Big Sky Conference

Bobcats hope to carry momentum south to Flagstaff


Kane Ioane kept it simple and the Bobcat defense performed.

All of last week, Montana State’s first-year defensive coordinator fielded questions about his defense. Was he concerned after giving up 55 points in a loss to Eastern Washington? Would 2015 be a replay of a 2014 that saw the defensive unit struggle mightily? Could Montana State remedy its tackling issues after giving up 16 plays of more than 29 yards?

On Saturday against Cal Poly, Montana State’s defense earned three stops to begin the game, helping MSU jolt out to a 21-0 lead. After a brief Cal Poly burst that resulted in a halftime lead of 31-21, the Bobcat defense came up with a collection of crucial stops in the second half, including fourth-down open field tackles to force a turnover on downs by senior defensive tackle Nate Bignell and redshirt freshman linebacker Grant Collins.

MSU defensive coordinator Kane Ioane

MSU defensive coordinator Kane Ioane

“From Game 2 to Game 3, we saw drastic improvement in a lot of areas, specifically winning one on one battles as far as getting off blocks and making tackles in the open field,” Ioane said on Tuesday. “That was fun to see. We still, assignment-wise, execution-wise, we are still not where I want us to be. We can continue to improve in that department but overall, we are doing a good job of continuing to emphasize the things that we talk about week in and week out: playing fast, physical, being assignment-sound and finishing.”

Following the 45-28 win, senior captain Taylor Sheridan talked about how the simplification of the scheme aided in the young unit being able to play fast and fly to the football against Cal Poly’s triple option offense. This week, Montana State faces off against Northern Arizona, a more traditional spread attack featuring an emphasis on running inside zone plays to set up play-action passes.

“It would be nice if we could survive with one call every single week,” Ioane said. “Unfortunately, we can’t do that. NAU is a more multiple offense than we saw against Cal Poly. But at the same time, we can stay with that same philosophy of trying to be as simple as we possibly can to allow our players to learn their assignments Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday to the best of their ability to then on Saturday be able to just play free, let their minds go, play fast and play physical.”

Several young players saw improvements in production on Saturday. Collins had his best game of his young Bobcat career, notching nine tackles and keeping his feet with much more efficacy than his first two outings. Sophomore safety Khari Garcia made 12 tackles, including nine solo stops, meeting the ball carrier at or near the line of scrimmage at multiple occasions. Garcia and sophomore outside linebacker Mac Bignell’s ability to adjust on the outside and get through blocks help the Bobcats limit Cal Poly’s pitch element of the triple option.

Up front, the Bobcats were able to rotate heavily. Collins and Will linebacker Fletcher Collins were frequently spelled by the sophomore duo of Marcus Tappan and Blake Braun. Up front, Sheridan bumped out to end while redshirt freshman Tucker Yates made his first start at nose tackle. Nate Bignell, senior Connor Thomas, and junior Joe Naotala also played prevalently on the inside. Sophomore Devin Jeffries made his first career start at Bandit end in place of junior Zach Hutchins, a move made to get Jeffries’ 250-pound frame on the field instead of Hutchins, who weights 215.

Starting linebackers Mac Bignell, Grant Collins & Fletcher Collins all get in on a tackle of Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown

Starting linebackers Mac Bignell, Grant Collins & Fletcher Collins all get in on a tackle of Cal Poly quarterback Chris Brown

“As a whole defensively, we played a lot of guys, got a lot of experience in a big-game atmosphere and they stepped up and rose to the occasion,” Ioane said. “But it started on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. It wasn’t just on Saturday that they just showed up and made plays. Those guys had great weeks of practice and we are going to continue to do so to be able to rotate guys, keep guys fresh while we rely on some of these young guys who continuously get more experience as the weeks go and the games go.”

On Saturday, the Bobcats face a Northern Arizona squad searching to get back on track. The Lumberjacks started with two straight wins, including a 34-28 victory at No. 24 Stephen F. Austin to begin the season. NAU’s second win was a 41-5 home victory over Division II New Mexico Highlands. Since then, the Lumberjacks have suffered a pair of physical losses.

Two weeks ago, NAU found itself trailing FBS No. 16 Arizona just 14-13. But true freshman quarterback Case Cookus went down with an ankle injury and the Wildcats avalanched the visitors in Tuscon. Arizona piled up 499 yards rushing and 792 yards of total offense in a 77-13 win. Last week, NAU went to Montana as the Grizzlies celebrated homecoming and the 20th anniversary of the 1995 national title team. Montana built a 16-0 lead and held on for a 23-14 win thanks to eight sacks of a hobbled Cookus, including four by UM senior defensive end Tyrone Holmes.

