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'Greatest Bobcat game I've ever seen': Fans remember Montana State's 1984 semifinal win

Montana State Bobcats snow pile 1984
Posted at 9:41 AM, Dec 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-17 11:41:52-05

BILLINGS — You have to go all the way back to December 8, 1984 to find the last time the Montana State Bobcats hosted a game as meaningful as Saturday's upcoming national semifinal against South Dakota State.

That day, the Cats pulled off one of the greatest wins in program history that people in attendance remember like it was yesterday.

"I've been to a lot of Bobcat games since - I have season tickets - and no game has been close," said Derrick Tracy, who was a junior at Montana State during the 1984 season.

Montana State Rhode Island 1984
Montana State beat Rhode Island 32-20 in an NCAA Division 1-AA national semifinal on Dec. 8, 1984 in Bozeman. The Bobcats went on to win the 1984 national chamionships.

Let’s start with an interesting tidbit. With today’s rules, the game against Rhode Island would have been played all the way on the other side of the country.

"Rhode Island was seeded higher," said Rip Cook, an MSU alum. "But back then you could bid to host the game, so because MSU could guarantee a sellout - the NCAA got all the gate money - they got to host."

And it meant Cook got to man ABC’s main sideline camera. The weather was perfect, which was lucky considering the winter Bozeman had been having.

"It snowed just about every day in November that year," Cook said. "The Thursday before the game, it dropped two feet of snow."

Montana State fans 1984
Montana State fans hold up a sign that reads 'Bobcats eat mutton' in an NCAA Division I-AA national semifinal against the Rhode Island Rams on Dec. 8, 1984.

That didn’t slow the prolific Rams offense, leading 20-12 to start the 4th. The equally pass-happy Cats scored to make it 20-18, but with five minutes to play, Rhode Island was sharpening the final stake, with the ball on the Cats 12.

"That’s when one of greatest plays in MSU history happened," Cook said. "Joe Roberts stepped in front of a pass at the three yard line."

"He almost got tackled at midfield. We were going crazy," Tracy said. "We score. My roommate to this day is still mad at me because I was jumping on his head the whole play and he didn’t see it."

Tracy’s roommate may not remember every detail, but Tracy does.

"I could tell you exactly where our seats were - we were in the student section about half way the stands at the 30-yard-line," Tracy said. "We were in college, so it was the biggest thing in the world to us."

Joe Roberts MSU 1984
Joe Roberts celebrates on his way into the endzone after returning a 4th quarter interception 97 yards to give the Montana State Bobcats the lead in an NCAA Division I-AA national semifinal win over Rhode Island on Dec. 8, 1984.

Many say the sound that erupted after the Pick-Six hasn’t been duplicated since.

"It went from no noise to just incredible pandemonium craziness," Tracy remembers. "We were dead, we were going to lose. And then, it was just incredible."

"Athletic Director Tom Parac was standing right behind me in the press box, and he started jumping up and down going crazy," Cook said. "I had to turn around and tell him to settle down. He laughed and said something to me I can’t repeat on television."

MSU beat Rhode Island on their way to the national championship. 37 years later, Tracy wouldn’t miss the chance to see it happen again. Look for his tailgate Saturday: he’ll be the one serving South Dakota State Jackrabbit stew.

"I went to Meat and Poultry Palace where you can buy a rabbit for $20.50," Tracy said. "I've never had a rabbit. My wife’s not too excited about letting me cook it in the house, but we’ll see how it goes.

"We'll probably have a sign at the tailgate."

Cook meanwhile will be at his Columbus home, cheering for a freshman QB from Butte, which stirs up another fond memory.

"In 1976, it was a sophomore from Butte who led them to the national championship, Paul Dennehy," he said. "So this game is already written. But we're still going to have to watch."

Kickoff is set for 12:00 p.m.