Turnovers doom Cats in 34-7 loss to Grizzlies

The Bobcats football season was turned on its head and, pending the announcement of the 24-team playoff field, is currently hanging in limbo.

The game got out of hand early, as the Grizzlies stormed out to a 27-0 lead at the end of the first half thanks in part to five turnovers, four of which were interceptions thrown by Bobcat junior quarterback Jake Bleskin. The Cats defense struggled to contain the attack of Griz QB Jordan Johnson and Griz running back Jordan Canada, as the Grizzly offense totaled 511 yards. “It’s tough,” mentioned Bobcat defender Cole Moore, “We [Montana State defense] take full accountability as much as the offense does … I’m not going to sit here and say it doesn’t hurt … but tonight’s loss doesn’t define our team.”

Head Coach Rob Ash was equally resilient, “We just have to move on.” When asked whether he felt the Cats were still a playoff team, Ash responded, “Absolutely.”

Action got under way when the Grizzlies drove to the Bobcat 25-yard line. Facing third down with nine to go, junior defensive tackle Taylor Sheridan tipped a Jordan Johnson pass, halting the Grizzly drive. The Griz converted a 42-yard field goal attempt to take a 3-0 lead.

Both teams traded punts, and the situation began to unravel for the Bobcats when Bleskin’s deep pass to receiver Jayshawn Gates was intercepted by Grizzly defender Matt Hermanson at the Bobcat 39. That set up the first touchdown of the day, as Canada ran in on third and goal from the 1-yard line, giving the Grizzlies a 10-0 lead.

Junior wide receiver Mitch Griebel shot a much needed boost into the arm of the Bobcats with a 46-yard kickoff return. The Cats gained their first first down of the day due to a roughing the passer penalty on third down. On the next play Chad Newell burst up the middle for a 26-yard gain, putting the Cats at the Grizzly 5. After two plays for no gain, Bleskin’s screen pass up the middle was intercepted by Griz defensive tackle Tonga Takai, killing the Cats’ first big drive of the day.

Johnson, who was limited in practice with an ankle injury, put the Griz back into Bobcat territory with 43-yard run. He followed with a 26-yard pass, setting up the Grizzlies inside the Bobcat 5 for the second time in the first quarter. The Grizzlies converted the field position into points on a 4-yard play action TD pass to Canada, giving the Grizzlies a 17-0 with 50 seconds still in the first. The quarter could not have ended sooner for the Bobcats, as the defense allowed 204 total yards, and the offense compiled only 57.

Things got worse for the Bobcats as Bleskin, after getting hit, saw his third pass of the day get intercepted at the Grizzly 30 by Matt Hermanson. Johnson continued his dominant day with a 31-yard pass to senior tight end Mitch Saylor, putting the Grizzlies into Bobcat territory for the fourth drive of the day. On a pivotal third down, Johnson found junior wide receiver Jamall Jones on the sideline between two Bobcat defenders, putting the Griz at the Bobcat 12. The Cats dodged a bullet when Johnson missed a wide open receiver in the end zone, as the Griz were forced to settle for three points, putting themselves ahead 20-0.

The Cats started the next drive with a 15-yard pass to Griebel. Following first down runs from Newell and sophomore running back Gunnar Brekke, the Cats were intercepted again on the Grizzly 40-yard line. The Griz kept the ball rolling, dodging a bullet when a possible fumble was ruled an incomplete pass. The Bobcats were able to sack Johnson on the following play, but a roughing the kicker call on the following punt prolonged the Grizzly drive. The Griz wasted no time, connecting with senior running back Travon Van to the Bobcat 5. The Griz scored seven again on the following play on a TD pass to Mitch Saylor, taking a 27-0 lead.

The following drive, the Cats faced a fourth-and-1 on their own 34, but a false start penalty pushed the Cats 5 yards in reverse, forcing what seemed to be a punting situation. However, Ash called a pass play for Newell, which worked perfectly, setting up the Cats at the Griz 35. The Bobcats drove and set up shop at the Grizzly 5, but Bleskin’s rush to the left ended in a fumble recovered by the Grizzlies, ending first half action.

After trading punts, Bleskin threw his fifth and final interception of the game to Hermanson on a long pass attempt to receiver Justin Paige at the Grizzly 18. This was Hermanson’s third interception of the day. After trading some more punts, the Grizzlies were driving into Bobcat territory when the Bobcats forced their first turnover of the game when Sheridan forced Canada to fumble. The ball was picked up by Moore and brought to the Montana 25. The Cats got to the Grizzly 1, only to turn the ball over in the Grizzly red zone for the third time as a Newell fumble was recovered Griz defender Jeremiah Kose. The Grizzlies would make the Cats pay, as another long drive culminated in a Johnson 9-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Josh Janssen, putting the Griz ahead 34-0.

That would end the day for Bleskin, as Bobcat third string redshirt freshman quarterback Quinn McQueary came in as relief with 12 minutes left in the game. The Bobcats drove inside the Grizzly 5 once more, and received extra life in the drive on a pass interference call in the end zone. A 1-yard TD run from Newell put the Bobcats on the board, avoiding their first shutout against the Griz since 1971.

For the Bobcats, Bleskin ended the game with 145 yards passing, five interceptions and a fumble. Newell would finish with 67 yards rushing and 44 yards receiving. Brekke concluded the day with 47 yards rushing, and wide receiver Mitch Griebel finished with 41 yards receiving.

For the Grizzlies, Johnson finished with 313 yards passing and 80 yards rushing, with three touchdowns through the air. Canada ended with 119 yards rushing with one touchdown. The receiving core of Van and Saylor finished with 109 and 103 yards, respectively.

Johnson completed his undefeated career against the Bobcats and Griz coach Mick Delaney seemingly added one more game to his final season, as the Grizzlies dispatched the Bobcats 34-7 in front of a record-breaking crowd of 26,352 at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The Grizzlies ended a five year run of home team defeats, handing the Cats their worst Brawl of the Wild defeat since 2008.

As a team the Bobcats finished with seven total turnovers, five through the air and two on the ground. Overall the offense totaled 314 yards — 153 on the ground and 161 yards through the air. The Cats ended their regular season with an 8-4 record, 6-2 in conference play. The loss gives Eastern Washington the outright Big Sky Conference title and puts Montana State in a three-way tie for second place with Montana and Idaho State. Idaho State, with only six wins against Division I opponents (two of their wins were against non-Division I teams) seem to be on the out looking in, although two of their losses came against FBS opponents Utah and Utah State. While both Montana and Montana State sit at 8-4, the Griz are likely to fare better in the playoff seat picture, with their win against the Cats and a non-conference schedule that included FCS stalwart North Dakota State. The Bobcats are not in terrible shape either though. The Big Sky Conference sent four teams to the playoffs last year in the FCS’ first year with a 24-team field. However, with the possible exception of their knuckle-biting win against Idaho State, the Bobcats have no wins against teams projected to be in the playoffs. Both teams will await their fate Sunday morning when the NCAA FCS Playoff field is announced at 9 a.m. on ESPN U.

The loss puts Rob Ash at 2-6 against his in-state rivals. Mick Delaney, who earlier in the week announced this year would be his last at the Grizzlies’ head skipper, finishes with a 2-1 record against the Cats.