Big Sky Football: Five games to watch

Big Sky Football: Five games to watch

A closer look at the Grizzlies' Week 8 matchup against Cal Poly, plus four other games of note in the Big Sky Conference. Just five games are on the league docket this week. The Bobcats and Sacramento State are idle:

No. 7 Montana (5-2, 3-0) at Cal Poly (4-3, 3-1), 7 p.m. Montana’s rushing defense has been solid all year, but it will be tested by option QB Chris Brown and Cal Poly’s stable of ball carries, who collectively average nearly 340 yards per game, tops in the nation. Montana QB Jordan Johnson is coming off a 280-yard, two-TD effort in last week’s 42-28 victory over UC Davis. The Grizzlies have lost to the Mustangs only twice in 17 meetings.

No. 2 Eastern Washington (7-1, 4-0) at Northern Arizona (4-3, 2-1): The ROOT Sports game of the week features an Eastern Washington team that will be without star QB Vernon Adams, who remains out with a broken foot. So Jordan West looks to run his record to 3-0 as Adams' backup. The Eagles have won five in a row and seven of eight against the Lumberjacks, and have won 16 consecutive games against Big Sky opponents since 2012.

Idaho State (4-3, 2-1) at Northern Colorado (2-5, 1-3): Will Idaho State continue its climb? The Bengals got a few monkeys off their back with a blowout win over Southern Utah last week, and now look to snap a 48-game road losing streak against a UNC defense that ranks third in the FCS in interceptions. ISU QB Justin Arias is on fire, and the Bengalsare No. 2 nationally in total offense with an average of 569.7 yards per game.

Portland State (2-5, 1-2) at Weber State (0-7, 0-3): Last week against Montana State, Weber State QB Jadrian Clark came off the bench in the second half in relief of Billy Green and threw for 142 yards. Portland State averages better than 200 yards rushing each time out, and freshman Steven Long had 253 yards on 16 carries in a loss last week to Northern Arizona. Combined, the Wildcats and Vikings are minus-18 in turnover margin.

October 22, 2014 4:30 pmLoading…
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First look: Bobcats 23, Weber State 13

First look: Bobcats 23, Weber State 13

CLOSER THAN EXPECTED: Winless Weber State gave Prukop, Roderick and Montana State a test, but the Bobcats prevailed to move to 6-2 overall and 4-0 in the Big Sky Conference.

Weber State has been in a lot of games; they just haven't won any. Montana State was on upset alert for much of the day on Saturday, but held off the Wildcats for a 23-13 victory at Bobcat Stadium. 

In their previous two games, the Cats' offense put up a combined 136 points and 1,356 yards. But Weber State did a solid job of limiting MSU quarterback Dakota Prukop and his ability to run.

The Wildcats came in with an 0-6 record, so it wasn't crazy to expect a blowout. But coach Rob Ash knew better, and this was a hard-fought win. If not for a fatal error by Weber's Shaydon Kehano on a late punt, the Cats might have been in real trouble.

Here are some highlights:

KEY MOMENT: It's a play the Bobcats ran several times. Prukop would keep the ball in the zone read, but would have running back Shawn Johnson as an outlet to pitch the ball on the outside. Weber State did a nice job stringing Prukop out for much of the game, so on their opening drive of the third quarter, Prukop pitched to Johnson with the Wildcats swarming and he sprinted 63 yards for a touchdown. That extended the Cats' lead to 14-3.

October 18, 2014 6:23 pmLoading…
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Prukop and the Payton: Who has the edge?

Prukop and the Payton: Who has the edge?

WALTER WORTHY? Bobcats' quarterback Dakota Prukop has more than earned his spot amid the Walter Payton Award chatter.

In his previous two games, Montana State quarterback Dakota Prukop has put up a combined 997 yards and 14 touchdowns. Unbelievable numbers. As a result, Prukop was added to The Sports Network’s Walter Payton Award Watch List, which tracks the top contenders for offensive player of the year in the FCS each season.

