BOZEMAN — As the final seconds ticked off a clock Weber State owned all Saturday afternoon, WSU offensive coordinator Fesi Sitake turned his back to the action on the field and yelled at the rabid Bobcat fans who persistently pestered him.
“You can all go home now,” Sitake yelled.
As Stefan Cantwell took the final knee to seal a physical, hard-fought Big Sky Conference victory, Brady May turned to the crowd and screamed, “You can get me some purple seats in here because we just owned this field.”
In certain aspects — factors like special teams execution and the ability to convert first downs in crucial situations — Weber State’s bruising fullback was spot on.
No. 18 Weber State converted 9-of-16 third downs, helping the Wildcats possess the ball for 40 minutes and a second, including all but eight minutes in the second half en rout to a hard-fought 25-17 win in front of 19,557 waterlogged spectators at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“There’s no better feeling than coming on the road into someone else’s house and getting a win,” Weber State All-American tight end Andrew Vollert after notching a game-high five catches for 48 yards on a day primarily owned by the defenses. “The most satisfying thing to me is a rowdy road crowd that gets quiet. We accomplished that today and that’s a great feeling.”
Weber’s fourth win in five games this season — WSU’s lone loss came at Pac 12 Cal — came despite MSU making the Wildcats work for each of their scores. But the team Montana State head coach Jeff Choate calls the Big Sky Conference’s best continued its march toward Weber’s ultimate goal by moving to 2-0 in league play.
“This is a huge win and we knew this was going to be just like it was today,” Weber State fourth-year head coach Jay Hill said. “It was loud, a great atmosphere so to come up here and win is very satisfying. South Dakota State struggled up here and it’s a great venue. Coach Choate has done a hell of a job with that football team.”
Montana State had a hard time converting in key situations or forging any sort of momentum. The Bobcats could not find the run game that gave the team a dominant win at North Dakota last week, instead struggling at home on Saturday.
“This game was pretty simple: on the defensive side of the ball, we couldn’t get off the field on third downs,” Choate said after falling to 5-10 in his career. “We played a lot of snaps in the second half in particularly and our tackling started to fade. That was the tale of the tape on the defensive side of the ball. Our guys continued to play hard. We didn’t have some calls go our way and that’s the nature of the game. We kept fighting and that gave us a chance at the end.”
During fall camp, Choate frequently stated he and the MSU coaches simply wanted to “survive September”. Montana State’s young, potential-laden roster has shown flashes of brilliance — a dynamic second half in which the passing game reawakened in a 31-27 loss to No. 4 South Dakota State and a 341-yard rushing performance in a 49-21 decimation of defending Big Sky champion North Dakota are prime examples — but the Bobcats have made crucial mistakes at crucial moments to close the season’s first month with a 1-3 record.
Those same miscues held true on this homecoming Saturday. From MSU’s inability to manufacture touchdowns despite two early trips into the red-zone to blown tackles in key situations by star defenders Mac Bignell and Bryson McCabe to a detrimental personal foul penalty that extended Weber’s game-sealing final possession, the Bobcats continue to show their inexperience with the meat of the league schedule still to come.
“I think Weber State is the best team in the league at this time,” Choate said. “That may change as the season goes on. But I think Jay has done a great job. That’s not the No. 20th team in the country. Let’s be clear on that. That’s the best FCS football team we have played. Period. They will continue to show well in the Big Sky Conference.”
The loss to Weber caps a challenging stretch that saw Montana State play four ranked teams in five weeks. The Bobcats went toe to toe with SDSU, the reigning Missouri Valley Conference champions and a serious contender for the FCS national title. MSU did what it wanted and controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in Grand Forks in the win over UND.
Montana State even looked respectable in a 31-0 loss at Washington State, a performance that looks even more impressive given the No. 16 Cougs’ 30-27 upset of reigning Rose Bowl champion No. 5 USC on Friday night. But a 1-3 record has the Bobcats wanting more.
“It’s been a grind,” Montana State sophomore Derek Marks said after notching two tackles for loss and a sack among his six tackles. “We’ve grown a lot through the last month. We haven’t finished. We are going to keep working until we finish and even when we do, we are going to keep working. We want to go on a run, we want to win the Big Sky. We haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
Although mistakes and missed opportunities characterized the day, MSU still had a chance late in the fourth quarter. With Weber clinging to a 22-17 lead, back-to-back tackles for loss junior Tyrone Fa’anono set up a third and long for the visitors. Bignell’s knifing tackle on a screen pass would’ve brought out WSU’s punt team if not for a senseless roughing the passer penalty by Marks.
“Bad decisions and stupid penalties on my part really hurt that and that’s how long drives continue,” Marks said. “It was a bad decision on my part. I take full responsibility for that. Bad decision.”
Nine plays later, Weber kicker Trey Tuttle banged home his fourth field goal of the day to put WSU up by eight. The Bobcats had 2:29 to try to manufacture the game-tying score. Three straight runs plus a personal foul gave MSU a first down. After Kawika Tupuola sniffed out a screen pass to Logan Jones for a three-yard loss, MSU burned its final timeout. A holding penalty and two incompletions by sophomore quarterback Chris Murray — he finished just 8-of-22 passes for 123 yards — sealed Weber’s second straight league victory.
“’We’ve said this 1,000 times, but we have to finish,” Murray said with a sigh. “We are going to keep saying it until we do finish a big game like this.”
