Isaiah Ifanse found open space, yet again.
The sophomore running back reached the end zone for a third time, giving Montana State a 34-point lead with eight minutes remaining.
As Ifanse approached the goal line, Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate raised his arm in victory, yet again. He walked slightly out onto the field, turned around toward the north end of Bobcat Stadium and swung his fist in jubilation.
The No. 8-ranked Bobcats (9-3, 6-2 Big Sky) dominated No. 3 Montana (9-3, 6-2) in a 48-14 win on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium in the 119th ’Cat-Griz matchup. The victory likely helped MSU earn a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs.
And 48 points was MSU’s most ever against Montana. Choate, affectionately called “The Griz Slayer” by Bobcat fans, has earned that title. He is MSU’s only head coach to start his career with four straight ’Cat-Griz victories. The win was MSU’s largest margin of victory in the rivalry series since 1985.
And this was Choate’s first victory over a top-10 ranked team to boot.
“I don’t really know how to quantify that,” Choate said. “I probably never want to find out what it feels like on the other side.”
Montana head coach Bobby Hauck had been 5-2 in his first stint with the Grizzlies. He often knew just what they needed to do in order to win in this rivalry.
Not on Saturday, and not against Choate, who’s now 2-0 against Hauck. The Bobcats ran personnel groupings Hauck said the Grizzlies weren’t ready for and discombobulated UM’s offense.
Choate had the Bobcats more ready than Hauck had his team. And Hauck admitted to it.
“They gave us some stuff we didn’t expect and capitalized on it,” he said. “We didn’t play well in any of the three parts of the game, and it’s a bad day to do that.”
The Bobcats beat the Griz this time with the exact style Choate loves to run. The Bobcats ran the ball 62 times for 382 yards and six touchdowns.
That’s MSU’s most rushing yards against Montana. In fact, MSU’s 207 yards on the ground in the first half alone was more than any FCS team had totaled against the Grizzlies in a full game.
When the Bobcats struggled to pass midway through the season, Choate never flinched. He was determined his team could win by continuing to rely on a run game which had appeared to become predictable. MSU’s offense sputtered during a two-game losing skid, and the Bobcats were limited in what they could do.
But Choate was relentless in his commitment to the ground game. He said repeatedly the Bobcats weren’t going to reinvent themselves. Again and again, the Bobcats kept running and running. Choate maintained body blows like 4-yard gains on zone runs would lead to knockout shots in the form of explosive plays.
The Grizzlies’ defense was out cold by halftime. It didn’t matter who ran with the ball, as four different players scored touchdowns in the first two quarters alone. MSU’s line shoved and pushed Montana’s defense around. The Grizzlies were allowing 112 rushing yards per game leading up to Saturday, which was the second best in the Big Sky.
But the Bobcats made them look mediocre at best as MSU averaged 6.2 yards a carry.
“(Choate) keeps us in the moment, doesn’t let us think about anything after,” MSU offensive lineman Mitch Brott said. “He always elaborates on great ideals. He wants the best from us, and if we’re not giving our best, he lets us know and lets us know how to get back.”
Choate often speaks about wanting his team to impose its will on opponents. His defense did just that.
Choate masterfully handled the absence of MSU star linebacker Troy Andersen, who was out due to a leg injury. The Grizzlies had spent nearly all week preparing for him, Hauck said.
Yet with him on the sideline, the Grizzlies totaled just 46 rushing yards on 24 carries. In turn, all-American level quarterback Dalton Sneed completed 20 of 34 passes for 195 yards and no touchdowns.
The Bobcats also forced two turnovers, including a fumble on the opening play from scrimmage. And that led to MSU’s first touchdown, an 8-yard run by Kevin Kassis, resulting in a lead the Bobcats never gave up.
That early advantage forced the Grizzlies out of their offensive rhythm. They couldn’t run the ball as much as they wanted. Choate and the Bobcats were one move ahead.
“Really it comes down to preparation and execution,” MSU defensive lineman Derek Marks said. “And I think we out prepared them.”
Then with less than eight minutes left, MSU safety Brayden Konkol intercepted a pass from Sneed, setting the stage for Ifanse’s 17-yard touchdown run. That score gave the Bobcats a 48-14 lead. That sequence caused Bobcat Stadium to literally start rocking.
After the game, Konkol was asked when he knew the game was over. He claimed that he knew last weekend. His conviction is a sign of the program’s confidence. That all starts with Choate.
“He actually cares about you,” Konkol said. “He asks you how your day is going. He cares about your character. That’s what he wants to do. He wants to develop you as a man more so than a football player and whatnot. I respect the hell out of that.”
Marks said MSU’s response from two consecutive losses was a reality check. But the Bobcats bounced back, he added, because of MSU’s leadership.
Choate wouldn’t let the Bobcats drop off. They’ve instead won four straight games.
And he wouldn’t let them lose to the Grizzlies. The Bobcats instead have won four straight against them.
The rival is slain again.
Colton Pool can be reached at email@example.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.