Montana State coach Rob Ash said his team “went to school” defensively at the end of last season.
It had to, especially after a pair of option-oriented running teams handed the Bobcats two humbling, debilitating losses.
One of those opponents was rival Montana, who knocked off then-No. 1 MSU 36-10 while rushing for 309 yards in the regular-season finale at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman.
But in the latest reprisal of their 112-year-old rivalry Saturday, Montana State was much better prepared. And it resulted in the Cats beating the Griz for the second time in three years and winning a share of the Big Sky Conference championship for the third consecutive season.
The second-ranked Bobcats, led by defensive end Caleb Schreibeis, did a number on Montana’s vaunted running game for the better part of a 16-7 victory. MSU limited the Grizzlies to 168 yards on the ground, 74 fewer than their per-game average.
After allowing 108 rushing yards in the first quarter, including a 47-yard touchdown by Peter Nguyen, the Bobcats shut down the Griz for just 60 yards the rest of the way.
In a role reversal from the year before, the Bobcats held the Grizzlies to an average of 4.4 yards per carry, nearly a full yard less than their season average.
Ash said last year’s Cat-Griz game was “a tough day for us. Montana ran the football and got 36 points. We’re proud of our defense, and that didn’t sit well. So (defensive coordinator Jamie) Marshall went to school on how to stop some of the things Montana did against us that day.
“We’ve been working on stopping zone-read and pin-and-pull and the bubble (screens) and the things that go with this offense. We changed some schemes and worked on it in spring ball. This is not something that just happened this week. We’ve been working to try to stop this offense.”
Schreibeis was dominant. The senior from Billings West played his assignments and was in the right spots all day, piling up 16 tackles, a sack and 1½ tackles for loss.
“I kind of knew during practice that I’d have a lot of opportunities for plays,” Schreibeis said. “We were solid on assignments and relentless to the ball. And that’s what we needed to do to win this game, and that’s what we did.”
For his effort, Schreibeis was named the Big Sky Conference defensive player of the week Monday. Schreibeis finished the regular season as the league’s sack champion with 12 sacks.
MSU kicker Rory Perez earned the league’s special teams player of the week award. Perez made three field goals against the Grizzlies, which proved huge in the victory.
The Bobcats (10-1, 7-1 Big Sky) are back to work this week as they prepare for their FCS playoff opener on Saturday, Dec. 1 in Bozeman.
‘We’ll be back’
The loss to MSU marked Montana’s first sub-.500 season since 1985.
The Grizzlies ended 5-6 overall and 3-5 in the conference, which put them in a tie near the bottom of the Big Sky standings with North Dakota and UC Davis.
As linebacker Jordan Tripp noted, the Grizzlies had the lead in each of their six losses. They simply didn’t finish games like they’re accustomed to doing.
Mick Delaney, who according to athletic director Kent Haslam will be back as coach next season, insists his team will return to prominence.
“We knew we had to play our very, very best to beat a team that’s had that much success,” Delaney said Saturday. “We probably played about as well as we can.
“The Griz aren’t going anywhere. This is as far as we’ve ever went away, and we’ll be back -- quickly. This is a group of young guys that will come back and be an outstanding football team.”
Montana State will sit through a first-round bye this week while awaiting an opponent for its second-round playoff game. MSU will host either Villanova or Stony Brook next week.
Fans in Montana remember Villanova as the team that came back to beat the Grizzlies in the national championship game in 2009. Three years later, the Wildcats are still coached by Andy Talley, who just won the Colonial Athletic Association coach of the year award after guiding his team to an 8-3 regular season and an automatic bid to the playoffs.
Ash said Sunday that he and Talley have been friends for several years, dating back to when Ash was the coach at Division III Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. Villanova, of course, is located in Philadelphia, not far from the Juniata campus.
Stony Brook (9-2) tied for the Big South title, its fourth straight conference championship. The Seawolves, coached by Chuck Priore, knocked off Albany in the first round last season, and nearly upset eventual national runner-up Sam Houston State in the second round.
Stony Brook hosts Villanova at 1 p.m. Mountain time Saturday at LaValle Stadium in Stony Brook, N.Y.
Despite an 8-3 record and a victory over a Bowl Subdivision opponent, Big Sky Conference member Northern Arizona was left out of the 20-team playoff bracket.
MSU, Eastern Washington (9-2) and Cal Poly (9-2) were selected from the Big Sky.
“We are generally disappointed as a team," said NAU coach Jerome Souers, whose team beat UNLV early in the year. “As a program, if you look at where we were 12 months ago to where we are today, we accomplished a great deal.”
But Lehigh was perhaps the most disappointed team when the bracket was unveiled Sunday.
The Mountain Hawks, of the Patriot League, were denied an at-large berth despite a 10-1 record. Colgate (8-3) earned the automatic bid from that league as its conference champ.
Under the current playoff format, Lehigh is just the second 10-win team from an automatic-qualifier conference to be denied an at-large berth.
MSU was ranked No. 2 in the final Top 25 poll of the regular season, which was released Sunday by The Sports Network. The Bobcats received 12 first-place votes.
Eastern Washington was ranked No. 4, Cal Poly was No. 12 and Northern Arizona was No. 20.
Defending FCS champion North Dakota State, with 126 first-place votes, remained No. 1. Old Dominion (10-1) was No. 3 while Sam Houston State (8-3) came in at No. 5.
Around the nation
The three other opening-round playoff games Saturday pit Eastern Illinois (7-4) at South Dakota State (8-3), Coastal Carolina (7-4) at Bethune-Cookman (9-2) and Colgate at Wagner (8-3). … For further Division I playoff information, visit the official website at www.NCAA.com/fcs.