Cat-Griz_football_2019 (copy)

Montana State celebrates a fumble recovery against Montana on Nov. 23 at Bobcat Stadium.

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Bruce Barnum searched for a straight answer out of his fellow coach.

Barnum, Portland State’s head coach, asked Jeff Choate, the head coach of Montana State, what university Bobby Hauck works at. Choate asked to clarify multiple times. Barnum stayed on the subject.

Barnum knew Choate doesn’t often say the name of MSU’s historic rival, Montana, in public. So Barnum asked again.

“The one over the hill,” Choate replied, the phrase he often uses to refer to the Grizzlies.

“What university is it?” Barnum asked again.

“We don’t get too involved in that,” Choate responded with a smile, never saying the team name. “We want to downplay that. I think people get too excited about that game here in the state of Montana.”

The ’Cat-Griz rivalry was one of many topics of discussion during the first day of the Big Sky’s kickoff event on Thursday, which included interviews with the conference’s head coaches. It was conducted virtually this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Montana State has won its in-state rivalry game four years in a row, the longest consecutive run of wins since the 1970s. Hauck, Montana’s head coach, was short with his response when asked how the Grizzlies could shift the balance of power back to Missoula and away from Bozeman.

“It’s already done,” Hauck said. “We need to win that game. They kicked our ass last year, and we’re not pleased about it.”

Hauck returned to Montana two seasons ago. In 2018, the Bobcats came back from a 22-point deficit to win on a last-season goal-line stand. Last year, MSU won 48-14.

Choate feels his team’s scheme has been simple. Run the ball, he said, and stick to the ground game regardless of the score.

He hopes the Bobcats can play Montana at some point soon. But uncertainty looms over the 2020 season, as the conference expects to make a decision by the end of the month about whether games will be played this fall.

To Choate, another game in Missoula “seems like 1,000 miles away.”

“I hope we get to them, that’s what I hope,” he said. “And if we do, we have a pretty good blueprint for how to take care of them.”

Strengths and weaknesses

Choate also said Thursday a dependable quarterback has been the “missing link” in the team’s quest for a Big Sky championship.

He pointed to North Dakota State, which the Bobcats have lost to in the FCS playoffs the last two years. At quarterback, the Bison had Easton Stick, now an NFL signal caller, and Trey Lance, who won the Walter Payton Award in 2019 as a freshman.

Choate pointed out the Bobcats return two QBs, Tucker Rovig and Casey Bauman, who won games for MSU last year. Choate added the Bobcats brought in NC State transfer Matthew McKay to create more competition behind center.

“I’m not afraid to play multiple quarterbacks,” Choate said. “If we can get a number of talented individuals in there, we’ll find a way, and I think that’s one of the things our staff has been really good at is finding a way to get all the playmakers their touches. And if we can do that through the air, that’s great.”

Choate reiterated MSU’s offensive and defensive lines are the strength of his team. He brought up how the Bobcats return four of their top five offensive lineman from last season, including all-conference selections Lewis Kidd and Taylor Tuiasosopo. The Bobcats will also bring back Amandre Williams and Chase Benson, all-Big Sky picks on defense.

“We’ll probably be able to run the ball,” Choate said. “But we will because we won’t try to do anything else. The good news is that will help us if we do get a slow start to the season because we don’t have to worry about the timing of the passing game and things of that nature.”

Toughness of conference

The Big Sky coaches spoke often about the diversity and talent of other teams around the conference. Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie mentioned how the Bengals will have to play multiple preseason top-10 teams in the FCS, including the Bobcats. Hauck and Southern Utah head coach Demario Warren lamented about the long road trips for Big Sky games.

Choate agreed. He said MSU’s road schedule is one of the toughest aspects of the 2020 slate. The Bobcats, who were selected third in the conference’s preseason coaches and media polls, will play at Weber State, at Montana and at Eastern Washington, which were the first, second and fourth teams in both polls, respectively.

“Who you play, when you play them and where you play them has a lot of determining factors in terms of how successful your season is going to be,” Choate said. “Playing Portland State in Bozeman is a huge advantage rather than playing at Portland. So I think those things play out and it speaks to the strength of our league.”

“The road stretch,” Choate added, “is going to end up being what’s challenging for us.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.

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Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.