BOZEMAN — Go ahead and debate the merits of Chris Murray’s growth as a passer. A lack of consistency has dogged him through his first two seasons as Montana State’s quarterback.
But Murray’s ability to run the football has been virtually unstoppable. No one knows that better than Montana.
The fleet footed Murray, a sophomore from Inglewood, California, put another stamp on his Brawl of the Wild legacy by gaining 99 rushing yards Saturday — as part of MSU’s 332-yard effort on the ground — in the Bobcats’ 31-23 triumph over Montana in the 117th meeting between the bitter cross-state rivals.
It was Montana State’s first win over the Griz at Bobcat Stadium since 2005, a fact not lost on 19,907 rabid fans, many of which stormed the field in celebration when the game ended.
For Murray, who rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-17 victory at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula last November, it was a continuation of his rise in the rivalry.
“It means a lot,” Murray said afterward. “It was kind of hard for me to understand the rivalry last year, coming from California and all that. Even after the game (last year) I didn’t really realize it until some months passed.
“I’m very appreciative to be able to be in this position. To be 2-0 against the Griz is truly a blessing.”
Montana did a good job containing Murray in the first half, and he had negative rushing yards at intermission. But Murray broke loose for 119 yards gained in the second half, including a 4-yard touchdown run right up the middle that put the Bobcats ahead 31-16 with 6:20 to play.
A crucial sequence unfolded on MSU’s opening drive of the third quarter. Facing a third-and-31 play, Murray ran for 26 yards. On the second play, he snuck up the middle as the Bobcats lined up in a swinging-gate formation, which moved the chains.
That resulted in a Gabe Peppenger field goal and a 24-13 lead, but more importantly the drive bled nearly nine minutes off the clock.
“Not getting the ball back there and letting them burn a large portion of the third quarter isn’t exactly what you want to do coming out of half,” Montana coach Bob Stitt said.
The Grizzlies didn’t go quietly in the fourth quarter after Murray scored. Only 55 seconds later, quarterback Gresch Jensen found wideout Keenan Curran with a perfectly placed throw in the corner of the end zone to pull them within 31-23.
After forcing two punts, the Griz had two other chances to potentially tie the game. One chance was snuffed out when Jensen fumbled as the ball slipped out of his hand on a pass attempt, which was recovered by Bobcats linebacker Mac Bignell.
The play was reviewed and the fumble call was upheld. Stitt later said Jensen had been hit on his throwing elbow on the play prior and had no sensation in his hand, which led to him not being able to grip the ball.
“That’s Gresch staying out there,” Stitt said. “He couldn’t feel his hand whatsoever. It’s one of those things. It’s football. Unfortunately it happened at that point.”
The Griz had one last crack at it in a tense final minute, but Jensen’s fourth-down pass intended for Curran was knocked down by cornerback Tyrel Thomas with four seconds left.
“Wish I would have probably came back more for it,” Curran explained. “It is what it is.”
It was Montana State’s last game of the season, and it was their perfect ending to a year that had its ups and downs. The Bobcats finished 5-6 overall and 5-3 in the Big Sky Conference.
For Montana (7-4, 5-3), it put a big damper on their playoff chances.
“It’s a dream come true. An unbelievable feeling,” said MSU’s Bignell, who played in his final game. “Ever since I was a kid that’s all I wanted to do, was play for the Bobcats and win and beat the Griz.
“It’s all coming to an end. It’s a very happy day but a very sad day for me. It’s a little mixed feelings right now, and I can’t really describe what I am feeling.”
Bobcats running back Nick LaSane rushed for a game-high 121 yards, including a 71-yard touchdown on a third-and-21 play in a chaotic second quarter that gave them a 14-3 lead. Troy Andersen had two rushing TDs, both of which came in the second quarter. He finished with 64 yards on 10 carries.
In the past two years against Montana, the Bobcats have rushed for 690 yards.
“That’s what we do. That’s our DNA. We’re always going to run the ball around here,” Choate said.
Jensen, playing in his first Cat-Griz rivalry game, completed 30 of 49 passes for 326 yards with the touchdown to Curran and on interception, which was snared by MSU’s Khari Garcia in the third quarter.
The Grizzlies outgained the Bobcats in total yards, 442-420, but MSU possessed the ball for more than 36 minutes and did not turn it over. Third-and-long plays were a major factor, with the Bobcats' offense being able to convert and the Grizzlies' defense not able to get off the field.
“We’ve been tough all year. We’ve had a lot of close games,” said MSU receiver Mitch Herbert. “We’re in the fourth quarter in every game and we haven’t necessarily executed or had the ball roll our way in some of those games. We knew we had to come out focused and execute today.”
“I trust our guys and they continued to play hard,” Stitt said. “Football’s a crazy game. A lot of things happen. You look back and you can change one play or two plays, but it doesn’t change the effort that our guys gave us.
“Really proud of them in that aspect, because for 11 weeks they gave us everything that they had.”
NOTES: Murray completed 10 of 15 passes for 98 yards. ... Griz K Brandon Purdy made three field goals, and extended his consecutive-makes streak to seven. ... Garcia's interception was the fourth of his career. ... Jeremy Calhoun had 63 rushing yards for Montana, including a 13-yard touchdown in the second quarter.