Prukop’s addition to the list was only a matter of time. Entering the Bobcats’ matchup with Weber State this Saturday, Prukop’s stats (and national ranks among his fellow QBs) go like this:

Passing yards: 1,859 (8th)

Passing TDs: 17 (7th)

Pass efficiency: 185.9 (2nd)

October 15, 2014 9:00 pmLoading…
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Big Sky Football: Five games to watch

Big Sky Football: Five games to watch

A look at the Week 8 matchups for the Bobcats and Grizzlies, plus three other games of note in the Big Sky Conference:

UC Davis (1-5, 0-3) at No. 7 Montana (4-2, 2-0), 12 p.m. The Griz are coming off a bye, and Jordan Johnson will start at quarterback after injuring his ankle against North Dakota. That’s good news for Montana. Zack Wagenmann and the rest of the Grizzlies’ front seven are out to make life tough on young QB Ben Scott.

Weber State (0-6, 0-2) at No. 9 Montana State (5-2, 3-0), 3:30 p.m. MSU’s offense is on fire. Will the onslaught continue against the winless Wildcats? QB Dakota Prukop was recently added to the Walter Payton Award Watch List -- for good reason. With 28 total TDs, the sophomore has taken the Big Sky by storm.

Northern Colorado (2-4, 1-2) at No. 2 Eastern Washington (6-1, 3-0): Backup QB Jordan West threw for 4 TDs in place of injured star Vernon Adams in a win over Southern Utah last week. The Eagles have won 14 straight regular-season games. The Bears, plus-12 in turnovers, want to pull off a monster upset.

Northern Arizona (3-3, 1-1) at Portland State (2-4, 1-1): NAU wants to bounce back from its loss to Northern Colorado on Oct. 4. Chase Cartwright is taking over at QB for Kyren Poe. Portland State is in dire need of a victory: The Vikings have won just once in their past four games. This is the ROOT Sports Game of the Week.

October 15, 2014 12:00 pmLoading…
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The Cats, the Griz, and shifting offensive philosophies

The Cats, the Griz, and shifting offensive philosophies

VERSATILITY: Jordan Johnson was as a dangerous spread/read option quarterback early in his Griz career (like in this photo from his sophomore season) but has become a savvy pro-style/pocket passer under coach Mick Delaney.

For decades, a basic principle of football -- offensively speaking -- was to establish the run to set up the pass, control the ball, move the chains, win the time of possession and keep your defense off the field. It was a formula for victory, and a pretty good one.

That’s not to say the college game was inundated with pro-style offenses. Much of the philosophy there revolved around the option game: A quarterback taking a snap from under center out of the “I” formation and either handing off to a fullback up the middle or faking and running left or right with a trailing tailback to which he can pitch the ball if he so chooses. Think Nebraska under Tom Osborne. Or even the old veer offense used by Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and now Georgia Tech. That's old school.

Then the 2000s arrived and Rich Rodriquez, Urban Meyer and Oregon happened. And option football was revolutionized.

Now the goal of many offenses is to play at a breakneck pace, to crush your opponent by running as many plays and scoring as many points as you can for as long as you can. To flat-out demoralize them. The spread option, which in many cases is predicated on a zone read running scheme that gives the quarterback the choice to hand off or keep the ball out of the shotgun based on the direction a defensive end or linebacker takes, is a huge part of that, and has been the rage at the college level for over a decade now.

Montana State, with offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey and dual-threat quarterback Dakota Prukop, are employing this brand of the spread and are running it with great success right now. Montana, under former coach Robin Pflugrad, utilized the same offense and ran teams ragged in 2011 with QB Jordan Johnson in the shotgun.

