The 1984 Montana State football team was used to overcoming obstacles.
In 1983, it finished its season 1-10. To open their 1984 season, the Bobcats went 2-2 in their first four games, including a 22-6 loss against Idaho State at home on Sept. 29. Then came the run of all runs to finish off the 1984 season — the Bobcats won their final seven games to finish out the regular season. They added an eighth straight when they beat Arkansas State, 31-14, in the Division I-AA quarterfinal.
So it was no surprise that in the semifinal against Rhode Island, the Bobcats were once again facing a large obstacle. The Rams had a 20-12 lead entering the fourth quarter. Even after Montana State scored to make it 20-18, the Rams took the ball down the field and had it at the Bobcats' 12-yard line with 5 minutes to play. A Rhode Island win seemed imminent.
But then on 3rd-and-6, Montana State safety Joe Roberts stepped in front of a pass intended for Rams receiver Daemon Reilly and intercepted it, returning it 97 yards for the pick-six.
"[Rhode Island] had run that same inside route four or five times before," Roberts said of the play to The Missoulian back on Dec. 15, 1984. "I took a gamble by disregarding [Rams All-America tight end Brian Forster], but sometimes you have to go with your instincts."
Roberts' instincts paid off in a big way. Not only did that give Montana State the lead, but the play sent Reno H. Sales Stadium in Bozeman, Montana into bedlam. The Bobcats players piled into the snow behind the end zone as the fans shook the stadium seats around them.
In a MontanaSports.com piece last month, reporter Casey Conlon noted that the massive roar of the crowd after the interception has yet to happen since.
"It went from noise to just incredible craziness," Derrick Tracy, a junior at Montana State in 1984, recalled to MontanaSports.com recently. We were dead, we were going to lose. And then, it was just incredible."
The play became an instant classic. It helped that the Bobcats never looked back, beating the Rams, 32-20, and then defeating Louisiana Tech, 19-6, in the Division I-AA championship game.
Roberts being the one to etch out a large spot in Montana State history wasn't something many followers of the team expected to see happen.
"Roberts, perhaps the least flamboyant Bobcat defender, was the last person most fans would have picked to win the big game with a school-record 97-yard interception return," Rial Cummings, a reporter covering the game for the Missoulian, wrote a few days after the triumphant win. "Going into the contest, he had intercepted only one pass all season, two in his four-year career."
THE BIG GAME: Follow the FCS national championship game this Saturday
Even Roberts himself was a bit uneasy with his newfound fame. After all, this was a player who after scoring the incredible touchdown, didn't spike the ball or pull anything gaudy in celebration.
"Everyone asks me about The Interception," he told the Missoulian at the time. "That's what they call it. Everyone says they'll be calling it that years from now. I don't know...it's a weird feeling."
Whatever they call it in 2021, the play is still fresh in the minds of those who witnessed it.
"I could tell you exactly where our seats were," Tracy said. "We were in the student section about halfway up the stands at the 30-yard line. We were in college, so it was the biggest thing in the world to us."
Thirty-seven years later, Montana State has another biggest thing in the world coming: the FCS championship game this Saturday against North Dakota State.
Although the game is scheduled to be played at Toyota Stadium in Frisco Texas, you can bet many of those diehard Bobcats fans who witnessed The Interception will show up to watch their beloved Montana State battle for another championship.