Brawl of the Wild 2023: Cats embrace stakes, Griz play it cool
Updated: Nov 17
MISSOULA, Mont. – In 121 matchups between Montana and Montana State, there has never been a time where both teams were ranked in the Top 5 of the FCS rankings – a time where a likely top-2 seed in the FCS playoffs and homefield advantage throughout them was up for grabs.
Not to mention that on top of that, whoever wins is the outright Big Sky Conference champion.
In meeting 122 on Saturday, that changes. Those are the stakes, making this rendition of the Brawl of the Wild arguably the most pivotal of all-time.
When asked what these critical conditions do for the game, specifically Montana (9-1, 6-1) being ranked No. 3 and MSU (8-2, 6-1) being ranked No. 4, Griz head coach Bobby Hauck answered in a way only he could – “nothing.” When asked what it felt like to be playing for a conference championship he retorted, “normal.”
Though he mentioned that the rivalry is a “cool deal,” he kept it rather short when questions surrounding the hype of the game were asked - business as usual is the way his football team will approach one of the biggest, bitterest, oldest rivalries in college football.
But back in Bozeman, those circumstances are being embraced and discussed. Now entering his third Cat-Griz contest, or Griz-Cat, if you prefer, Bobcats head coach Brent Vigen acknowledged exactly what is on the line.
“When I got this job I certainly recognized the importance of this game for just this game and the opponent and what it means to the state, but additionally it felt like this being the last game of the year, you want to be playing for a conference title, you certainly want to be playing for how the playoffs are going to shake out,” Vigen said. “To be three years into it, for all three years to come down to this Saturday in all those aspects, that’s what we’re working for.”
Like he said, it all comes down to this.
MSU has reflected on past battles to prepare for this moment. Reporters asked Vigen about rushing for over 400 yards in last year’s whomping of the Griz and what led to that success. They asked about the 2021 contest where special teams played a major role in the Grizzlies home win over the Cats as Kevin Macias connected on five field goals. They asked what Vigen may have learned from that contest and about playing in Missoula that he’ll bring with him this time around.
He answered honestly, considering all the factors that could affect Saturday’s outcome.
“It’s about a very passionate fan base that is going to be at a fever pitch. You have to be able to recognize that going in and be able to pay within the challenges that are presented and that’s noise,” Vigen said. “That experience, and I spoke to it after that South Dakota State game, that’s going to pay dividends for us at some point. We didn’t handle it well that day.”
“We went over to Idaho, and Idaho doesn’t compare to Washington-Grizzly as far as noise, but it was a noisy enough environment and I think we handled that piece of it well that day. So we need to be smart about limiting those situations where we put ourselves in harms way as far as dealing with noise.”
He went on to mention maturity – blocking out the crowd and what’s being said at you. Focusing on the task at hand. Bringing in alumni to give their wisdom to current players about competing in this specific game.
Meanwhile, Hauck was asked what area his team has improved the most since the last Brawl that’ll make this one more competitive – a question more so about growth than about reflecting on a prior loss and still, he wouldn’t entertain it.
“Well last year is unproductive to talk about because we need to be focused on this Saturday,” Hauck said. “So we’ll focus on this Saturday, and we’ll go compete hard.”
It’s hard to evaluate if there is a right or wrong way to approach this beast of a game, but it’s clear that there’s definitely some difference in the way the two schools are doing so.
But what they do agree on is that the way they’ve prepared for each game every week will remain the same. They shouldn’t have to get up for this game. The way they’ve been readying themselves all year long should have been containing the same energy and passion as rivalry week.
In other words, if you stay ready, you don’t need to get ready.
“If you’re the type of guy that this is the one game you play at a certain level and every other game you’re pretty ordinary, that’s probably not the right formula,” Vigen said. “Not that our guys play awesome every week, there are ebbs and flows, but that consistent approach throughout the season and really being focused on being a guy that come November, you’re going to be a different player … regardless of the opponent.”
“The emotion of Saturday, you can’t get by just on that.”
Hauck echoed a similar sentiment, indicating that the Griz are excited for the matchup, but that’s just another week at the office.
“I’m excited every Saturday,” Hauck said. “Competition is what drives everyone involved. Everybody in our organization loves to compete.”
Now aside from the extraneous hype, the storyline on the field remains the same since the last time these two teams met.
It’s strength on strength – the elite Griz run defense versus the Bobcats plus run game. How will Montana’s patented 3-3-5 defense hold up against Montana State’s big bodies up front and run-first quarterback duo? Except there’s one new nuance to the matchup, and that’s that there’s a new offensive and defensive coordinator calling the game for UM.
Though overall they’ve kept packages mostly similar on both sides of the ball, Ronnie Bradford (DC) and Brent Pease (OC) have settled into their new roles and been able to lean into a bit more creativity for a historically traditional program.
“Our staff works well together, and I think there’s great cohesion and energy,” Hauck said. “Certainly these guys know what they’re doing.”
Specifically on offense, the Griz have been able to dial up more designed runs for quarterback Clifton McDowell, opening a whole new dimension – something they didn’t get much of last year with Lucas Johnson.
“Ever since they went his direction, they’ve been productive,” Vigen said. “He’s a guy that’s capable of making plays with his arms and his legs, kind of a classic dual threat and what you see from him is a really good competitor. He brings an energy to his offense with just the way he plays, and he’s opened things up and forced defenses to defend more.”
Against Idaho, they executed the statue of liberty for a big gain. Weeks later against Sacramento State, they pulled off a double reverse for another sizable chunk. Right now, the Griz offense is flowing and playing with confidence as they’ve grown closer together week over week.
So, though things will look mainly consistent for both teams, the subtle difference is that the Griz aren’t afraid to surprise you.
What will be unsurprising is the Bobcats attack. Every opponent knows what they are going to do, which is jam it down your throat, yet hardly anybody can stop them. They go for an average of 301.8 rushing yards per game, abusing teams with their size and extra blockers thanks to their QBs running ability.
“Their scoring and rushing numbers are phenomenal and they do a great job with their two quarterbacks, and it really starts with them,” Hauck said. “Chambers and Mellott, they blend those guys in and do a good job with them.”
Which brings the emphasis back to square one – strength on strength.
If there’s anybody who can slow MSU down, it’s the Grizzlies, who have held opponents to a meager 84.8 rushing yards per game – a far cry from the 300+ the Cats garner on a weekly basis.
Only one side can prevail, though. Only one can earn a top-seed, only one can have bragging rights for a full year and only one can bring home the Great Divide Trophy and Vigen summed it up best.
“It is a battle of wills. We want to run the football and they’ve been very good at stopping it and something has to give.”