FCS Game of the Week: Montana at Montana State

NCAA Football

(STATS) – Week 13 Matchup – No. 3 Montana (9-2, 6-1 Big Sky) at No. 8 Montana State (8-3, 5-2)

Kickoff – 2 p.m. ET at Bobcat Stadium (17,777) in Bozeman, Montana

Television – ROOT Sports, DirectTV’s Audience Network

Series – Montana leads 72-40-5 (last meeting: Montana State won 29-25 in Missoula on Nov. 24, 2018)

Coaches – Montana: Bobby Hauck (95-24, nine seasons; 110-74 overall); Montana State: Jeff Choate (25-21, four seasons)

The Skinny – The two Montana rivals have been on a collision course all season. For the 119th renewal of the Brawl of the Wild, they are in the Top 10 and have the most combined wins (17) since 2011. Montana is part of a three-way tie for first in the Big Sky standings (with Sacramento State and Weber State) and is alive for its first title since 2009 (the Grizzlies’ 2011 co-title was later vacated) and the conference’s automatic qualifying bid to the FCS playoffs. Montana State, one game behind in the standings, is alive for a potential four- or five-way share of the title (its most recent was in 2012), but the Bobcats can’t earn the AQ. Win or lose, they are expected to earn an at-large berth to the playoffs.

“We’ve got two ranked opponents,” Choate said, “that I think represent the best that this state has to offer on both sides.”

Montana’s per-game averages in points (37.9) and yards (458.9) have been topped in the 2000s only by the 2016 squad, which missed the playoffs and started the current three-year streak of missing the postseason. QB Dalton Sneed, who averages 305.4 yards of total offense per game, can spread the ball to RB Marcus Knight (853 yards, 19 total TDs) and WRs Samuel Toure (63 receptions, 1,052 yards, 10 TDs), Samuel Akem and Jerry Louie-McGee. Montana State has a run-first offense and the Griz run defense – allowing 112.6 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry – is its strongest since 2012. But the Griz can be hurt through the air as they’re allowing a Big Sky-low 296.2 passing yards per game. They have three defenders over 100 tackles: LB Dante Olson (133), S Robby Hauck (108) and LB Jace Lewis (104).

Montana State is on a three-game winning streak this month and also has a three-game winning streak in the series, including a rally from 22-0 down last year. The Bobcats are averaging a Big Sky-leading 259.9 rushing yards per game and their committee of backs is healthy again with Logan Jones (667 yards, 6 TDs), Travis Jonsen (432, 6), Lane Sumner (349, 5), Isaiah Ifanse (347, 1) and Troy Andersen (323, 7). The Griz would prefer to make QB Tucker Rovig try to beat them. Andersen is just as potent at linebacker, where he’s totaled nine tackles for loss and 5½ sacks over the last five games. The Bobcats also boast DE Bryce Sterk (15 TFL, 11 sacks), an NFL prospect who requires double teams. The kicking game is strong with PK Tristan Bailey (10 of 15 field goals) and P Jered Padmos (45-yard average).

Third down conversions are in stark contrast. Montana leads the Big Sky with a 46.9 percent conversion rate and Montana State ranks 13th and last at 33.1 percent.

Prediction – Both teams are coming off particularly good wins (Montana over Weber State and Montana State at UC Davis). How well the Griz handle Montana State’s run game is pivotal. Montana, 22-21.

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