By ERIC TABER
In a game that needs little introduction or added hype, the 115th edition of the Brawl of the Wild descends on Bozeman Saturday as the University of Montana Grizzlies take on cross-state rivals, the Montana State University Bobcats for a noon kickoff.
Montanans young and old know the meaning, and know what is at stake, even if nothing more than pride and bragging rights were at stake. But for the Grizzlies, there are stakes. Playoff stakes.
The game will serve as Montana head coach Bob Stitt’s introduction to one of the nation’s oldest continuous rivalries.
“I think it’s going to be similar to me walking into the stadium the first game against North Dakota State. You really don’t know what to expect, and it’s ten times greater than you ever imagined it being,” said Coach Stitt at his weekly press conference.
“It means a lot to the people in this state. That’s why we gotta go win the ball game. For our fans and the passion they have. We can’t let ‘em down.
“Whoever wins this one is going to earn it. Our guys are going to be ready to play.”
Limited tickets for the Brawl of the Wild are still available as of Tuesday, and can be purchased at griztix.com, or by calling the UM box office at 406-243-4051.
BRAWL OF THE WILD: Northwestern Energy, Town Pump and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana are the presenting sponsors of the 115th Brawl of the Wild.
The Brawl of the Wild series is an annual competition between Montana and Montana State, awarding points to the winner of regular season matchups in each sport sponsored by the two schools.
Currently, UM and MSU are tied at two points each in the 2015-16 series following split decisions in volleyball and men’s and women’s cross country. The annual football game between the two institutions is worth two points.
THE GAME: Any hopes of a record 23rd appearance in the FCS Playoffs for the Montana Grizzlies (6-4, 5-2 BSC) rest solely on the outcome of Saturday’s matchup.
The Griz require a win and a specific set of outcomes in other contests across the conference to earn the Big Sky’s automatic playoff bid. A win will keep the Griz in the picture for an at-large bid should the other chips not fall in Montana’s favor.
Without a win, the Grizzlies’ playoffs hopes fade away with the Bozeman sunset.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats (5-5, 3-4 BSC) are out of playoff contention after being selected by the conference coaches to win the Big Sky title at the onset of the season.
Armed with the second best overall offense in the league, the Cats have nothing to play for in front of their home crowd except pride, bragging rights and ending decades of frustration against the Grizzlies.
It’s a story of high-flying offense versus stifling defense, as the Bobcats enter the game averaging 42.6 points and 521.5 yards of total offense per contest, the best overall offense in the Big Sky.
Conversely, the Montana defense consists of the nation’s sack leader in Tyrone Holmes, and the nation’s fourth-best tackler in Kendrick Van Ackeren.
UM’s defensive unit is fourth in the Big Sky in total defense, allowing 377.4 yards per game, but boasts the league’s second best pass defense and the best red zone defense.
MSU on the other hand contains the league’s best red zone offense, and is led by quarterback Dakota Prukop, who averages over 346 yards-per-game.
If you’re a sports fan of any stripe, it just doesn’t get any better.
SERIES HISTORY: After 115 years, the Grizzlies lead the all time series with their cross-divide rivals 71-37-5, with Montana remaining dominant since Montana State won a national championship in 1985.
Since 1986, the Grizzlies, have gone on to win 24 of 29 games, highlighted by a 16 game win streak from 1986-2001.
LAST MEETING: The Montana defense took advantage of seven Bobcat turnovers, and the Grizzlies went on to beat the Bobcats 34-7 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium for the first win for a home team in the series in the previous six years.
Zack Wagenmann broke Montana’s all time sack record in that game, collecting the 33.5-th of his career, and safety Matt Hermanson collected three interceptions in the defensive showcase.
Jordan Canada rushed for 119 yards, and Jordan Johnson passed for 313 yards in the game, as the Griz scored on five of their first six possessions to take a 27-0 halftime lead.
ANOTHER WINNING SEASON: Montana guaranteed its 29th winning season in the past 30 years with last week’s 57-16 throttling of Eastern Washington in Missoula.
The Grizzlies last lost to the Bobcats in 2012, coinciding with the last year Montana did not finish above .500 .
WATCH: ROOT Sports network will broadcast the game as part of its Big Sky Conference coverage. Tom Glasgow will be doing play by play, along with analyst Jason Stiles and Jen Mueller on the sideline. To find Root Sports in your area, see the channel finder on gogriz.com.
The game will also be seen on ROOT Sports Rocky Mountain, Southwest Alt 1, DIRECTV’ Audience Network & AT&T U-Verse.
One of the greatest traditions for Griz fans around the country is to gather and take in the action at a local watch party. Find your local watch party HERE.
GRIZ RADIO: The game can be heard statewide on the Montana Radio Network, and worldwide via web stream on gogriz.com. Mick Holien, Greg Sundberg and Adam Painter will bring you the action from Bozeman.
RANKINGS: Following UM’s win over Eastern Washington, the Griz moved up the national rankings to No. 17 in both the STATS FCS media poll, and the FCS Coaches’ poll. The 6-4 Griz picked up 1270 votes in the media poll, and 188 votes in the Coaches’ poll to climb from No. 22 to No. 17.
HOLMES WATCH: Senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes won the Big Sky’s defensive Player of the Week award for the second time this season on Monday after moving into fourth place on the all-time career sack list with 30.5 career sacks.
Holmes now needs two more sacks to move into third place with 32, and just 2.5 more move into second place.
Holmes also picked up four tackles-for-loss against the Eagles, upping his career total to 42.5, and moving him into sixth place on Montana’s all-time ranking. With just three more TFLs this season, Holmes can pass three more former Grizzlies, and move into third on the all-time ranking with 45.5.
Holmes remains on the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year watch list, carrying the most sacks of any FCS football player in the nation this season.
JONES WATCH: Jamaal Jones caught six passes for 156 yards and a touchdown last week to move into second place on Montana’s all-time receiving list with 2,764 career yards.
Jones surpassed Matt Wells to move to second on the list, and now needs 255 more yards this season to take Marc Mariani’s place as Montana’s all-time leading receiver.
KVA WATCH: Senior linebacker Kendrick Van Ackeren led all tacklers against EWU with 16 total takedowns, a half of a sack, one tackle-for-loss, a pass breakup and an interception that he returned 26 yards, just shy of a touchdown.
Van Ackeren now has 111 total tackles this season, the fourth most in all of FCS football, despite missing Montana’s game against Idaho State. He now has 262 career tackles at Montana, tying him in 22nd place on Montana’s all-time career tackles list.
MUST WIN: Four teams are in the running for the Big Sky’s lone automatic playoff bid, five but Big Sky teams are looking for an at-large playoff bid.
Montana can still clinch the automatic bid to the playoffs based on head-to-head results if: The Griz defeat Montana State, Northern Arizona defeats Southern Utah, and Eastern Washington defeats Portland State.