Jeff Choate predicted the need for a 60-minute effort in Macomb, Illinois leading up to his team’s game against Western Illinois on Saturday.
Montana State’s fourth-year head football coach went as far as to say, “This will be a game that defines us as a team” leading up to his team’s game at Western Illinois.
A week after taking down No. 12 Southeast Missouri State to vault into the Top 10 of the FCS polls for the first time in almost four years, the Bobcats needed the big plays provided by Logan Jones, the consistent steadiness against WIU by kicker Tristan Bailey and a salty effort by its defense to emerge with a 23-14 victory in front o 4,278 at Hanson Stadium.
“We had this game circled as a trap game from Day 1,” Choate said. “I knew it was going to be a tough trip, travel wasn’t going to be easy, environment was going to be tough, coming off an emotional win in ‘Gold Rush’. So I’m very pleased to walk out of here with a W.”
MSU sophomore Isaiah Ifanse did not play Saturday, opening the door for Jones to make his first start in two years. The fifth-year senior who missed all but four games last season (and maintained his redshirt in the process) is back and better than ever. He capped Montana State’s 10-play, 64-yard drive on its opening possession with a 14-yard touchdown.
On Montana State’s second possession of the second half, Jones ripped off a career-long 87-yard touchdown run, the third-longest in MSU history, to stake the visitors to a 17-7 lead with 8:31 left in the third quarter. Jones finished with a career-high 167 yards on two touchdowns, averaging 8.0 yards per carry on his 21 carries.
“Logan had a big day,” Choate said. “They packed the box on us and did a great job. Really, there was a lot of open access throws that we did not make. So we had to lean on our run game. And I thought Logan stepped up huge. I’m really proud of that young man. He did some tremendous things for us today.
“The good news is Isaiah is not going to be long term. We have to get him healthy and get him back. We are going to need them all.”
But Montana State had to hang on for the first non-conference road win of Choate’s four-year tenure. Western Illinois answered Jones’ long scoring rip with an eight-play, 75-yard drive capped by Jared Drake’s 3-yard touchdown plunge. That TD cut the margin to 17-14 with 4:21 left in the third quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, MSU cornerback Damien Washington snared the first interception of his career. The steady senior showed surprising shiftiness on a 90-yard return for a touchdown. But the Bobcats were called for holding, a theme that plagued the visitors all afternoon.
MSU ended up getting a Bailey field goal, his second of three on the day, from 41 yards out to give MSU a 20-14 lead. Bailey hit a 27-yard field goal to cap the Bobcats’ first possession of the second half and a 47-yarder for the final margin of victory.
“Tristan was big for us today,” Choate said. “We stalled in the red zone a couple of times and he came through with those kicks. When you have a two-score advantage at the end of a game, that puts a lot of pressure on an opposing team. You have to make plays. We can just make them make plays, we don’t have to press.”
In Montana State’s 26-23 victory over Western Illinois in MSU’s home opener last season, Bailey hit four field goals, including a 52-yarder at the first half buzzer and a 47-yarder that proved to be the final margin. Bailey earned FCS National Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his effort last season.
“I knew if I made that long field goal, we would be up two scores so I knew I had the responsibility to make it,” Bailey said. “It was into a stiff wind so I was ready to take the opportunity to make the field goal.”
Montana State’s second straight win included an array of mistakes, penalties and missed opportunities. Jones’ long touchdown atoned for his first half fumble that killed MSU’s early momentum. The Bobcats committed 12 penalties for a total of 92 yards, including two fourth-quarter pass interference penalties that helped extend drives.
“That was not an attractive football game,” Choate said. “We had to overcome a lot. You think when you have those momentum creating plays like a kick off return for a touchdown or an interception return for a touchdown called back, it has a deflating effect on your team when you see that flag on the ground. We penalized ourselves three or four different times on special teams today, very uncharacteristic. There was a lot of holding calls that we had to overcome.
“We put our defense in some bad situations and they rose to the challenge every single time.”
On the first play of the second half, Bauman hit senior captain Travis Jonsen for a 46-yard gain. But the offense stalled out, leading to a third down and two yards to go from the WIU 3-yard line. Redshirt freshman center Denver Krone snapped the ball off his own leg. Troy Andersen, playing quarterback for the play, lost eight yards on the play, leading to Bailey’s first 3-pointer from 27 yards out.
Bauman finished 16-of-30 for 149 yards. Jonsen caught six passes for 71 yards. Andersen finished with just seven carries for 14 yards and one tackle defensively. He appeared to come up limping midway through the second quarter but played limited snaps in the second half.
MSU managed 18 first downs and 343 yars of total offense. Western Illinois gained 337 but mustered only 56 rushing yards on 32 carries, or 1.8 yards per carry. The MSU defense also saw senior defensive end Bryce Sterk notched his fifth sack this season. Senior Jahque Alleyne helped thwart the first WIU drive with a sack on a safety blitz.
Montana State returns home for a game against Norfolk State for its final non-conference tune up of the season. Western Illinois is 0-3.