October 08, 2014 8:45 pmLoading…
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Big Sky Football: Five games to watch

Big Sky Football: Five games to watch

A look at the Bobcats’ Week 7 matchup, plus four other games of note in the Big Sky Conference. The Grizzlies are idle this week:

No. 11 Montana State (2-0, 4-2) at UC Davis (0-2, 1-4), 5 p.m. After the Sacramento State debacle, the Bobcats’ defense needs to bounce back in a big way, and this is the chance to do it. UC Davis has struggled to score points and ranks second-to-last in total offense.

No. 2 Eastern Washington (2-0, 5-1) at Southern Utah (1-1, 1-5): The Thunderbirds were the last Big Sky team to beat the Eagles. How will Eastern Washington’s offense function without injured quarterback Vernon Adams? Backup QB Jordan West will be making his first start.

Sacramento State (0-2, 3-3) at Northern Colorado (1-1, 2-3): Fifty-six points and nearly 700 yards of offense weren't enough for Sac State to beat Montana State. QB Garrett Safron will need to be extra careful with the ball in this one: UNC leads the FCS with 13 interceptions.

Cal Poly (1-1, 2-3) at Weber State (0-1, 0-5): The reason to tune in here is to see how many rushing yards Cal Poly can pile up. The Mustangs rank No. 1 in the nation (335.6 yards per game), and Weber State has struggled to limit teams on the ground.

October 07, 2014 3:36 pmLoading…
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Third-downs will be magnified for Bobcats at Sac State

Third-downs will be magnified for Bobcats at Sac State

MOVE THOSE STICKS: Running back Shawn Johnson and the Bobcats look to rekindle their third-down magic against Sacramento State.

Third down. It's the play on which every drive hinges. Montana State has been pretty up-and-down in these situations: Through five games the Bobcats have converted roughly 39 percent of their third-down plays, which ranks in the middle of the pack in the Big Sky Conference.

Against Eastern Washington, the Cats were on fire on third down (10 for 16) and they went on to score 51 points and nearly upset the No. 2-ranked team in the country. Unfortunately for MSU, the Eagles were one point better.

Last week in a 29-18 victory over North Dakota, MSU regressed, going 3 for 13. It was a game in which UND's defense stymied the Cats' running game and the numbers told the tale. 

The Bobcats will probably need to regain their third-down touch this week on the road at Sacramento State, a formidable foe with a solid offense (led by QB Garrett Safron) that can put up points in bushels. Trouble is, the Hornets' defense has been the best in the league so far at limiting conversions on third downs.

Bobcats coach Rob Ash recognizes the need for success on third down, especially this week, saying:

October 02, 2014 2:15 pmLoading…
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Intangibles adding up for Johnson, Griz offense

Intangibles adding up for Johnson, Griz offense

ROUND 2: Jordan Johnson went wild in a 55-17 victory at North Dakota last season. Montana's offense would love a similar jolt on Saturday.

On Saturday, Jordan Johnson and Montana's offense return to the site of perhaps their most efficient performance -- a 55-17 romp over North Dakota at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D.

Johnson's numbers that day were staggering: 15-of-19 passing for 354 yards and five touchdowns without an interception. In the end, Johnson set the single-game Big Sky Conference record for passing efficiency. His rating? An off-the-charts 322.3.

It's obvious that Johnson and the Griz haven't been as explosive this season as they were last year -- just compare the numbers -- but they've held on to much of their efficiency. Let's consult the intangibles:

 Through five games, UM is plus-6 in turnover margin, which ranks No. 1 in the Big Sky. The Grizzlies have turned the ball over only three times. 

• Montana has allowed just two QB sacks, and its per-game average (.40) is the second-best ratio in the Football Championship Subdivision.

October 01, 2014 8:30 pmLoading…
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Big Sky Football: Five games to watch

Big Sky Football: Five games to watch

A look at the Week 6 matchups for the Bobcats and Grizzlies, plus three other games of note in the Big Sky Conference:

No. 7 Montana (3-2, 1-0) at North Dakota (2-3, 0-1), 12:30 p.m. The Griz travel to UND for the third straight season. Jordan Johnson set the league record for pass efficiency in a 55-17 victory there last year. This is a matchup of two of the Big Sky’s best defenses.

