MISSOULA — Montana State head coach Jeff Choate calls it "a forever game," one of utmost importance. Though the Grizzlies and Bobcats have not, in fact, been duking it out quite that long, 120 years does feel like an eternity.
All eyes in the state of Montana — as well as a few around the nation belonging to FCS playoff committee selection members — are tuned to Missoula on Saturday where No. 22 Montana hosts its rival Montana State. The 116th Brawl of the Wild, a rivalry born on the football field in 1897, kicks off at noon on ROOT Sports with the Griz playing for their postseason lives and the Bobcats just playing spoiler.
The Cats are mired in a second straight losing season and bring a 3-7 record (1-6 in Big Sky) into the Brawl, though they're the ones carrying a winning streak. MSU topped UC Davis last week for its first league win.
In the other locker room is a Griz team limping back home after losing at Northern Colorado last week, a defeat that dropped Montana to 6-4 (3-4 in Big Sky) and 0-4 against league foes away from Washington-Grizzly Stadium. It's UM's first winless conference road slate since 1984, or forever to some fans.
Luckily for the Griz — and their playoff chances — Saturday's game isn't out on the road, but back at Wa-Griz with its 26,000 friendly inhabitants. Montana can't afford another slip-up like its trip to Greeley, Colorado.
"It's tough to lose a ballgame but when you hand it to somebody, that makes it a little bit tougher," Griz head coach Bob Stitt said of the 28-25 loss. "... If you go play normal football, not even great football just normal football, it's not even a game."
As much as they are on any given Saturday, the teams' quarterbacks will be in the spotlight come kickoff in Missoula.
On the Bobcats' side is true freshman Chris Murray, as dangerous of a freshman QB to grace the Bozeman program since DeNarius McGhee, who helped the Cats to a pair of wins over the Griz in 2010 and '12. He had a year of seasoning by 2010 with a redshirt season, though.
Murray became MSU's full-time starter five weeks ago and captained the Cats to their only win of the Big Sky slate. A bigger threat to run than throw — he leads the team with 718 rush yards and 10 touchdowns — Murray's emergence over opening-day starter Tyler Bruggman marked a change in the Montana State offense, UM defensive coordinator Jason Semore observed.
"Once they stopped rotating guys, they kind of settled into an identity," Semore said. "... The last few weeks you see on tape they've decided to make that guy the center of their offense, and they've had a lot more success in those weeks."
Turnover prone, Murray has eight interceptions and six fumbles lost though.
In the Griz huddle, Chad Chalich played the past two weeks in place of typical starter Brady Gustafson, but Saturday's starter remains unknown. Chalich threw seven touchdowns in his first start — the most by a Griz QB since, well, forever — but followed that with a lackluster outing in the Griz loss last week.
Stitt implied Gustafson would start if healthy — "You'd like to have Brady back in the saddle, being a Montana kid" — but has made no official announcement. MSU has prepared for both, the team's coach said, and the varied offenses they lead.
"With Gustafson, you could see the system in place," Choate said. "It's not dramatically different with Chad, but there is a higher emphasis on the runs and he's a little more effective running the ball. Some of the challenges are going to depend on who's playing quarterback."
Whomever it is, we know who will be handling the kicking duties that follow any Griz touchdowns. Stitt confirmed Brandon Purdy will kick both PAT and field goals in place of Tim Semenza for the first time this season.
On paper the Grizzlies are the better team, and by a healthy margin. They lead the Cats in most statistical categories from total offense (499.9 yards per game to 364.2) to total defense (344.3 ypg allowed to 397.0) and turnover margin (plus-2 vs. minus-8). But the Brawl series can even a playing field awfully quick and make a victor out of even the most pronounced underdog.
Most recently when the Griz knocked off No. 1 Montana State in 2011, robbing the Cats of the top seed in the playoff bracket to follow.
Both teams are on their toes for the Brawl, a game they'll remember forever.
"The football part of it is going to be enough of a challenge," Choate said, "but obviously there's the added meaning when you're playing a game like this."