“Their front kept great pressure on us and frustrated our quarterback,” NAU 18th-year head coach Jerome Souers said. “We got out of rhythm in that Arizona game and that was a tough one to recover from, then you go up to Montana and hope you have some confidence but we didn’t have it. I thought the difference was in their front. Their defensive line and linebackers played really well.”

NAU quarterback Case Cookus evades the pocket against Montana. (NAU athletics/ Mike Bashor)

NAU quarterback Case Cookus evades the pocket against Montana. (NAU athletics/ Mike Bashor)

Montana added to its eight sacks by holding NAU senior Casey Jahn and the rushing attack in check. NAU rushed for 79 yards on 46 carries (1.7 yards per carry) as Jahn finished with 87 yards on 24 totes.

Montana built a 10-0 lead thanks to a few big plays. Quarterback Chad Chalich hit senior Jamaal Jones for a 56-yard gain and John Nguyen ripped off a 22-yard touchdown on the next play to begin the game. NAU senior Marcus Alford fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Montana turned it into a field goal. All told, Montana notched five plays of more than 20 yards as Jones finished with 113 yards receiving, Ellis Henderson finished with 95 yards receiving and Chalich threw for 279 yards and a touchdown with 4:05 left to seal the win.

“It was a tremendous game,” Ash said. “Northern Arizona played a different kind of defense than what we’ve seen. They’re a man-to-man team and they take their chances. It was a very exciting game until the fourth quarter when Montana put it away.”

The Lumberjacks will try to rebound in Montana State’s first trip to Flagstaff since 2010.

“Coming home will help,” Souers said. “We were gone three of our first four games. Being home will help with the overall energy. We have to fundamentally get better. Our offensive line play has to improve. Our consistency on defense has to approve. We are making progress but we aren’t seeing it in the win-loss yet. We close on offense but we have to, bottom line, have better protection for our quarterback and we have to be able to run it better. We have the ideal scheme but we are just not executing it.”

Following the win, Montana State head coach Rob Ash called the effort one of the best complete team efforts in his nine seasons at Montana State. His 67th win in 100 outings also snapped an eight-game MSU losing streak to Cal Poly and gave Ash his first win over the Mustangs.

“I feel the same way today after watching the tape,” Ash said. “The offense played a pretty clean game; only had one penalty, scored very effectively if you take away the first part of the first half and last drive of the game, we scored on seven of eight otherwise. That was outstanding. Defensively, I thought we were very assignment sound against a very difficult scheme and we tackled well.”

MSU running back Chad Newell dives for a touchdown vs. Cal Poly

MSU running back Chad Newell dives for a touchdown vs. Cal Poly

Montana State’s offense has had no problems in the early going. After a slow start against Division II Fort Lewis, MSU scored on seven straight possessions to bury the Skyhawks, 45-14. Against Eastern Washington the next week, the Bobcats ran 104 plays, rolled up 718 yards and 40 first downs, rushed for 365 and scored 50 points. Last week, the Bobcats again broke 600 yards as Dakota Prukop threw for 399 yards and three scores while junior Chad Newell rushed 19 times for 113 yards and three more touchdowns.

“The players are the ones on the field who need to execute and we have some weapons and that’s what makes us tough to stop,” MSU third-year offensive coordinator Cramsey said.

“We are doing some good stuff that can mess with defenses and force them to get their eyes places their eyes are not supposed to be, but when it comes down to it, the guys out there running around making the plays are the ones who make this scheme work.”

The last time Montana State played at the Walkup Skydome, the Lumberjacks were the first to find the key to slowing down a DeNarius McGhee-run offense. The Bobcats burst out to a 5-1 start thanks to McGhee, a freshman at the time, and his ability to operate Brian Wright’s offense. But the Lumberjacks brought pressure from all angles, sacking McGhee four times and hurrying him 12 more times. NAU forced two fumbles and limited Montana State to 16 yards rushing and 123 yards overall in the 34-7 Northern Arizona win.

Since taking over at Montana State, Ash is 1-1 in Flagstaff with a 25-23 win in 2008. None of the current Bobcats have ever played at the Walkup Skydome.

“I think that’s an interesting fact,” Ash said. “None of our players and a lot of our coaches have not ever been there. There are very few of us that have been. We’re going to walk through when we get there. We don’t always go to the opposing team’s venue, but we are going to do that in this case. We’ll get out there and get a feel for it and try to get accustom to what really almost amounts to a non-conference game, or it feels like it because we haven’t been there in so long.

Photos by Brooks Nuanez unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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