Big Sky Notes: Momentous return
Daily Inter Lake | November 22, 2023 3:20 PM
For a second in the second half of Saturday’s Brawl of the Wild, the 122nd renewal of the Cat-Griz game, it looked a little like Montana’s trip to Idaho the month before.
The Montana State Bobcats came out for the second half and, with half of Washington-Grizzly Stadium’s record crowd out carbo-loading, drove 75 yards in five plays to cut the Grizzlies’ 20-0 halftime lead to 20-7.
Montana also led Idaho 20-0 and had to hang on at the end for a 23-21 win. But that was then (Oct. 14).
The good feeling didn’t last long for the Cats, who saw Brendan Hall’s ensuing kickoff fall short of the goal line, and Montana’s Junior Bergen return it 49 yards to midfield.
Before you knew it Bergen had beaten coverage and caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Big Sky Conference Newcomer of the Year Clifton McDowell.
“It was a similar play call that we had against UNC,” said Bergen, who caught a 21-yard TD against the Bears that was even more open. “We had man coverage and I just knew I had to beat my guy. Cliff put the ball on the money, and I ended up going into the end zone. Just good execution by the offense.”
After good execution by special teams.
“We didn’t come out of the locker room with the hope we’d let them go down the field and get their points, but they did,” Grizzlies coach Bobby Hauck said, adding that Hall, the Cats’ 6-foot-9 kicker, was getting touchbacks 85 percent of the time. “We didn’t know if we’d get an opportunity, but we did work at it this week. The point with the kickoff return team was, 'If we get a chance, we have to take advantage.' And we did.
“That kind of steals it back from them.”
“Pretty thick air today, and that’s one of the few Brendan hasn’t kicked out,” MSU coach Brent Vigen said. “But nonetheless we have to cover it and we didn’t. Whatever piece we got there, we gave it right back.”
What about Sean?
Montana State had a chance to answer when Tommy Mellott — who to that point with 1-for-5 passing, but with that TD — took a deep shot that hit Ty McCullouch in the hands, but the receiver didn’t hang on.
The Bobcats still got a first down on the play thanks to a defensive holding call, but four downs later Mellott overshot Treyton Pickering, giving the Griz the ball back on their 48-yard line.
One puzzling part of the loss is that, similar to the Bobcats’ 24-21 defeat at Idaho on Oct. 28, Sean Chambers barely saw the field. The senior QB came in with 14 touchdowns rushing and another nine throwing.
His first action, before the Cats missed a field goal on their second drive, saw running back Julius Davis apparently line up wrong. The whole series went awry from there.
Chambers’ second appearance was supposed to be a half-ending, fourth-down Hail Mary; he was sacked for a 10-yard loss by Riley Allen instead.
He ended up 0-for-3 passing and two carries for minus-17 yards. That speaks well to the Griz defense, but it’s also a noticeably small sample size.
“I think it’s a good question,” Vigen said Monday in an interview with 406mtsports.com. “It’s something we’ve got to look at. I think in our two conference losses the reps didn’t add up, and I think some of it was situational…
“But he’s certainly one of our best guys and we’ve got to find a way to get him on the field.”
Remember the Toyota
The good news is that recent history hasn’t been unkind to the Cats, who got beat 29-10 in 2021, changed quarterbacks (to Mellott) and marched to the FCS championship at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas..
The Cats and Griz, who both have byes this week, are on the same side of what looks like the toughest bracket. That doesn’t always matter, and MSU proved it in 2021.
“That ride home from Missoula wasn’t much different than it was in ‘21,” Vigen said Monday, then added. “We were an eighth seed that year.
“I won’t say it's anybody’s ball game, but I certainly think we’re one of the teams that has a great shot. … I think we can call on our last couple years at the very least. In ‘21, a lot of these guys were part of that team. “
Aggies Stay Home
It was a stunner for a lot of fans that Sacramento State got a playoff bid — the Hornets play the host North Dakota Fighting Hawks Saturday — while UC Davis did not.
All the Aggies did was beat Sac State 31-21 last weekend, and finish a game ahead of them in the Big Sky standings.
The Davis Enterprise caught Aggies coach Dan Hawkins’ remarks at their postseason banquet Sunday.
“I know some of you when you heard the news this morning wanted to go out in the driveway and throw up,” he said. “I know I did.
“Everything happens for a reason, so let's find a reason. Let's take this kick in the stomach as a little extra motivation for next year. Maybe this will give us a little more fire in the belly.”
Montana athletic director Kent Haslam, who chairs the FCS Selection Committee, spoke to the decision on Monday.
“It really came down to the path to seven wins,” he said. “The committee felt like the path to seven wins for Sacramento was far more difficult than the path to seven wins for UC Davis.”
Hawkins felt confident Davis had done enough.
“I thought we were in, but we weren’t,” he said, “But anytime you put your fate in someone else’s hands, anything can happen. Two years in a row now, I thought we should go and we didn’t, so the message is we need to take care of business. There were games we should have won, but didn’t. The bottom line is, we have to get better.”
No Showcase for Lan
This mean’s Lan Larison’s season is over after eight games and 1,100 rushing yards. The Aggies’ running back ran for 121 of those yards and scored all four of their TDs against Sac State.
Nobody’s going to rush back and replay the game, but Montana’s 31-23 win at Davis on Oct. 7 came during a three-game absence by Larison, who was hurt at the end of a 255-yard performance against Eastern Washington.
“He’s the best player in the league, no question about it, and maybe the country,” Hawkins told the Sacramento Bee on Sunday. “He’s super talented. That dude has a huge heart and he’s extremely tough. He’s what you’d want in a son. He’s unbelievable. He’s the heartbeat of the team. He’s spectacular.”
QUICK KICKS: While Northern Arizona cut ties with Chris Ball — after a 5-6 season that included a 5-3 mark in the Big Sky and a win over the Grizzlies — Eastern Washington AD Tim Collins said Aaron Best will remain the Eagles’ coach. Best is 48-32 EWU but 7-15 over his last two seasons. … Idaho’s Jack Layne was named the STATS Perform Freshman of the Week for throwing six TD passes in a 63-27 win over Idaho State. …The Vandal win was also notable for Jeremaine Jackson’s 79-yard punt return and 15-yard reception for touchdowns — the 5-7 junior’s first two TDs of the season. … McDowell’s Newcomer award is the sixth for a UM player. The list includes Justin Ford (2021), Marcus Knight (2019), Dalton Sneed (20-18), Justin Green (2003) and Drew Miller (1999). … Knight, who left the Griz program late last season, played this fall for Tennessee Tech. He had a 61-yard TD run in a 35-0 win over Tennessee State Saturday. The Golden Eagles went 4-7 and Knight scored six TDs.