No. 13 Montana State (3-2, 1-0) at Sacramento State (3-2, 0-1), 7 p.m. MSU will be tested by Garrett Safron, one of the conference’s top quarterbacks. Will Dakota Prukop and the Bobcats capitalize on a Hornets pass defense that ranks near the bottom of the league?

Idaho State (2-2, 1-0) at No. 2 Eastern Washington (4-1, 1-0): QB Justin Arias and the Bengals can put up some points, but Vernon Adams and Eastern Washington have won 13 straight against Big Sky teams and own a 12-game regular season home winning streak.

Northern Arizona (3-2, 1-0) at Northern Colorado (1-3, 0-1): The Lumberjacks had to rally last week to beat Cal Poly, and they look to stay unbeaten in the Big Sky by winning their 12th in a row in this series. Quarterback health has become an issue for UNC.

September 30, 2014 3:30 pmLoading…
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First look: Bobcats 29, North Dakota 18

First look: Bobcats 29, North Dakota 18

THROWBACK DAY: The Bobcats turned back the clock, and then turned back North Dakota.

Wearing throwback uniforms to honor the 30th anniversary of its 1984 national championship, Montana State did what it had to do to get a 29-18 victory over North Dakota on Saturday in the Big Sky Conference opener for both teams. 

Making up for last week's 52-51 loss to Eastern Washington, the Bobcats did it with defense, much like their 1984 counterparts would have done. UND rallied to make things interesting in the fourth quarter, but it wasn't enough. Here's a quick recap from a windy and cold Bobcat Stadium:

KEY MOMENT: The day's first touchdown came from Montana State's defense. On a third down play early in the second quarter, freshman safety Khari Garcia jumped in front of a Joe Mollberg pass and raced 45 yards to the end zone to put the Cats ahead 10-0. It was a tough sequence for North Dakota, which forced the Bobcats to a pair of three-and-outs in the first quarter and held them to just three points.

IT WAS OVER WHEN ... Mitchell Herbert caught his first career touchdown. Though a 16-yard TD run by Shawn Johnson earlier in the second quarter put the Bobcats ahead 16-0, a 21-yard scoop-and-score by North Dakota LB Will Ratelle got North Dakota back in the game. But not for long. MSU answered Ratelle's touchdown with a key drive that ended on a 26-yard TD throw from Dakota Prukop to Herbert, a freshman from Eugene, Ore. That put the Cats ahead 23-7 with less than 3:00 left before halftime. Thus, UND's late rally wasn't enough.

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Neither offense was spectacular. North Dakota's certainly wasn't, and Montana State's was completely pedestrian compared to last week against Eastern Washington. Do not take anything away from UND's defense: It lived up to its early-season performances. For the Bobcats, Prukop was again solid at quarterback. The sophomore fell short of his per-game offensive average output, and for the first time this year a team held him to negative rushing yards. MSU's entire ground game was pretty much locked down. But Prukop still threw for 269 yards and a touchdown.

September 27, 2014 5:05 pmLoading…
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First look: Eastern Washington 52, Bobcats 51

First look: Eastern Washington 52, Bobcats 51

Vernon Adams led Eastern Washington on a nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive with 1:55 remaining to beat Montana State.

Have you caught your breath yet? It was a back-and-forth thriller between the Bobcats and Eastern Washington. The Eagles, with Vernon Adams leading them on a frenetic fourth-quarter drive, prevailed 52-51. The Bobcats had a chance at the end but Dakota Prukop's Hail Mary fell incomplete. 

Here is a quick recap: 

KEY MOMENT: The Bobcats scored on a nine-yard throw-back pass from Prukop to Shawn Johnson to take a 51-44 lead with 1:44 remaining. But for the Eagles, that's way too much time. Adams and EWU moved the ball 73 yards on nine plays in just 1:28, capping it with a 1-yard TD run by Mario Brown. The drive included a 40-yard pass to Kendrick Bourne on fourth-and-10. Adams then ran in the 2-point conversion and Eastern, which trailed by as many as 14 points in the second half, had the winning points.

