Big Sky notebook: Cat-Griz game never easy to forecast

2012-11-12T23:00:00Z 2014-08-25T08:30:09Z Big Sky notebook: Cat-Griz game never easy to forecastBy GREG RACHAC grachac@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Montana State quarterback DeNarius McGhee was still lamenting last year’s loss to rival Montana eight months after it happened.

And for good reason.

Armed with the nation's No. 1 ranking and a shot at an outright Big Sky Conference title, the Bobcats had their chance that day. A win over the Grizzlies would have probably given them the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the FCS playoffs.

But the Cats never showed up, and the Griz picked them apart en route to a rousing 36-10 victory on MSU’s home turf.

“Every game that we have lost since I’ve been here is motivation,” McGhee said in June. “You look at those tapes and see what you’ve done wrong and then you work on those things over the summer. If you’re given the opportunity, if you’re given the plays and you get that team again, you have to capitalize on it.

“You’ve had it in the back of your mind the entire time. So therefore, the next time we play U of M … we’ll be ready. We’ll be inspired to play those guys. That’s without a doubt.”

With that, Cat-Griz week is rung in.

No. 2 Montana State (9-1, 6-1 Big Sky) travels to play unranked Montana (5-5, 3-4) for the 112th time with a lot on the line once again. Most important for the Bobcats, they’re still in the hunt for a share of the Big Sky Conference title.

But a victory will also probably give MSU a coveted top-two seed for the playoffs and the chance to play home games going forward.

MSU defeated New Hampshire in a first-round playoff game last year, but as a result of the loss to the Griz it had to travel to Sam Houston State the following week. The Bobcats were shellacked 49-13.

The Grizzlies took the momentum of their victory over the Bobcats and won two playoff games in dominating style before losing 31-28 to SHSU in the semifinals -- one game shy of another national title game appearance.

Here’s the point: The Cat-Griz game carries more meaning than standings, bragging rights and pride. It can also serve as a catapult to vault the winning team forward with some really good momentum.

Either way, this game is always tough to predict.

The overall makeup of this season suggests the Bobcats are a legitimate favorite to beat Montana on Saturday.

Since a midseason loss to Eastern Washington -- a game the Cats by all rights should have won -- MSU is 3-0 with an average margin of victory of nearly four touchdowns. Running back Cody Kirk has led the way, rushing for 411 yards and seven TDs in those games.

By contrast, the Grizzlies are coming off their only two-game winning streak of the season after beating Idaho State and Weber State. UM had a bye last week.

The trouble for the Griz during an uncharacteristic season has been pass defense. Right now, Montana is ranked 120th out of 122 FCS schools in pass defense at 292.5 yards per game.

But as we’ve noted before, the Grizzlies have history on their side.

Montana leads the all-time series with Montana State 70-36-5, a winning percentage of .630. Also, UM has won 22 of the last 26 Cat-Griz games, and have lost to the Bobcats at Washington-Grizzly Stadium only twice (2002 and 2010).

Title talk

The Grizzlies can’t win the league title and are virtually eliminated from playoff contention.

But Montana State, Eastern Washington, Northern Arizona and Cal Poly still have a chance to earn a share of the Big Sky Conference championship.

As many as three teams could share the crown. NAU hosts Cal Poly this week, and the loser will be eliminated from the title hunt. The winner can do no worse than earning a co-championship.

Unless both Montana State and Eastern Washington lose, a tiebreaker will be used to determine which team gets the automatic bid to the playoffs. If MSU and EWU both lose, the winner of the NAU-Cal Poly game will be the outright champion and earn the auto bid.

These are MSU’s title scenarios, according to the league office in Ogden, Utah:

  • If the Bobcats, EWU and Cal Poly all finish 7-1, the automatic bid goes to Eastern Washington. MSU and EWU both beat Sacramento State in league games, so Cal Poly would be eliminated because it lost to the Hornets. The tiebreaker would then revert to the head-to-head meeting between MSU and EWU, which the Eagles won.
  • If the Bobcats, EWU and NAU all finish 7-1, the automatic bid would go to Montana State. All three teams played Southern Utah, but Montana State is the only one of the three to beat the Thunderbirds.
  • If the Bobcats and Cal Poly both finish 7-1, MSU would get the automatic bid because of its win over Sacramento State and Cal Poly’s loss to the Hornets.
  • If the Bobcats and NAU finish 7-1, MSU would get the automatic bid because of the Bobcats’ win over Southern Utah. Northern Arizona lost to Southern Utah.
  • The Bobcats will be eliminated from conference title contention with a loss at Montana.

Award winners

Caleb Schreibeis’ outstanding season continued last week.

Schreibeis, a defensive end out of Billings West, had seven tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in the Bobcats’ 65-30 victory over Portland State to earn a share of the Big Sky’s defensive player of the week award.

Schreibeis set a school record and leads the nation with seven forced fumbles. He also ranks second in the league with 10 sacks.

MSU return man Shawn Johnson was also recognized as the league’s special teams player of the week. Johnson returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown, marking the Cats’ first punt return for a TD since Kory Austin took one back 85-yards against Dixie State in 2007.

Johnson finished the game with 155 all-purpose yards -- 73 on punt returns, 27 on kick returns and 54 on a first-quarter touchdown pass from McGhee.

Poll position

The Bobcats held on to the No. 2 ranking in The Sports Network Top 25 poll after their victory over Portland State. MSU received 20 first-place votes.

Eastern Washington (8-2, 6-1 Big Sky) remained at No. 5 following a 31-28 victory over UC Davis. Northern Arizona (8-2, 6-1) dropped four spots to No. 15 after falling at home to Southern Utah 35-29 in triple overtime.

Cal Poly (8-2, 6-1) moved ahead two spots to No. 17 after drubbing Idaho State 70-25.

North Dakota State 9-1 kept the No. 1 ranking following a narrow 20-17 win over No. 16 South Dakota State.

The entire top five remained intact with Sam Houston State (8-2) at No. 3 and Old Dominion (9-1) ranked No. 4.

Around the league

Idaho State quarterback Kevin Yost completed 37 of 58 passes against Cal Poly last week to set the Big Sky Conference single-season record for both completions and attempts. Through 10 games, Yost has completed 324 of 513 passes. … Idaho State set the league record for most points allowed in a season with 552, breaking its previous mark of 494 in 2008. … Cal Poly needs 135 yards to establish a single-season league standard for rushing yards. Montana owns the record with 3,477 yards in 1971. Cal Poly enters this week with 3,343.

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