Cats outlast Bengals in icy cold

It came down to the final play, but the Montana State Bobcats survived a slugfest with the Idaho State Bengals (ISU), winning 44-39 this past Saturday on a frigid afternoon. With playoff implications at stake, MSU sophomore phenom Dakota Prukop out with a knee injury, and ex-Cats’ head coach Mike Kramer heading the Bengals, the game was filled with drama.

It was a shootout from the start when ISU took the opening possession 75 yards in under three minutes for the touchdown, gaining no fewer than five yards on every play except for one incomplete pass. The up-tempo, no-huddle Bengal offense looked unstoppable. However, despite junior Jake Bleskin filling in for the injured Prukop, the Bobcat offense seemed to be at full strength. The Cats responded to ISU opening drive with one of their own. The Bobcats methodically pieced together a long drive capped off with junior Anthony Knight plunging into the end zone from two yards out to even the score.

The scoring barrage continued for the rest of the half as the defenses for both teams looked extremely suspect. Notably, Montana State executed a nearly nine minute drive and, despite successfully converting two fourth downs, were forced to settle for a red zone field goal. A couple touchdown strikes from Bengal quarterback Justin Arias sparked the ISU offense while the Cats turned to their deep backfield rushing attack to grind out the yards. The Cats once again gave up a late first half scoring drive when the Bengals intercepted an errant Bleskin pass and drove into field goal range, extending their lead to 30-23 heading into the locker room.

The third quarter opened with Bleskin throwing another pick deep in opponent territory, giving the Bengals the ball and a chance to take a 14 point lead. The Bengals looked well on their way until senior safety Eryon Barnett came up with a huge tipped pass interception to halt ISU’s momentum.

“Turnovers are always a big deal,” Barnett said after the game, “But especially in games like this it comes down to which defense is going to make the plays when it matters.”

After MSU sophomore Chad Newell evened the score on a 16-yard rumble to the end zone, the defense came up with another turnover, forcing a fumble and giving the ball back to their offense. And the offense didn’t let the opportunity go to waste, ending the drive on a Bleskin TD pass to a wide open Gunnar Brekke for 24 yards and seven points.

Up 37-30 heading into the final quarter, the Cats were determined not to relinquish their lead. The defense was able to hold the Bengals to a red zone field goal and Knight added another TD for the Cats to go up 11 points to force the Bengals to attempt a comeback. The Bengals closed the gap to 44-39 with eight minutes left and the Cats were unable to run out the clock. ISU blocked a Bobcat field goal and grabbed the ball, down five points with just over two minutes and 70-some yards to go.

Arias and the Bengals came close, making it all the way down to the Bobcat 33. But with just seven seconds left on the clock, ISU was forced to try a heave to the end zone. Arias bought himself some time but was unable to squeeze it into his receiver and MSU junior Bryson Keeton was able to knock it away and seal the win for the Cats. After the game, when asked about the final play, MSU Head Coach Rob Ash said he was reminded of the Eastern Washington game from earlier in the year when the Cats lost in the final seconds. “It was a great relief when the ball hit the ground, I will say,” Ash joked.

The Cats finished with 568 total yards and surrendered 588 to the Bengals. Bleskin threw for 301 yards and a pair of touchdowns as well as a pair of picks. Sophomore Chad Newell led the Bobcat backfield, rushing for 110 yards and a score for his first career 100-plus yard game. ISU’s Arias threw for 370 yards, three TDs and one interception.

The win improves the Cats’ record to 6-1 in the conference (8-3 overall) and keeps the Bobcats in control of their own destiny heading into the final game of the season — a road matchup with the archrival University of Montana Grizzlies (5-2 in the conference).

“As a coach, you can’t ask for anything more than to be in the thick of it and playing for conference championships,” Ash said.

Should the Bobcats win, they would be guaranteed at least a piece of the Big Sky Conference title and a playoff spot. A loss would muddy the waters considerable and likely drop the Cats out of post-season contention. With so much on the line in an already intense rivalry, the Brawl of the Wild should be another contentious battle in the 114th iteration. The game will be at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula and will kick off at 3:00 p.m.