MISSOULA — Montana State had one goal when this college football season began almost four months ago.
To win the Big Sky Conference championship.
The No. 8-ranked Bobcats earned a gritty, 21-16 road victory over arch rival Montana — the rarest of victories — on a freezing Saturday to complete their quest.
In the 110th meeting between the schools, Orenzo Davis rushed 33 times for 140 yards and a touchdown, and MSU gained four crucial second-half takeaways to win for only the second time in the history of Washington-Grizzly Stadium and just the fourth time since 1986.
It earned MSU (9-2, 7-1 Big Sky) the de facto league crown (though it shares it with Eastern Washington, which trounced Idaho State) and the Big Sky's automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The Cats will learn their postseason standing when the bracket is announced at 8 a.m. today during the playoff selection show, which will be broadcast on ESPNU.
"It was a great college football game and a great game in the history of this rivalry," said fourth-year Bobcats coach Rob Ash, who beat the Griz for the first time. "Shaking their hands out there, I know how much this game means to everybody that's in it. There has to be a winner and there has to be a loser. It's tough for anybody to lose after playing that hard.
"We just have a real special group of guys this year at Montana State, and they were determined to get the job done. That's what happened."
Winds gusted at more than 30 mph, forcing the wind chill well below zero. But that didn't keep MSU from establishing itself on offense early.
Freshman quarterback Denarius McGhee led the Bobcats to touchdowns on their first three possessions. McGhee hit wideout Tanner Bleskin with a 16-yard touchdown pass to give the Bobcats the lead.
On MSU's next possession, McGhee slipped a shovel pass to C.J. Palmer that went for a 9-yard score, and that was followed by a 17-yard scoring romp from Davis, during which he broke a tackle attempt by Jimmy Wilson, bounced off Brandon Dodson, cut back and outraced everyone to the end zone.
"I remember making the one guy miss and then cutting to my left," said Davis, who has rushed for 1,062 yards this season. "Then I saw one of my blockers block Trumaine Johnson, and I just cut in and jumped for the end zone."
The 11th-ranked Grizzlies — who sported all-black uniforms and a varied helmet style — played almost as fast.
After McGhee hit Bleskin, Griz running back Chase Reynolds raced 59 yards for a touchdown on UM's first play from scrimmage to tie the score. Quarterback Justin Roper knotted the score again when he faked to Reynolds and ran 6 yards for a touchdown later in the first quarter.
For the second consecutive game, Reynolds was his usual, unstoppable self.
Despite being dinged up with a shoulder injury in the second quarter, Reynolds finished with 180 yards on 21 carries, an average of 8.6 per run. It was his 20th career 100-yard game.
The senior from Drummond fell four yards shy of breaking the school's all-time rushing record of 4,070, held by Yohance Humphery.
Reynolds still has a chance to break that mark, but the Grizzlies need to get an at-large bid to the postseason, which was in doubt after the game.
"We had a good plan, and the guys up front did a great job," said a somber Reynolds, who had 100 yards on six carries in the first quarter alone. "The first half was really wide-open. But we left a lot of points out there."
"I just shook Chase Reynolds' hand as I was walking in, and I told him he's a fantastic football player," Ash said of Reynolds. "I'm proud of him as a guy that's getting to know Montana and call Montana my home, too. He's represented our state and one of our state universities extremely well."
The Grizzlies scored the only points of the second half on a safety when MSU punter Rory Perez was forced to bat an errant snap out of the back of the end zone.
What ultimately decided the game was MSU's ability to take the ball away. The Cats' defense forced two huge turnovers in the red zone in the third quarter.
With the Griz driving to tie the score for a third time at the outset of the second half, Bobcats safety Joel Fuller forced Gerald Kemp to fumble, and the ball was recovered by defensive end Caleb Schreibeis at the 3-yard-line.
Later, linebacker Jody Owens jarred the ball from Reynolds, and it was recovered on the 1-yard-line by Clay Bignell.
Those turnovers were combined with a third-quarter interception by safety Jordan Craney and a pick by safety Mike Rider on the final play of the game as Roper heaved a desperate Hail Mary toward the end zone.
"Even if you come away with one touchdown, you're in a lot different mood right now, that's for sure," first-year Montana coach Robin Pflugrad said. "We were awful close to having an excellent game."
Another key sequence was a defensive stand by the Bobcats late in the fourth quarter.
Montana had the ball first-and-10 from MSU's 14-yard-line with less than four minutes left. But on third-and-nine, defensive end Dustin O'Connell — playing for the first time since September after suffering a broken collarbone — batted down a play-action pass intended for tight end Kavario Middleton, who was wide open.
On the following play, Roper misfired on a pass to Bryce Carver while under pressure.
From there the Bobcats were able to milk the clock before staving of UM's last-gasp drive.
"It was a game of two very good teams and two teams that play with a lot of effort," Pflugrad said. "Obviously it's very, very disappointing. We were down there and had our chances on the offensive side."
After the game, the Bobcats swarmed the field and collected the Great Divide Trophy, a traveling memento awarded each year to the winner of the Cat-Griz game.
As part of the postgame celebration, the Cats unveiled an alternate, gold-colored jersey they had planned to wear but didn't due to a number of reasons.
"I told the guys, ‘Gold is for first place,'" Ash said. "If we won the game we were going to wear our gold jerseys to celebrate."
NOTES: The freezing temperatures did nothing to keep fans away. The announced attendance was 26,019, a Washington-Grizzly Stadium record. ... Dodson was ejected in the second quarter for throwing a punch. ... Montana State's previous win at Montana came in 2002. ... Bobcats WR Everett Gilbert saw his 21-game streak with at least one reception end. ... Roper rushed for 55 yards but threw for only 115 yards without a touchdown. ... UM outgained MSU 374 to 278 in total offense.