Montana State will be the Bearkats' opponent in the NCAA Division I Football Championships quarterfinals.
The Griz and Sam Houston State will face off Friday in Bozeman at 7 p.m. Montana State defeated Stony Brook while the Kats edged Cal Poly Saturday to advance.
Montana State grabbed an early lead, answered physical play with physical play, held the ball for most of the fourth quarter, and emerged with a hard-fought 16-10 win over Stony Brook in Bobcat Stadium Saturday night. And like MSU's regular season finale at Montana, the Bobcat offense and defense worked in near-perfect concert, Montana State coach Rob Ash said.
"That's been our recipe for winning," said Ash after his 50th win as MSU's head coach. "We were able to get ahead early and stay ahead. They didn't veer from their game plan, but they weren't able to take the air of the of the ball. They always had to work for points."
Montana State's win moves the Bobcats into the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division I FCS Playoffs for the second straight year, where more familiarity awaits. The Cats host Sam Houston State, the team that eliminated MSU from the Playoffs last season in the quarterfinals.
But Saturday was a night for Stony Brook, and Ash said the Seawolves were all that he expected. "Stony Brook is an excellent, excellent football team," Ash said. "They are every bit as advertised. They are physical, they are very smart with how they run the football, they're much better on defense than anyone knows except those of us that watch them on film. They are a high-quality, physical, playoff-experienced football team."
Montana State never trailed in the game, but the win was anything but easy. After an MSU punt, Stony Brook began its first possession at its own five and marched methodically to the Bobcat 18. On fourth-and-one, after Joel Fuller tackled Payton Award finalist Miguel Maysonet a yard short of a first down, Stony Brook missed a 35-yard field goal.
"That was probably a big, big play in the game," said Seawolves coach Chuck Priore. "It's the difference in being up 3-0 or down 7-0 (after MSU's touchdown on the ensuing drive). That was a great drive."
Bobcat defensive end Brad Daly had a different take on Stony Brook's opening drive. "I was tired," the Bobcat junior said with a laugh. "I was happy to get off the field, and it was great to get away without giving up any points."
Montana State seized momentum. On the fourth play of the drive, DeNarius McGhee chucked a 69-yard touchdown pass to Tanner Bleskin, giving MSU a 7-0 lead. "We felt their defense was oriented to stop the run," Bleskin said. "We had to call a play that was more vertical down the field."
The teams traded field goals in the second quarter, and after Rory Perez's second field goal of the game in the third quarter MSU headed to the final period with a 13-3 lead. But Stony Brook finally found the end zone when Kevin Norrell scored on a four-yard pass from Kyle Essington early in the fourth, pulling the Seawolves within 13-10.
Again, the Bobcat offense fought back. Cody Kirk opened the drive with a 14 yard run that turned into a 29-yard gain after a face mask call, and three plays later Rory Perez hailed his third field goal of the game for a 16-10 lead.
Up by six under the 10-minute mark, the Bobcats forced a three-and-out and got the ball back at their own 18-yard line with 8:18 to play. Montana State began a 13-play, 55-yard drive that chewed up 6:37. It didn't produce points, but after a missed field goal the Seawolves regained possession with 1:41 to play. The scene was set for a vintage Bobcat stand.
"Those last three plays after the missed field goal," Ash said, "(the defense) just decided this game was not going to be lost. That is as stunning a performance as a defensive line as I've seen."
Daly put it more succinctly. "We knew the game was on our backs," he said.
On first down, Stony Brook quarterback Kyle Essington fired incomplete. On second down, Daly got Essington for a four-yard sack. And on third down, Daly and Caleb Schreibeis converged at Essington, Daly arriving first but Schreibeis jarring the ball loose with his helmet. Daly recovered the fumble, and the Bobcats had the victory.
"That was a very physical game between two pretty good football teams," Priore said.
As usual, Rory Perez emerged as an unsung hero for the Bobcats. Perez scored 10 of MSU's 16 points, averaged 36.7 yards on three punts, and pinned the Seawolves inside their own 20 once.
"I thought Rory had a fabulous game," Ash said. "Missed field goals happen. I'll take the 10 points he scored for us any day. He was very good tonight."
Other NCAA Playoff Scores:
North Dakota State 28, South Dakota State 3
Wofford 23, New Hampshire 7
Georgia Southern 24, Central Arkansas 16
Old Dominion 63, Coastal Carolina 35
Illinois State 38, Appalachian State 37 (ot)
Eastern Washington 29, Wagner 19