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MISSOULA — The Bobcats' portion of the postgame press conference had ended, but Rob Ash wasn't done talking.

He wanted to make an announcement before leaving the podium.

“I'd like to say one thing quickly,” Ash offered. “This is a fantastic rivalry. I love the way it's so competitive and I love everything about it. But as a program, we don't hate Montana. OK? We respect them.

“They're a good program and a great football team and we love competing with them. We'll try our best to beat them every time. But we don't hate the Montana Grizzlies. They're a part of our state and we respect them very much.”

Since 1986, the Griz have dominated this series, having won 21 of the past 25 meetings.

That one-sidedness has created an even larger rift between loyal fan bases separated by 200-some miles.

When the Bobcats finally broke their embarrassing 16-game losing streak to Montana in 2002 — which until Saturday was MSU's only win at Washington-Grizzly Stadium — former UM coach Joe Glenn suggested it was good for the rivalry that the status quo had changed, at least for a year.

That didn't sit too well with Griz fans at the time.

In the run-up to the game's 110th edition, the word “hate” had been bandied about on both sides.

Griz running back Chase Reynolds said that while he didn't necessarily hate anyone from Bozeman, he at least hated “the name Bozeman.”

MSU linebacker Aleksei Grosulak, a former standout at Billings Central, said he was angered that the Magic City, in his estimation, had become a Grizzly stronghold.

I had even stoked the fire by using the H-word in one of my preview stories last week.

As long as it's not legitimate hate, the kind that leads to antagonism and violence, malevolence makes the schism between these football adversaries more fun.

But in the end, the level of competition is what makes it great. Maybe Glenn was right.

The Griz have reveled in their run of dominance over the Cats for years. But Saturday served as a reminder that, when both teams have something to fight for and the playing field is level, this rivalry will truly thrive.

Perhaps Montana State's win is a harbinger of things to come.

After guiding his team to a less-than-stellar but mistake-free performance on offense, Bobcats quarterback Denarius McGhee came away wowed by his first Cat-Griz experience.

McGhee, a product of suburban Dallas, said he grew up following the Red River Rivalry, the annual tug-of-war between Texas and Oklahoma.

But ...

“This is the best rivalry in the nation,” McGhee contended.

With their victory, the Bobcats sewed up the Big Sky Conference title and the league's automatic bid to the playoffs.

It was an important win for more than one reason.

“We've been building for this. We've done it right, I think,” Ash said. “We've tried to do this the right way by bringing in the right kind of players, having the right kind of standards and doing it with class and integrity. That's what we believe in.

“And we believe in good, tough, hard-nosed football, too. It's nice to see that rewarded. It's nice to get over the hump. This is a great rivalry, but I hadn't had a team win in the rivalry yet. I believe in order to have a rivalry both teams have to win once in awhile. Otherwise it's too one-sided. This does a tremendous amount now for our program.”

The Griz (7-4, 5-3), who saw their string of 12 consecutive league titles come to a halt, are still holding out hope that they'll extend their record string of playoff appearances to an 18th year.

But they'll need to earn at at-large bid from the 10-man playoff selection committee today in order to do so.

First-year Montana coach Robin Pflugrad, understandably, doesn't want to see the season end just yet.

“I see how these guys practice and I see how they are around each other,” Pflugrad said. “I guess you can't vote on character or style points in that regard. But we have to leave that in the hands of somebody else, and that's disappointing when we could have taken care of it ourselves.”

At the very least, another great chapter in Montana-Montana State annals is closed.

Hopefully we'll see more of these classic games in the coming years. No matter who ends up on top.

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