Weber State began the second quarter with a 16-play, 69-yard drive that resulted in a 28-yard field goal by Tuttle, the first of four short field goals. WSU’s standout true freshman extended his streak to 10 straight makes to begin his career.
The long drive foreshadowed things to come. Weber executed five drives of between 10 and 16 plays, including a pair of third quarter drives that resulted in its only two touchdowns, keeping Montana State’s occasionally explosive offense on the sideline. The 13-0 third frame — Tuttle shanked an extra point off the upright — came as a result of Weber’s control of the line of scrimmage and allowed Montana State only nine offensive plays in the quarter.
“We were really trying to win on first and second down,” Vollert said. “The play calling was great. The OC, Fesi Sitake, game plans the heck out of people and he knows what he’s doing.”
Montana State’s first half was characterized by big plays, thwarted opportunities and missed field goals. Sophomore Edward Vander ripped off a career-long 43-yard run on MSU’s first play from scrimmage to ignite the sellout crowd. On the next play, WSU’s Xequille Henry nearly ripped Mitch Herbert’s helmet off with an egregious facemask penalty. MSU ran a wide receiver reverse play that would’ve resulted in a sure Kevin Kassis touchdown if not for a missed block by senor captain left tackle Dylan Mahoney. The Bobcats settled for a 24-yard Gabe Peppenger field goal to take an early lead.
Marks sparked the Bobcat defense with a tackle for loss on Weber’s first play of the game and a sack on WSU’s first third down try. Weber punted. Murray’s second completion resulted in a 33-yard gain on a sweet jump ball catch by Jabarri Johnson to get MSU into the red zone. Four plays later, Peppenger lined up for a 34-yard field goal but his attempt sailed wide right.
Including now banished senior Luke Daly’s 0-for-3 season, the Peppenger miss pushed MSU to 1-of-6 on its field goals this fall.
“We missed two golden opportunities in the red zone,” Choate said. “Those need to be touchdowns against a good football team.
“As soon as that happened, I knew that was going to come back to hurt us. If we are playing someone who’s’ not as talented, not as physical, not as good a team as Weber State, you might be able to overcome some of that. Heck, you just can’t waste those opportunities.”
After a third Tuttle field goal with 37 seconds left in the half, Montana State looked like it would run out the clock and head to halftime down 9-3. After two straight run plays, the Bobcats jumped into tempo. An incomplete passes caused Weber’s defensive backs to celebrate excessively only to not get lined up in time. Murray took advantage, hitting true freshman Lance McCutcheon in stride for a 64-yard touchdown run to give MSU a one-point lead and momentum entering the locker room.
“We have a play where we go to it three times in a row as fast as we can,” Murray said. “If we don’t hit it the first, second time, the third time is a play to convert the third down. If we hit it the first or second time, it’s usually a big play.”
Weber’s opening drive of the second half lasted a second shy of six minutes and included junior running back Treshawn Garrett’s most production of the day. The speedster — who tied an all-time Big Sky record with a 98-yard touchdown in Weber’s 41-3 win over UC Davis last week — rushed four times for 20 yards on the 66-yard march. Garrett’s 11-yard reception set up Kevin Smith’s six-yard touchdown run.
On MSU’s ensuing possession, a 20-yard Murray scramble — the sophomore finished with a game-high 123 yards rushing — served as one of just four Montana State third down conversions in 12 attempts. Jered Padmos’ punt went 27 yards, one of three punts in four tries that went less than 38 yards as the poor day for MSU’s specialists continued.
On the next WSU possession, Cantwell, who threw for 206 yards and rushed for 49, engineered an 11-play, 69-yard drive that included a 25-yard scramble in the face of a missed seemingly certain sack by Bignell, MSU’s All-American linebacker. Three plays later, Smith followed May through the hole and the fullback blasted MSU linebacker Brayden Konkol before being stopped a foot shy of the end-zone. Cantwell punched the touchdown in to give Weber a commanding 22-10 lead with 90 seconds left in the third quarter.
“Our ability to control the ball was huge,” Hill said. “We ran the ball well at times. Some of those conversions Stefan Cantwell were absolutely enormous.”
Montana State finally got a shot offensively early in the fourth quarter but needed trickery once again to get on the board. Murray completed a 24-yard strike to Johnson to spark the drive. Two plays later, Vander ripped off a 24-yard run after being largely absent since MSU’s first possession. Murray’s 11-yard rush served a MSU’s last third down conversion of the day, giving MSU a first down from the Weber 25.
Murray then threw to Kassis in the flat after a pre-snap motion. Kassis stopped on a dime and threw back toward the Bobcat sideline to Murray on a designed screen. He followed a convoy of blockers that included Mahoney and senior guard Caleb Gillis into the end-zone for a 25-yard touchdown, MSU’s last score of the day
Weber State’s attention now turns to next week’s home game against in-state rival Southern Utah, who is coming off a bye. Montana State will play a second straight home game against Portland State, who fell 45-33 to Montana at home on Saturday.
“I think we are a pretty good football team,” Choate said. “I don’t think we are very mature right now. We certainly made some mistakes that cost us in inopportune moments. I think our kids know we can be good. You never want to lose. But when you go toe to toe with the opponents we’ve played, I think our kids do garner some confidence out of it that we can do this. And I think we will.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.