Linemen of Montana State and Montana lined up against each other. The tangible anticipation of the moment, the day and the season further crescendoed.
The No. 3-ranked Bobcats had already soaked in so much glory. A year ago, reaching its first national championship since the 1980s under a first-year head coach. Over the 2022 season, unscathed against FCS foes. And this weekend, highlighted by the appearance of ESPN’s “College GameDay.”
But despite all they had accomplished, the Bobcats wanted more. They sought dominance in the most recent installment of one of the most historic rivalries in all of college football. And they earned it.
Tommy Mellott lined up under center. The MSU sophomore quarterback from Butte, Montana, had yet to score in a ’Cat-Griz game. But with the help of his offensive line, that changed.
Mellott fell forward in the wake of his offensive line and scored to go up 7-0 early. Fans, surely exhausted from waking up before dawn to attend “College GameDay” in the bitter cold dark and maybe even more so because of the looming threat of their bitter rival, shook Bobcat Stadium in raucous chaos.
Exuberance steadily dwindled until the conclusion of the game because that moment served as a prelude to what became a sheer imposement of will. The Bobcats ran often and kept running to a 55-21 blowout win over No. 13 Montana in the 121st matchup between the two teams. They secured a share of their first Big Sky championship since 2012 in front of a record-setting 22,037 people.
“It feels great, without a doubt,” Mellott said. “Guys have been working extremely hard and to have some of these goals come to fruition is extremely special. We’re just looking forward to the next one, but feels great right now.”
The Bobcats (10-1, 8-0 Big Sky) ran 66 times for 439 yards, a record against the Grizzlies (7-4, 4-4). Mellott, who attempted just eight passes, rushed for 141 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries while Elijah Elliott added 126 yards with 18 rushes.
“There was a ton of energy going on throughout the week,” Mellott said. “We’ve done a great job of preparing regardless of who we’re going to be playing. Just that attention to detail, it’s relentless from top down in our program.”
Saturday was simultaneously a milestone for a promising program with momentum soaring to prominence and, Bobcat fans hope, a sign of more to come.
The Big Sky Conference and both Treasure State schools had pleaded with ESPN on social media for “College GameDay” to make an appearance for a ’Cat-Griz game. The exposure undoubtedly creates a buzz for the schools the show visits.
“College GameDay” showed up, and the Bobcats did, too.
Defensively, they limited the Grizzlies to 96 yards on the ground and 315 yards total. They were 4 of 10 on third and fourth down while the Bobcats were 8 of 13. MSU won the turnover margin 3-0.
“Not as enjoyable on this side,” Grizzlies head coach Bobby Hauck said. “They did a good job. We didn’t coach well enough. We didn’t play well enough to get it done today and they did, so good on them.
“I like our team. They’re great guys to coach. Fired up about them, but the best team won today.”
Following the final buzzer, that excitement returned as the Bobcats marched around the field with the Great Divide Trophy in hand.
MSU head coach Brent Vigen, interviewed live by ESPN earlier that morning, and the Bobcats put together a masterfully-designed ground-and-pound scheme, one the best run defense in the Big Sky didn’t have an answer for. He earned his first win over Montana after losing at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 2021.
After Mellott’s first score, the Grizzlies quickly responded with a touchdown of their own. But then the Bobcats followed with another. And another. And another.
In fact, they never punted. It didn’t matter if everyone in the stadium knew another run was coming. The Grizzlies couldn’t stop them. A 5-yard run felt like a win for the Grizzly defense at times.
Vigen reminded his players “College GameDay” traveled to Bozeman because of the rivalry and the achievements of the teams involved. But the show is ultimately for the fans. The players needed to prioritize the reasons that led to that success.
“I think our guys were absolutely focused on the game,” Vigen said. “We’ve got a group that wants to play for each other and certainly didn’t want to let this opportunity slip away. We made it about this game. We made it about going 1-0 today. There’s all kinds of other things attached to it, the conference championship, seeding and all that. But made it about winning today and getting that trophy back.”
This grounded and persistent effort is a microcosm of the program’s approach over the past half decade.
Previous Bobcats head coach Jeff Choate put a large emphasis on defeating the Grizzlies, and with that, everything else would work out. They did, and it has.
Choate led MSU to four consecutive rivalry victories. And during that stretch, the program made several strides.
The Bobcats have increased their regular season win total every year since 2016, Choate’s first. But even after he left, Vigen’s guided MSU to greater heights.
Choate provided the fire the Bobcats needed to become winners again. Vigen has kept the ship steady even through tumultuous seas.
“It just felt like we had the right mindset this week,” Vigen said Saturday. “I think the way we’ve approached every week no matter who we’ve played, that carries over into a game of this magnitude.
“You don’t have to all of a sudden become something different. You don’t have to have this out-of-body experience. You can just go out and execute. And I think our guys have really bought into that philosophy, and it showed today.”
With triumph came support. MSU raised $18 million for its Bobcat Athletic Complex facility upgrade, which has benefited the players of the present and helped draw in those of the future.
These accomplishments drew the attention of ESPN. “College GameDay” was long a hope for the Big Sky Conference, and it materialized at last.
“It was amazing for our program, amazing for this rivalry, for our state, the Big Sky,” Vigen said. “This was a huge day for everything Montana State, and I’m certainly proud to be a part of it and be the head coach here.”
Getting better with each opportunity. Focusing on the task at hand. Cliches that ring true for the Bobcats, and Saturday was a reminder.
Distractions, perhaps yet another coaching cliche, could have riddled the team. The hype for ESPN arriving, the adrenaline tied to a rivalry some of these players have known since they were children and the first conference title in a decade at stake should have been daunting.
It wasn’t. The Bobcats leaned on their run-first identity and executed to near perfection.
Yet Mellott believes there’s still areas to improve.
“Winning this one against rivals and that bitter taste we had from last year, it was certainly great and I’m super proud of everyone,” Mellott said, “but I wouldn’t say I’ve been waiting all year or something like that where all of a sudden I’m fulfilled now because we beat those guys.”
This Montana State program has more than the jubilation of Saturday in mind. Winning a conference championship, defeating their rival or hosting “College GameDay” isn’t enough for the Bobcats. It never has been.
The Bobcats’ primary aspiration is winning a national title. And because of their relentless pursuit of improvement and unshaken focus through tribulations and ascendance, perhaps that objective is more realistic than ever.