Montana State’s 20-17 victory over Sacramento State on Saturday carries multi-pronged significance.
First -- and most paramount for the Bobcats (8-1, 5-1 Big Sky) -- it was a key late-season victory that helped them keep pace at the top of the standings in the chase for the Big Sky Conference championship.
It also increased their playoff odds (if it didn’t cinch a berth altogether) and allowed them to jump ahead to the No. 2 ranking in Monday’s Top 25 poll released by The Sports Network.
But the historical consequences cannot be overstated. With the win, Rob Ash tied MSU legend Sonny Holland for career victories as coach of the Bobcats.
Ash improved to 47-21 in five-plus seasons at Montana State, a winning percentage of .691. Holland, a two-time All-American as a center at MSU who coached the Bobcats from 1971-77, went 47-27-1 (.627).
Moreover, DeNarius McGhee broke the record for most wins by a Bobcat quarterback. The victory over Sac State was the 27th of McGhee’s career, which eclipsed the previous mark of 26 held by Paul Dennehy (1976-78).
Dennehy was on the sideline with the Bobcats at Hornet Stadium on Saturday.
“We just embrace all of that,” said Ash, who can surpass Holland with a victory over Portland State this week. “People here like to see Sonny on the sideline, Paul Dennehy on the sideline. It just goes back so far, it’s a fabulous thing.
“We want to make sure that we are always connecting ourselves to them.”
Holland and Dennehy, incidentally, led MSU to the Division II national championship in 1976. Ash and McGhee have designs on similar playoff results this year.
The correlation between McGhee’s arrival to Bozeman and the uptick in victories at Montana State is discernible.
Ash forged a rather pedestrian 20-14 record in his first three seasons with the Bobcats. Granted, MSU was hindered by NCAA-imposed restrictions on scholarships and practice time -- penalties that carried over from the Mike Kramer era -- but the performance on the field was inconsistent at best.
Since McGhee took over at quarterback as a redshirt freshman in 2010, MSU has been one of the steadiest teams in the Big Sky.
The Bobcats are 27-7 in that time, and have made the FCS playoffs in each of the last two years. Saturday’s win clinched their third consecutive eight-win season, something MSU hadn’t accomplished since 1958.
It was also the Cats’ 19th conference victory since the start of the 2010 season, the most in the Big Sky in that span.
Coming of age
Zack Wagenmann has taken the reins as the anchor of Montana’s defensive line. Only a sophomore, Wagenmann has emerged as one of the top defensive players in the Big Sky.
He had another big game Saturday in the Grizzlies’ 24-21 victory at Weber State. Wagenmann, a product of Missoula Sentinel, forced two fumbles and had two sacks and six tackles.
For his effort, Wagenmann earned a share of the league’s defensive player of the week award.
Wagenmann forced a fumble late in the third quarter that the Grizzlies recovered, and then knocked the ball away from Weber State quarterback Mike Hoke late in the fourth quarter, which UM also fell on.
One of the best pure pass rushers in the Big Sky, Wagenmann leads the league with 11 sacks.
Wagenmann shared the player of the week award with Montana State linebacker Na’a Moeakiola.
As MSU’s offense searched for consistency Saturday, its defense kept the Bobcats in the game. And Moeakiola played the biggest role.
Moeakiola, a junior from Euless, Texas, had a team-high nine tackles -- including five for loss -- and a sack against Sac State.
The five tackles for loss are the most by a Big Sky player this season, and the most by a Bobcat since Adam Cordeiro had five in a game versus Idaho State a decade ago.
Moeakiola’s sack helped force the Hornets to attempt a 53-yard field goal, which fell short. In all, MSU’s defense forced four turnovers and limited the Hornets to 82 yards rushing.
The Grizzlies (5-5, 3-4 Big Sky) have just one game remaining on their schedule -- their annual rivalry game against Montana State on Nov. 17 in Missoula.
It’s a big one for the Griz for a couple reasons.
UM wants to retain statewide bragging rights and also keep the Great Divide Trophy in its possession. And with any hope for a playoff berth out the window, Montana can still extend its streak for consecutive winning seasons to 26 with a victory.
Montana has won 22 of the last 26 Cat-Griz games, and has lost to the Bobcats just twice at Washington-Grizzly Stadium (2002 and 2010).
The Grizzlies haven’t had a losing season since 1985 when they went 3-8 in Larry Donovan’s final season as coach. Don Read took over the following year and went 85-36 over the course of the next 10 seasons.
33 and out
Lost in the shuffle of Montana State’s victory last week was the fact that McGhee’s touchdown-pass streak came to an end.
McGhee threw for a touchdown in each of his previous 33 games as MSU’s quarterback, but he failed to find the end zone through the air against Sac State.
McGhee fell 10 games shy of breaking the FCS record held by Holy Cross’ Dominic Randolph. Randolph threw a TD in 42 straight games from 2006-09.
The all-time NCAA record is 46, set by Mike Reilly of Division II Central Washington in 2008. Reilly is a former standout at Flathead High School in Kalispell.
The FBS record is 38, set by North Carolina State’s Russell Wilson last year.
The Bobcats got 17 first-place votes while jumping ahead one spot to No. 2 in the latest TSN poll. MSU was ranked No. 2 prior to its loss to Eastern Washington on Oct. 13.
The Grizzlies remained unranked and didn’t receive any votes.
Conference frontrunner Northern Arizona (8-1, 6-0 Big Sky) slid ahead one spot to No. 11 after a 50-10 blowout of Idaho State. Eastern Washington (7-2, 5-1) moved up two spots to No. 5 by virtue of a 34-17 win over No. 16 Cal Poly.
Their loss didn’t count toward the league standings, but the Mustangs (7-2, 5-1) fell three spots to No. 19.
Defending national champ North Dakota State (8-1) held on to No. 1 after a 21-17 victory over Missouri State. Previous No. 2 Georgia Southern (7-2) dropped all the way to No. 7 after losing to Appalachian State on Saturday.
No. 3 Sam Houston State (7-2) and No. 4 Old Dominion (8-1) each moved up one spot.
Around the league
Northern Arizona has won eight consecutive games, and controls its own destiny for the Big Sky Conference crown. The Lumberjacks can win it outright with home wins this week over Southern Utah and against Cal Poly on Nov. 17. They can at least clinch a share of their first league title since 2003 with a win this week. … Northern Colorado KR Dominic Gunn eclipsed 2,000 kick return yards last week. With 2,005 yards, Gunn is the sixth player in league history to reach 2,000 kick return yards. Former Weber State standout Bryant Eteuati holds the record with 2,644 yards. … Weber State LB Anthony Morales recorded a career-high 23 tackles in the loss to Montana. Morales leads the Big Sky with an average of 11.5 tackles per game. … Cal Poly RB Deonte Williams got his eighth 100-yard rushing game of the season in the loss to EWU. It was Williams’ 13th career 100-yard game.