IT WAS OVER WHEN ... Not until Prukop's Hail Mary fell to the ground with no time on the clock. The Bobcats were trying to get into field goal range for kicker Luke Daly, and Prukop hit Brian Flotkoetter for 22 yards on the first play to midfield. But they couldn't get much closer. Daly has a big leg, and anything within 45 yards (roughly) would have been in his range, but MSU wasn't able to get there. 

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: So many to pick from, but this game belonged to Quincy Forte. He was the MVP. The Bobcats had named Forte as the player they need to contain, and he ran for 190 yards and four touchdowns on just 17 carries, an average of 11.2 per rush. Forte left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent injury, but he helped put the Eagles in position to win while Adams was just a little bit off the mark. Adams took over when it mattered most. 

September 20, 2014 5:00 pmLoading…
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First look: Bobcats 43, Central Arkansas 33

First look: Bobcats 43, Central Arkansas 33

SIDELINE STRATEGY: Bobcats offensive line coach Jason McEndoo huddles with MSU players during the first quarter against Central Arkansas on Saturday.

What a fiasco. Central Arkansas made a huge comeback in the fourth quarter against the Bobcats, but MSU held on for a 43-33 victory. The game was well in hand for MSU early, and that became dangerous as the Bears fought back.

Here is a quick recap of the game, which pushed MSU's record to 2-1 with Eastern Washington coming into Bozeman next week:

• KEY MOMENT: Inside Bobcat territory on a third-and-2 play early in the second quarter, Central Arkansas had its sights on a touchdown to pare an early 10-point deficit. MSU cornerback Deonte Flowers was 1-on-1 in coverage with wideout Dezmin Lewis. Quarterback Taylor Reed threw a perfect pass that would have been caught for a TD had Flowers, who was beaten initially, not recovered and made sure Lewis couldn't hold on to the ball. That led to a missed 33-yard field goal by Jace Denker and the Cats preserved their two-possession advantage.

• IT WAS OVER WHEN ... Bobcats running back Anthony Knight scored his second consecutive touchdown in the third quarter, this time a 5-yarder with 56 seconds on the clock to make the score 37-13. Knight scored from 10 yards out on the previous drive, and a key defense stop on UCA's ensuing series -- highlighted by Taylor Sheridan batting down a third-down pass at the line of scrimmage -- put Montana State in command. It was a crucial turning point after Central Arkansas had driven 98 yards for a TD to pull within 10 points earlier in the quarter. The Bobcats nearly blew it in the fourth quarter, but Knight's second TD was the perfect insurance. He finished with three red-zone touchdowns.

• TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Brian Flotkoetter. The senior wideout made several key plays, none bigger than a spectacular 46-yard touchdown catch over the top that put the Bobcats ahead 16-0 in the second quarter. Flotkoetter had gotten open behind two defenders, but was then interfered with by desperate Bears defensive back Artez Williams. Nevertheless, with Williams draped all over him, Flotkoetter hauled in the pass in over the shoulder and put MSU ahead by three scores. His final numbers: A career-high 9 catches for 132 yards and a TD.

September 13, 2014 6:55 pmLoading…
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Grizzlies in the NFL: Carpenter nails winning kick in OT for Bills

Grizzlies in the NFL: Carpenter nails winning kick in OT for Bills

Buffalo Bills kicker Dan Carpenter, who played at the University of Montana, celebrates after kicking a field goal during the first half of a game Sunday in Chicago.

How former Montana Grizzlies fared in the National Football League on Sunday:

Colt Anderson, special teams, Indianapolis Colts: Did not register a tackle in the Colts’ 31-24 loss to the Broncos.

