BOZEMAN — On Monday, Montana State coach Jeff Choate had his concentration focused on what is the biggest game of the year every year — an impassioned rivalry matchup with Montana.
MSU (4-6, 4-3 Big Sky) enters its 117th meeting with the Grizzlies (7-3, 5-2) coming off another tense defeat, this time a 37-36 loss at Northern Arizona in which an unsuccessful two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds left was the difference.
The Bobcats couldn’t be more embattled if they tried. The Northern Arizona game was MSU’s sixth this year that was decided by one possession, and if you include a 31-19 loss to Eastern Washington in October, it was its seventh game that was decided in the fourth quarter.
Montana State’s record in those games: 2-5.
Being close doesn’t count for much, and Choate said so. But the Bobcats have countered certain disparities in talent with a willingness to compete.
“To be quite honest with you, I don’t know that there’s very many teams in the country that would go through some of the devastating losses that we’ve faced and keep getting back off the mat,” he said. “I think that says a heck of a lot about the character of these young men (and) the toughness that they show.
“I do not think we’re the most talented team every time we walk out there, but I know this: It’s going to be a four-quarter fight.”
Is there any reason to believe MSU’s meeting with Montana won’t be decided in a similar fashion?
With the exception of a shutout loss at FBS Washington State, a sizeable win at North Dakota and a 14-point victory over Idaho State, every game this year has gone down to the wire.
When asked just how battle-tested the Bobcats are — and what it means for them entering their final game of the season — Choate let out a healthy laugh before acknowledging that his team’s performances are worth the price of admission, regardless of the outcome.
“I don’t know if you can get any more battle tested than we are,” he said. “I’m being 100 percent honest here: I think most teams would have quit a long time ago. You line them up and schedule them and we’ll play them. Any time, any place, anywhere. And you better be ready for a ball game.
“It’s amazing to be on our sideline. I think most teams say, ‘Oh man. Here we go again.’ You know what our guys say? ‘Here we go.’ It’s been impressive to watch. I’ll tell you what; employers out there — you find a guy that was on the 2017 Bobcat team and hire them because they aren’t going to quit and they’re going to give you their best.
“Buy a ticket and it will be a good game. Show up — wherever we play. It’s going to go into the fourth quarter, it’s going to be a one-possession game, somebody will kick a field goal, somebody will make a play, somebody will go for two ... whatever it is. It’ll be worth it.”
In regard to Saturday, the Bobcats come in having lost two in a row. But the Grizzlies will bring a two-game winning streak across the Divide, along with the chance to earn a coveted playoff berth.
It’s the second straight year in which MSU is in the spoiler role. Last year the Bobcats ended UM’s season with a 24-17 victory in which they rushed for 368 yards.
Choate, though, said his team puts no stock in the potential of pillaging the Grizzlies’ season.
“This is about Montana State and our players from an internal standpoint,” he said. “If we start worrying about them too much we’re going to not be focused on what we need to be focused on.
“Those are things that you can talk about after the game is over. But for us, this is our seniors’ last opportunity to play in front of the home crowd and an opportunity to be a part of a really special game that they’ll remember for the remainder of their lives.”
Last year, after Choate’s Bobcats knocked off Montana, a big celebration ensued atop the Washington-Grizzly Stadium turf.
MSU would love to finally win one of these in front of its home fans. The last time that happened was 2005.
Choate said last year’s victory may have caught the Griz off guard, and that should only raise the intensity level — and the potential for another tight game — this time.
“Obviously you can tell there’s a heightened sense of urgency from the noise that’s coming out of Missoula this week than there was a year ago,” Choate said.
“I don’t know that they respected us very much a year ago, and that probably led to the result and the outcome. So I guess if anything else, we’ve got their attention.”