MISSOULA — In a game of inches, Montana State preserved the few that mattered most.
Clinging to a four-point lead with their backs against the goal line at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, the Bobcat defense stood tall to clinch a 29-25 Big Sky Conference football win over rival Montana on Saturday.
“Amazing college football game. Can’t say enough about the heart by both teams on the field today,” MSU coach Jeff Choate said after the win. “Ton of respect for Montana and their group of young men and how they played. Extremely proud of our team. They were down 22-0 in hostile environment. … People in Montana should be proud of both teams, great college football game.”
With 14 seconds remaining, Montana had the ball on the MSU 1-yard line trailing 29-25. Coach Bobby Hauck, in his return to the Cat-Griz rivalry, called a run up the middle with Adam Eastwood. Eastwood busted through the line, diving into the end for what was seemingly the go-ahead touchdown.
On the opposite sideline, though, Choate called timeout just moments before the snap. Seeing the Grizzlies’ preferred formation, the Bobcat defense adjusted out of the timeout — not only preventing the touchdown but forcing and recovering a game-saving fumble. Tucker Yates broke through the offensive line, hit Eastwood and knocked the ball loose. Derek Marks covered the ball for MSU, and the celebration was on.
“Tough loss. There are lots of ways to lose a game, that one is particularly gut-wrenching,” Hauck said afterward. “You feel like you have a grasp a few times in the game, but good job by them sticking with it and finding a way to get the W. Shame on us for not winning it. Bad job by us today and they did a nice job sticking with it.”
The Bobcats’ heroics almost never came to fruition, though. UM started the game quickly, needing just six plays and 2 minutes, 29 seconds to find the end zone when Gabe Sulser took a shovel pass from Dalton Sneed and ran around the end for a 1-yard score.
The Griz poured it on in the first half, building a 22-0 advantage on an Eastwood 1-yard touchdown run and a 37-yard pass from Sneed to Samuel Akem. Sneed completed 22 of 34 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns. He was also sacked four times. Akem finished with 147 receiving yards and the score.
UM’s defense limited the Bobcats to just one first down on their first five possessions. MSU finally broke through late in the second quarter, putting together a 10-play, 72-yard drive in less than three minutes of game action. Quarterback Troy Andersen ran in from 3 yards out to bring the Cats within 22-7 at the halftime break.
“Our defense had been fighting all half. We really hadn’t got anything going (on offense),” Andersen said. “For us to be able to put some points on the board before half, we got some momentum. It was just big for the overall feel of the game.”
That would be the score going to the fourth. And that’s when the pandemonium started.
Andersen added his second touchdown run less than a minute into the fourth quarter and added the conversion run to make it a one-possession game. The Griz would push the lead back to 10 on their ensuing drive, though, with a 34-yard field goal from Tim Semenza.
Unpredictably, MSU went to the air on its next drive, throwing the ball five consecutive plays to get down to the UM 7. Andersen completed passes of 7, 16 and 45 yards to Travis Jonsen on the drive.
“Our receivers made good plays down the field, getting open and going up and making the catch,” said Andersen, whose 1-yard scoring run brought MSU back within 25-22 with six minutes remaining.
“I think you get more comfortable (throwing) as the game progresses,” Andersen added. “Getting a feel for how the defenders are playing. As the game goes on, definitely feel more comfortable.”
Andersen completed 15 of 24 passes for 158 yards. He added 107 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries.
After his final touchdown, it was then the MSU defense’s turn for a big play. Grant Collins forced and recovered a Sneed fumble to give the ball back to his offense at the UM 35. Eight plays later, Logan Jones gave MSU its first lead of the game on a 13-yard touchdown run with 2:19 to play.
The Griz weren’t going away quietly, though. Malik Flowers returned the kickoff 47 yards to the 50-yard line, giving the UM offense good field position for a potential game-winning drive. Sneed connected on three of four pass attempts to set up a 1st-and-goal situation at the 9-yard line.
Sneed ran for 5 yards on first down, and Eastwood got 3 on second down to get the ball to the 1-yard line to set up the game-deciding sequence.
Choate’s timeout nullified what appeared to be an Eastwood touchdown, and then Yates forced the fumble on what would amount to UM’s final offensive play of the season.
“Stop them. It was literally, ‘We will not lose,’” Collins said of his mindset going into his final defensive play of the game. “It was everything. In the moment, it was like, ‘We are going to stop them.’”
The Bobcats have won three consecutive games in the Cat-Griz series for the first time since 1983-85. They’ll now wait in anticipation. At 7-4, it’s possible — if not likely — that MSU will advance to the FCS playoffs. The bracket will be announced Sunday.
“We have a great group of seniors on our team,” Andersen said. “We’ve shown that we’re a team to be reckoned with. We’ve made a pretty good case. If we have a shot (in the playoffs), we’re going to be a tough out.”
Bobcats’ receiver Travis Jonsen caught a game-high 11 receptions for 101 yards, while Isaiah Ifanse contributed to MSU’s 229 rushing yards with 63 yards on 15 carries. Collins led the Montana State defense with 12 tackles and two forced fumbles.
Montana linebacker Dante Olson, the leading tackler in the FCS, finished with 18 tackles, 11 which came in the first half.
-Slim Kimmel reporting for montanasports.com.