Kroy Biermann, defensive end, Atlanta Falcons: The Hardin native registered three tackles and three assists in the Falcons’ 37-34 overtime win over the New Orleans Saints.

Dan Carpenter, kicker, Buffalo Bills: The Helena native hit field goals from 50 and 33 yards in regulation, then nailed the game-winning 27-yarder in overtime to give the Bills a 23-20 win over the Bears.

Brock Coyle, linebacker, Seattle Seahawks: The Bozeman product did not register a tackle in the Seahawks’ 36-16 win over the Packers on Thursday.

September 08, 2014 6:52 amLoading…
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First look: Bobcats 57, Black Hills State 10

First look: Bobcats 57, Black Hills State 10

HOME COOKING: The Bobcats got their first win of the season by beating Black Hills State in front of a gold-clad crowd.

On the first drive of the game, Black Hills State sent a hush through a packed house at Bobcat Stadium. Behind quarterback Ward Anderson, the Yellow Jackets converted three third-down plays, including a scramble by Anderson on a third-and-17 play. But MSU's defense eventually strengthened and forced a punt.

And when the Bobcats got the ball, they set the tone for the rest of the night. Here is a quick recap of Montana State's blowout victory in its home opener Saturday:

KEY MOMENT: Dakota Prukop wanted to play better and run the offense smoother than he did last week at Arkansas State. It was important for him to get off to a good start. And on MSU's third play from scrimmage, Prukop showed why he is so dangerous in the open field. Faking a zone-read handoff to Gunnar Brekke, Prukop raced 60 yards for a touchdown to put the Bobcats ahead early. Prukop took the snap, pulled the ball away from Brekke, skipped through the line and darted upfield. Prukop slipped at least three tackles as he weaved his way through the second level, and finally dove into the corner of the end zone. It was the kind of start Prukop and MSU's offense were looking for.

• IT WAS OVER WHEN: Prukop raced 57 yards for a touchdown with 12:34 remaining in the second quarter. Taking a shotgun snap, Prukop ran left and had the option to pitch the ball to running back Gunnar Brekke, but he instead kept it, turned up field, hurdled over teammate Mitch Griebel and raced untouched to the end zone. That made the score 25-0, and ended any hope for Black Hills State.

• TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: It's Prukop here. The sophomore from Austin, Texas, accounted for five first-half touchdowns (three rushing, two passing) and looked like the dual-threat quarterback the Bobcats are investing in. Each of Prukop's first five scores went for 30 yards or more, and three were longer than 40. He totaled 378 offensive yards, and averaged 13 yards per play.

September 06, 2014 10:05 pmLoading…
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Bobcats vs. Arkansas State: A closer look

Bobcats vs. Arkansas State: A closer look

The Bobcats lined up against Bowl subdivision foe Arkansas State on Saturday in Jonesboro, Ark. 

NOTE: The following is Phil Sites' account of the Montana State/Arkansas State game from Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro, Ark. Sites is a former Gazette sports staffer. Be sure to check out Phil's awesome photo gallery from the game.

JONESBORO, Ark. -- It’s Labor Day weekend and Americans all over this great nation celebrate with family barbecues, road trips and planting themselves in front of the TV to watch some tiny FCS school play to a packed FBS stadium.

Yes, it’s that time of year where college football fans country-wide explain the complexities of the subdivisions to the uninitiated, fielding questions like, “Who is App State?“, “What is a Chanticleer?”, and “They have football in New Hampshire?”

Essentially, the haves of NCAA’s more prestigious and rich bowl subdivision pay off the have-nots for the honor of taking them to task. The result is, well, that we end up with games like Montana State vs. Arkansas State.

So off we ship our Montana boys to a spot just southeast of the Ozarks, tucked away deep in catfish country (or shall I say catfish-and-a-beer country, a meal personally recommended to me by Charlie Welch, Sr., the father of the Arkansas State University president).

August 30, 2014 10:00 pmLoading…
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FCS vs. FBS: What does the future hold?

FCS vs. FBS: What does the future hold?

