Cat-Griz Week is upon us, and there’s plenty at stake as Montana and Montana State gear up to renew their bitter rivalry.
The 110th edition of the game kicks off at noon on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, and by Saturday night the Big Sky Conference champion(s) will be decided.
Though eight of nine Big Sky teams are in action this week, only two games matter with regard to the league race: UM (7-3 overall, 5-2 Big Sky) versus MSU (8-2, 6-1) and Eastern Washington (8-2, 6-1) against lowly Idaho State (1-9, 0-7).
Following is a breakdown of several scenarios:
• Montana State will clinch a share of the league championship and an automatic bid to the playoffs with a win over Montana. It will win the title outright with a win and an upset victory by Idaho State over Eastern Washington.
• The Grizzlies will gain a share of the championship — and extend their league-title streak to 13 seasons — with a victory over MSU and an Idaho State victory over Eastern Washington.
• EWU will earn a share of the conference title with a win over Idaho State. But the Eagles will win the title outright with a win and a loss by Montana State to the Griz.
The last team other than Montana to win an outright Big Sky title was Eastern Washington in 1997. Since then, the Eagles shared the championship in both 2004 and ’05.
The Bobcats shared the Big Sky title in 2002, ’03 and ’05, but are seeking their first outright championship since 1984 — the same season they won their last national title.#
According to a release from the league office in Ogden, Utah, Montana State and Eastern Washington are virtual locks to earn no worse than at-large bids to the 20-team postseason bracket.
It also says that Montana may need a win over the Bobcats to extend their record streak of playoff appearances to 18 in a row.
With 173 yards and three touchdowns against North Dakota on Saturday, Montana running back Chase Reynolds earned the Big Sky’s offensive player of the week award.
It was Reynolds’ best performance of the year, and it helped vault the Grizzlies to a 27-17 victory.
The senior from Drummond also set the school record for rushing touchdowns. His four-year run in the fourth quarter gave Reynolds 51 for his career, which broke the previous mark held by Lex Hilliard.
Reynolds is still 154 yards shy of establishing the school rushing record held Yohance Humphery (4,070 yards).
North Dakota is set to join the Big Sky Conference beginning in the 2012-13 academic year.
The game between Montana and UND served as a preview for what could be the renewal of a strong rivalry that flourished in the 1960s and early ’70s.
Fighting Sioux coach Chris Mussman shared his thoughts on joining the league afterward:
“We haven’t had that taste yet — where it’s back-to-back-to-back weeks of Montana, Montana State, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado … we’re not quite there yet,” Mussman said. “We can play with anybody on a given Saturday, but to do it consistently is where we need to get this program to.
“And it’s going to be process because we don’t know the teams as well as we probably should. It’ll take time for us to establish those rivalries with all these teams in the Big Sky. But we do know that it is a great league and we’re excited to be a part of it.”
Zamberlin out at ISU
Idaho State has fired coach John Zamberlin, effective after this week’s season finale when the Bengals host Eastern Washington.
In four seasons at the Pocatello, Idaho, school, Zamberlin has a 6-38 record, including a 4-27 mark in conference games. The Bengals are 1-9 so far this season, having lost nine in a row.
Higgins breaks record
It took three weeks, but Weber State quarterback Cameron Higgins set the league record for career touchdown passes in a 27-26 win at Northern Arizona.
Higgins, who injured his knee late in the fourth quarter against Montana State the week prior, connected with Joe Collins for a 64-yard touchdown on WSU first play from scrimmage. It was the 97th touchdown of Higgins’ career, which passed Eastern Washington’s Matt Nichols and Montana’s Dave Dickenson.
Higgins hadn’t thrown a touchdown pass since Oct. 23.
Higgins completed 12 of 22 passes for 173 yards against NAU before leaving in the third quarter with an ankle injury.
Montana State jumped three spots to No. 8 while Montana moved two spots to No. 11 in the latest Sports Network FCS Top 25 poll, which came out on Monday.
Meanwhile, previous No. 1 William & Mary (7-3) dipped five spots to No. 6 after losing to James Madison on Saturday. Thus, Delaware (9-1) — after beating up on UMass — is back on top at No. 1. Appalachian State (9-1) is at No. 2 after an impressive win over Wofford, which at the time was a top five squad.
Eastern Washington jumped up to No. 3 after nudging past Southern Utah 31-24, its highest-ever ranking. Jacksonville State (9-1) and Stephen F. Austin (8-2) rounded out the top five.
Around the league
Sac State DE Zack Nash earned the Big Sky’s defensive player of the week award. Nash set the league’s single-game record with five sacks against ISU. Nash leads the league with 13 sacks, which is also a school record. … EWU’s Jesse Hoffman and Northern Colorado’s Dominic Gunn shared the special teams award. Hoffman had an 82-yard kick return for a TD in the third quarter against Southern Utah. Gunn, meanwhile, registered 132 kick return yards in the Bears’ 35-30 victory over Portland State.