The amount of preparation will lead to little separation.
Montana State head coach Jeff Choate thinks games between his team and rival Montana are usually close and intense because of the way both practice and focus in order to be ready.
The more important the moment, Choate said, the more vital poise will be.
This game carries extra weight. The No. 8-ranked Bobcats (8-3, 5-2 Big Sky) play host to No. 3 Montana (9-2, 6-1) at noon Saturday at Bobcat Stadium in the 119th Brawl of the Wild. Not only does this game come as another contest in the historic rivalry, it will affect how both teams are positioned in the FCS playoffs. Specifically for the Bobcats, a win or a loss could be the difference of a first-round bye or not.
Choate called it Montana’s Super Bowl. But he knows he doesn’t have to reiterate that to his team loaded with players from the Treasure State.
“I think it’s foolish not to pretend that this isn’t a big deal,” Choate said. “These guys are going to have to answer for this for the rest of their lives. This is a forever game.”
Choate complimented Grizzlies head coach Bobby Hauck for the progress Montana has made this season. This is Hauck’s second year back after a five-year stint at UNLV after he was Montana’s head coach from 2003-2009.
Choate said Hauck has implemented his preferred team identity quickly. He’s most impressed by how Hauck addressed Montana’s offensive line. Its performance has opened up the way for the second-highest scoring offense in the Big Sky with 37.9 points per game.
Choate also noticed Hauck’s emphasis on special teams. The Grizzlies, for example, are best in the conference with 16.2 yards per punt return, are the only team in the Big Sky with a punt return for a touchdown and are among only four with a kickoff return for a score.
“I think this is a very, very good football team,” Choate said. “Much improved over a year ago, and I think deserving of their ranking.”
Choate called Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed the cog of the Grizzlies offense that makes it all work.
The senior was among the nation’s leaders in passing yards and touchdowns, but he missed two games due to injury. In a contest when Idaho took a 10-0 lead, Sneed entered the game midway through and led the Grizzlies to a 42-17 win over the Vandals. Last week, the Grizzlies took down then No. 3 Weber State 35-16 as Sneed threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns.
Choate noticed that Northern Colorado, UC Davis and Montana, MSU’s last three opponents of the regular season, all run similar offensive schemes. They all spread the field and rely on run-pass option concepts. The Grizzlies can do so because of Sneed’s throwing prowess and running ability.
“He’s a courageous leader. You can just tell that. He’s a tough kid,” Choate said. “Hard to bring down in the open field. Accurate passer. Very strong arm and he has that confidence, that swagger, you can kind of just see.”
Montana’s offense is also explosive because of its skill players. Grizzlies receivers Samuel Akem and Samori Toure are among the top six in the Big Sky in both catches and receiving yards per game. Akem has caught 59 passes for 848 yards and five touchdowns while Toure has 1,052 yards on 63 receptions and 10 touchdowns.
Running back Marcus Knight leads the conference in scoring with 19 touchdowns and is sixth with 77.5 rushing yards per game.
“When they get going, they’ve turned the gas on a little bit a couple times,” Choate said. “We’ve just got to do a good job of maintaining our poise and staying in the moment and playing the next play and get it into a fourth-quarter game. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”
Choate mentioned Montana’s defense is difficult to plan for because the Grizzlies’ movement before and after the snap.
The defense begins, Choate said, with Dante Olson. The senior linebacker and preseason all-American leads the conference with 133 tackles. Defensive tackle Jesse Sims, who stands at 6-foot-4, 280 pounds, and safeties Josh Sandry, Gavin Robertson and Robby Hauck, who’s third in the Big Sky with 108 tackles, all stand out to Choate.
The MSU head coach added that UM’s defense is tough to deal with because of its blitzing. Choate said the Grizzlies bring unique pressure about 70% of the time. That includes blitzing and “bogus pressure” when they drop a player back in coverage from their defensive front which can confuse offenses. That’s a reason why they’re second in the conference in takeaways with 24.
“At the end of the day, they play hard,” Choate said. “They’ve got our respect and our attention from that perspective.”