GOING BIG: Guarantee games like Montana's 2011 matchup with Tennessee are important both monetarily and for FCS exposure.

The evolution of college football -- from the Big Ten swearing off FCS opponents last year to the FBS's "Power 5" conferences gaining a large measure of autonomy from the NCAA earlier this summer -- is threatening to limit "guarantee" games going forward. The FCS-vs.-FBS matchups we're accustomed to (many of which are vital  for smaller schools to meet athletic budget demands) might be fewer and fewer in the coming years.

The Bobcats and Grizzlies are each playing FBS teams on Saturday. Montana is at Wyoming and MSU is at Arkansas State. Both are being paid in the $400,000 range.

The FCS's watershed moment, of course, occurred on Sept. 1, 2007, when Appalachian State stunned Michigan 34-32. On Sept. 11, 2010, James Madison shocked Virginia Tech 21-16. And on Aug. 31 of last year, Eastern Washington knocked off Oregon State 49-46. Those wins represent the only times FCS teams have beaten ranked FBS opponents. Will the FCS have those same opportunities five years from now?

Bobcats coach Rob Ash addressed the issue during his press conference on Tuesday:

“They already are starting to decline some. The big five conferences are starting to play (fewer) FCS opponents, and starting to play more and more of the other conference teams in FBS and paying big guarantees to those teams. I like them. I think it’s very important. I think it’s a great motivator for our guys when we play an FBS team. It’s a good payday. There are a lot of pluses from the FCS side, and we’ll continue to (play) them as long as we’re allowed to."

August 27, 2014 7:52 pmLoading…
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2014 Big Sky position rankings: Quarterbacks

2014 Big Sky position rankings: Quarterbacks

ONE OF A KIND: With 75 career touchdown passes already, Eastern Washington junior quarterback Vernon Adams is 24 shy of setting the all-time Big Sky Conference record. But he wants a national championship.

NOTE: This is the ninth (and final) installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

The Big Sky Conference is a league of quarterbacks. And one man stands above the rest: Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams. Adams (who they call "Big Play V.A.") was the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award last year, and is probably the favorite to win it in 2014.

As coach Beau Baldwin said about Adams last season, "This guy’s got the guts to go win games.” How far will Adams take the No. 1-ranked Eagles this season? Maybe all the way. But there are a bunch of other top QBs in the conference (there's nine others listed below) who may have something to say about it. Check out our final Top 10 list, and enjoy the season.

TOP 10 QUARTERBACKS

1. VERNON ADAMS, JR., EASTERN WASHINGTON 2013: 65.6%, 4,994 yds, 55 TD, 15 INT, 183.1 efficiency; 605 rush yds, 4 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: Adams had the greatest statistical season of any quarterback in Big Sky history. The only thing missing was a national title (the Eagles lost to Towson in the semis). Adams won't necessarily be counted on to match last year's totals -- they're too mind-boggling. But he will be expected to make the same big plays, score lots of points and, if he can, lead EWU to Frisco and the national championship game. Expectations have never been higher. With Adams pulling the strings, you have to love their chances.

August 21, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
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What we learned at MSU's media day

Observations and quotes from Montana State's football media day, held Thursday morning at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman:

 The competition for the placekicking job remains open -- and remains underrated

You never think about the importance of a field goal kicker “until the first time a game is depending on a field goal,” Bobcats coach Rob Ash said. “It’s going to be huge.”

Ash has had solid kickers throughout his coaching career, be it Billy Cundiff at Drake or Jason Cunningham and Rory Perez at MSU. But as camp moves foward the placekicking duties are still up for grabs between three Montanans -- Luke Daly from Billings Central, Trevor Bolton from Great Falls High and Trevin Thompson from Helena High. The fact that nobody has taken the lead in the competition might be a bit disconcerting, but there’s still time.

