Montana State must beat Montana for any chance to extend its season with a playoff berth. And even then it’s not a given.
That means, win or lose, this could be the final game for Bobcats quarterback DeNarius McGhee.
McGhee made mention in August about the fact that he’s spent more time at MSU — five years — than he did at Trinity High School in suburban Dallas, which he quarterbacked to a Texas Class 5A state title as a junior in 2007.
So when it’s time to leave the Bobcats and move on, McGhee said he’ll be able to walk away with no misgivings. But that doesn’t mean he won’t do everything in his power to keep this season alive.
“You have to love it,” McGhee said during a press conference on Tuesday. “As a lot of people say, big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. And this is a big-time game. So the players will have to show up, and we’re going to have to go out and compete and make plays.”
Whether his career comes to an end Saturday or not, McGhee will depart as the Bobcats’ winningest quarterback and their all-time passing leader, and he should surpass Travis Lulay for the career mark in total offense, too.
Right now McGhee has 11,043 passing yards and 12,124 yards of total offense. Great numbers for a guy who’s had five offensive coordinators in five years — Dale Ploessl and Jim Svoboda in 2009, Brian Wright in 2010 and ’11, Kevin McGiven in 2012 and Tim Cramsey this year.
A two-time winner of the Big Sky Conference offensive player of the year award, McGhee has led MSU to a 36-11 record (a .766 winning percentage) and three playoff appearances since becoming the starter prior to the 2010 season.
Has McGhee played a major role in Montana State being mentioned among the top teams in the FCS? Unquestionably. Is he the greatest quarterback in Bobcats history? Arguably, yes.
“I came in here and (coach Rob Ash) gave me the opportunity to play as a youngster,” McGhee said. “We’ve been able to do a lot of things, but this is our last Cat-Griz game.
“Out of all the offensive coordinators and coaches I’ve had within the past years, the one that’s still standing here is the man over there, and that’s coach Ash. So I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that we end this regular season with a win over those guys.”
The last time Jordan Johnson appeared in a Cat-Griz game he helped Montana to a surprising 36-10 drubbing of No. 1 MSU.
Johnson missed all of last season because of a highly publicized and heavily scrutinized off-the-field saga, but he’s back. And the junior quarterback is aiming for a repeat performance against the Bobcats.
“Two years ago it was awesome,” Johnson said. “To go in there, they were ranked No. 1 and to beat them the way we beat them was probably the most fun I’ve had playing football.
“Just from that standpoint, that’s the only experience I have in this game and it was a lot of fun for me.”
Johnson threw for 164 yards and two TDs against the Cats in 2011 (though the victory was later vacated by UM as part of a self-imposed punishment stemming from NCAA violations). He connected with Jabin Sambrano for a 79-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter, one play after the Bobcats had scored to make it a one-possession game.
This season has been a big one for Johnson. The junior has thrown for 2,749 yards with 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions, and his efficiency rating ranks among the best in the FCS.
“We’ve watched all the video, and the thing that jumps out is Jordy’s accuracy throwing the ball downfield,” Ash said. “He hits the post, the go route, the corner, and they have really good speed. The percentage of the shots they hit down the field is remarkably high.”
One big matchup will be Montana receiver Ellis Henderson vs. Montana State’s secondary, primarily Bobcats cornerback Deonte Flowers.
Henderson is the Grizzlies’ best receiver and a huge deep threat. Flowers is the Bobcats best cover man and plays the ball as well as anyone in the Big Sky.
Henderson has just 35 catches, but 14 have gone for touchdowns. That means he averages a TD for every 2.5 receptions. Henderson comes in with an astounding 25.2 yards-per-catch average.
But Flowers has broken up 12 passes, tied for the most in the league. MSU’s defense ranks second in the Big Sky in pass defense at 234.9 yards allowed per game.
MSU kicker Rory Perez was the unsung hero from last year’s Cat-Griz game.
Perez went 3 for 3 on field goal attempts — including a 42-yarder in the first quarter — which made all the difference in a 16-7 victory in Missoula.
Montana State’s kicking game has been up and down this season. Perez is 7 of 14 on field goals overall, and hasn’t made one in five games. The Cats consistently line up in a “swinging gate” formation on point-after attempts, but more often than not they opt to kick the extra point. Still, Perez has come up empty on five PATs, and has had five kicks blocked in all.
Shawn Johnson’s health — he suffered a leg injury last week against Southern Utah — will be an important factor for MSU’s special teams (and its running game). Johnson is the only player in the Big Sky to have returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns.
During a Tuesday press conference, Montana coach Mick Delaney surmised that this will be his 14th or 15th time coaching in the Cat-Griz game.
By The Gazette’s count, this will be Delaney’s 12th appearance. He was an assistant coach with the Grizzlies under Jack Swarthout in 1968 and ’69, and then was an assistant under Sonny Lubick with the Bobcats from 1978-81.
After spending 15 seasons with Lubick at Colorado State (1993-2007), Delaney returned to UM as an assistant under coaches Bobby Hauck and Robin Pflugrad from 2008-11 before becoming the head coach prior to last season.
Having seen this rivalry from both sidelines in five different decades, the 70-year-old Delaney says he knows the formula for success.
“It’ll be the team that plays the hardest the longest and makes the fewest mistakes and has a couple plays on special teams here and there,” Delaney said. “I think that’s what will decide the game.”
Bobcats RB Cody Kirk, who hobbled through last week’s loss to Southern Utah with a knee injury, said Tuesday he’s “95 to 100 percent” for Saturday. Ash also said nicked-up TE Tiai Salanoa and CB Sean Gords expect to play. … Delaney figured both RB Travon Van and FB Jamal Wilson would be good to go for the Griz. Both have ankle injuries; Van missed two of the past three games, while Wilson sat out last week vs. Weber State. … The Grizzlies lead the all-time series against Montana State 69-37-5. … The Bobcats haven’t lost three consecutive games in Ash’s tenure as coach. The last time they dropped three straight was in 2006.