for him, Hauck replied: “Nuthin’.”
Vigen was more expansive.
“When I got the job, you certainly recognized the importance of this game just for this game and the opponent,” he began. Add in how — since its the last regular-season game — it usually affected the league race and playoff seedings and it gets bigger.
“We’re three years into it, and to have it come down to that in all three aspects, that’s what we’re working for,” Vigen said.
Thanks, Other Cats
The winner becomes outright Big Sky champion thanks to Weber State, which pinned a 31-29 loss on Idaho, knocking the Vandals off the pace with their second league loss.
Idaho, which beat MSU earlier this year after dropping a game to Montana, saw Weber rally from a 10-0 deficit into a 21-13 lead.
With the score 21-all Idaho punted and Haze Hadley returned it 71 yards. Three plays later, redshirt freshman Adrian Cormier kept his feet through contact at the 5 and completed a 13-yard TD that gave the Wildcats the lead for good, 28-21, with 46 seconds left in the third quarter.
Coming into the game Idaho hadn’t given up a punt return. Not one (Hadley returned one 18 yards right before halftime).
Running back Kris Jackson, who ran for two scores, told the Ogden Standard-Examiner: “To see Haze come back after his injury last year and do something like that, I think it warmed everyone’s heart on the sideline to see him make a play like that.”
Safety Winston Reid made the tackle in which Idaho Jermaine Jackson coughed up the ball, setting up a chip shot field goal and a 31-21 lead that held up.
Reid reportedly had 11 of his 17 tackles in the first 17 minutes of the game.
Sean Chambers, one half of the Bobcats’ quarterback duo along with Tommy Mellott, was part of five touchdowns in the first half of MSU’s 57-14 win over Eastern last week. The Wyoming transfer had a 68-yard run to open the scoring.
Also scoring a touchdown — his first of the season and first since 2019 — was Lane Sumner, a senior out of Huntley Project. The running back has fought injury since 2021.
He was glad to be back, and glad to bear witness to another big day from Chambers.
“When we brought Sean in I was like, ‘I thought Tommy was the guy. What are we doing?’ “ Sumner said Saturday. “Then you see Chambers play, and you’re like, ‘Oh. Yeah. That’s why.’
“But (Chambers and Mellott) complement each other, they’re unselfish. He’s a great guy. He’s obviously one of our team captains. He’s a leader. He’s a good friend of mine. Love the guy.”
Montana State had the Big Sky’s co-offensive player of the week in Chambers, and the special teams player of the week in punter Brendan Hall. The Bobcats didn’t nominate a defensive player, but Zac Crews might have been a good candidate.
The freshman out of Missoula Sentinel blocked an Eastern punt at the end of its first possession (it traveled 20 yards), got a pick-6 from his defensive end position with 13:58 left in the game (he caught the ball at the EWU 6-yard line), then forced a fumble later in the fourth quarter.
“He’s played a real critical role on special teams all year,” Vigen said of Crews, who originally had committed to Montana. “He’s a tremendous athlete. … That blocked punt was the first time it really showed up to the fans. And then that interception.
“We’re really glad we have him here, and he’s only going to improve as he gets bigger, stronger, all that stuff.”
Quarterback Clifton McDowell was Montana’s nominee for offensive player of the week, and linebacker Riley Wilson and Nico Ramos were the nominees on defense and special teams. Weber’s Hadley was also nominated.