By ERIC TABER for GoGriz.com photos by MARK MESENKO
Montana started perfectly in the 116th Brawl of the Wild.
Then, the struggles started.
The Montana Grizzlies’ (6-5, 3-5 BSC) season came to a close on Saturday in Missoula, as the Montana State Bobcats (4-7, 2-6) pulled off an improbable 24-17 win, tasting victory for only the fourth time inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
With the win, the Great Divide Trophy travels to Bozeman for the first time since 2012 and for only the third time in the last decade.
In a locker room filled with emotion after the game, Montana head coach Bob Stitt thanked his seniors for their leadership of this year’s team.
“You’d like to say you’ve got to learn from this and you’ve got to remember this feeling, so it doesn’t happen again, but for the seniors that doesn’t help. We have a great senior class, and we appreciate what they have done for our program in terms of getting it moving in the right direction and getting it where we want to be,” Stitt said.
After the perfect start to the game, the Grizzly offense sputtered, with four of the next six drives in the first half resulting in three-and-outs, and a fourth drive resulting in an interception on the first play, stopping all the momentum from the first score of the game in its tracks.
Meanwhile, the Montana defense played with the heart of a lion, but couldn’t do enough to stop the MSU run game as the Cats ground out 368 rushing yards on 62 attempts, with dynamic quarterback Chris Murray tallying 142 by himself.
Murray only completed two passes all game. The second came with just over a minute to go and converted a key fourth down, allowing the Montana State Bobcats to kneel out the rest of the clock and seal the win.
The advantage on the ground also resulted in a big lead in time of possession for the Bobcats, who had the ball for nearly 40 minutes of the game.
The Griz started on their own 42-yard line, and Gustafson momentarily eased fans minds of any health issues. He pump-faked on the outside, then found Justin Calhoun streaking up the far sideline on Montana’s first offensive play for a 58-yard score just in just two minutes of play.
Montana State flipped the field position battle on their second drive and reaped the benefit on drive number three. The Bobcats faced a fourth down on the Montana 32 and committed a false start, but a late hit from Caleb Kidder on the same play gave Montana State an automatic first down.
Murray put the Bobcats on the board with an eight-yard rush that ended with a front flip over Yamen Sanders into the end zone, tying the game with 4:13 left in the opening quarter.
Another slow offensive drive by Montana gave the Bobcats the ball inside Grizzly territory. After moving the ball to the 21, MSU brought on Gabe Peppenger for a 38-yard field goal. Cornerback J.R. Nelson made it clean around the end, however, and blocked the attempt, diving right on top of it to give the ball back to Montana.
The Griz couldn’t take advantage, and Montana State started near the 50 for the third straight drive. On third down, Murray kept the ball and rushed up the middle for a 48-yard score to MSU ahead 14-7.
Gustafson’s first pass on the next Montana drive was intercepted by Josh Hill, who returned it to the Grizzly 24-yard line. The Bobcats would settle for another field goal, but this time Justin Strongmade his way into the backfield to get a piece of the kick, keeping the Griz within one score.
The Griz picked up just their second first down of the game two plays later on a 37-yard bomb from Gustafson to Kennan Curran. The drive would stall from there, and Eric Williams pinned the Bobcats on their own three with a 34-yard punt.
The defenses controlled the last 10 minutes of the half, neither team allowing any more points before the halftime break. After opening with the 58-yard pass to Calhoun, the Griz managed just 59 total yards for the rest of the half.
“Part of it was field position, but hats off to their defense. They really held us in check,” said Gustafson. “In all honesty, we just didn’t run enough plays in the first half and kept our defense on the field for too long. For how many times we went three and out it was disappointing.”
Gunnar Brekke took the first offensive play of the second half for Montana State 65 yards, making it up the sideline to the Montana 32-yard line. Peppenger finally got a field goal off cleanly, making a 21-yarder to give Montana State the 17-7 lead.
Another three-and-out for Montana gave the Bobcats the ball back, and Nick LaSane set them up for another score with a 61-yard run down the left sideline, breaking multiple tackles on the way. Newell finished the drive off with a four-yard score to put MSU ahead 24-7.
Gustafson and the Montana offense finally found some rhythm on the next drive, connecting on three straight first down passes. Jeremy Calhoun then bruised his way into the red zone for an important third down conversion.
The Griz moved the ball all the way to the MSU one-yard line but failed to convert a fourth-down quarterback sneak, turning the ball back over to the Bobcats.
A short Bobcat punt gave Montana the ball at the MSU 29 to start the next drive, but the Griz couldn’t take advantage. After one first down, Brandon Purdy came in and hit a 28-yard field goal to get the Griz back within two scores before the end of the third quarter.
The next Montana drive also started in a good position, this time near midfield. The Griz faced a third and four, picking up the first down on an MSU offside penalty. Calhoun continued to impress in his return, carrying tacklers inside the five for a first and goal.
Joey Counts pounded into the end zone on the next play to get the Griz back within seven with 11 minutes left.
On the next defensive possession, Josh Sandry broke into the backfield and sacked Murray for an 11-yard loss, forcing a Bobcat punt to the Grizzly 35-yard line.
After some Jerry Louie-McGee heroics to move the ball toward scoring position again, Montana went for it on fourth and 10 from the 29-yard line. Gustafson fired incomplete over Collin Bingham’s head, turning the ball over on downs with 6:20 remaining.
The Bobcats kept the same game plan they had used all game, pounding it on the ground into Montana territory. Murray converted on third down with a 10-yard rush to keep the drive alive. The Griz again held MSU in check, setting up a fourth down just inside the Montana 30.
Murray nearly tripped handling the snapped, but regained his balance after the play-action fake and connected with Connor Sullivan for a 26-yard gain on the quarterback’s second completion on the day.
Montana State kneeled out the rest of the clock and held on for the 24-17 victory.
Without the requisite seven D-I wins for a playoff berth, Montana’s season comes to a close and the Grizzlies begin preparing to host Valparaiso on Sept. 2, 2017 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The winning ticket at Saturday’s game was ORANGE with the number 603980. The winner, from Choteau, Mont., took home approximately $12,489.