“It’s a very big decision and the guys have been battling hard,” Ash said. “There’s been a lot of tension because they’re trying to figure out who’s going to get the job. At some point I have a feeling one of them is going to take a deep breath and relax and just start making field goals, and that will settle it. We’d like to pick one guy, get him the confidence and move forward. But we really don’t know for sure which way it’s going to go yet.

August 14, 2014 1:30 pm Video Loading…
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Former Griz LB Jordan Tripp turning heads at Dolphins camp

Former Griz LB Jordan Tripp turning heads at Dolphins camp

Jordan Tripp has caught the attention of Miami Dolphins coaches in practice, earning repetitions with the first-team defense. Tripp, a former Montana standout at linebacker, was selected in the fifth round of this spring's NFL draft.

It's still early on the NFL calendar, but Jordan Tripp is already making an impression with the Miami Dolphins.

Tripp, a Missoula Big Sky graduate and former Montana Grizzly, was selected by the Dolphins in the fifth round of this spring's NFL Draft. After a strong performance in Miami's first preseason game, Tripp has received repetitions with the starting defense in practice, according to the South Florida media.

"It's a broad spectrum. The more knowledge you can bring to the game the more reliable you're going to be," Tripp, who is playing both inside and outside linebacker, told the Sun-Sentinel. "My comfort level is only getting better and better. I'm just taking advantage of the reps they give me and focus on making new mistakes, not the same ones again, and learning from those mistakes."

Tripp became a favorite of multiple NFL draft experts last spring as one of the small-school prospects to watch. His pro-day measurements impressed scouts, but it was his leadership and playmaking ability at Montana that really stood out.

The skill and motivation he showed in Missoula, which ultimately earned him the coveted No. 37 Grizzly jersey, have apparently put Tripp in position to grab one of Miami's three starting linebacker spots -- a rarity for a rookie, let alone a small-school player drafted in the fifth round.

August 14, 2014 1:00 pmLoading…
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2014 Big Sky position rankings: Running backs

2014 Big Sky position rankings: Running backs

MAKE WAY: UC Davis running back Gabe Manzarares won the Big Sky Conference's Newcomer of the Year Award last season. Will he go out the same way he came in? 

NOTE: This is the eighth installment of a summer-long series projecting the Top 10 players at each position for the 2014 Big Sky Conference football season.

The loss of Kristaan Ivory puts a damper of Cal Poly's hopes going forward. Ivory was a returning 1,000-yard rusher and was picked for the preseason All-Big Sky Conference squad, but this week he found himself in hot water over an alleged robbery -- and suspended indefinitely from the team. The Mustangs won five conference games last season, but what happens now?

Even without Ivory, there's a treasure trove of talent returning at the running back position in the Big Sky: Manzanares, Forte, Canada, Johnson, Finney, Bolen ... and several others you don't know but should by season's end. 

TOP 10 RUNNING BACKS

1. GABE MANZANARES, SR., UC DAVIS 2013: 259 car, 1,285 yds, 5.0 avg, 10 TD; 27 rec, 385 yds, 14.3 avg, 1 TD. THE BUZZ FOR 2014: No back averaged more all-purpose yards per game than Manzanares, and only one (NAU's Zach Bauman) had more carries. A JC transfer, Manzanares emerged as a tough runner who took on a heavy workload and kept on ticking. He also proved to be a solid receiver out of the backfield -- a versatile threat. Coach Ron Gould mentored some big-time ground-gainers during his long tenure as the running backs coach at Cal -- Marshawn Lynch and Jahvid Best among them. Manzanares is Gould's latest protégé. 

August 13, 2014 11:00 pmLoading…
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Cat-Griz Insider Blog

The Cat-Griz Insider blog is the one-stop spot on the Web for all the news and opinions pertaining to Montana Grizzly and Montana State Bobcat athletics. Comments are open!

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Greg Rachac

Sportswriter for The Billings Gazette covering Montana and Montana State athletics in addition to various high school sports.

Slim Kimmel

Online sports editor for The Billings Gazette.

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