Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
MONTANA STATE BOBCATS
RECORD LAST SEASON: 5-6 overall, 5-3 in Big Sky Conference play
2018 non-conference record: 2-1
Big question: Can MSU translate revamped culture into tangible success?
In his three years at the helm at Montana State, head coach Jeff Choate has projected and preached his vision as articulately and convincingly as any head coach in the Big Sky Conference. After beginning his career with six straight Big Sky losses, Choate’s Bobcats have won seven of their last 10 games in league play entering Saturday’s 2018 opener at Portland State on Saturday.
Choate’s revamping of a once-proud program that posted 14 straight winning seasons and advanced to the FCS playoffs eight times between 2002 and 2014 has been incremental and rapid all at once. He now has the players entrenched in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Bobcats should have one of the best offensive lines in the Big Sky and arguably the best defensive front in the league. The roster has been fortified with a collection of young, aggressive and competitive defensive backs that help MSU diversify its play calling in defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak’s 3-4 scheme.
This last off-season, Choate’s third recruiting class again received rave reviews as he netted the Gatorade Player of the Year from Washington in running back Isaiah Ifanse and from Alaska in tight end Derryk Snell, not to mention at least eight other prospects with 3-star recruiting ratings. The Bobcats also added a collection of transfers, headlined by fierce pass rusher Bryce Sterk formerly of Washington and including former Virginia Tech safety Jahque Alleyne, former Indiana running back Tyler Natee and former four-star quarterback Travis Jonsen.
Despite the objective influx of talent, Montana State still has a glaring question mark that might be the most pressing question in the entire league: who will provide consistency at quarterback for an otherwise well-balanced, talented roster?
Offensive Player to Watch: Whoever plays quarterback
The saga has been chronicled ad nauseam but the dominoes that led Montana State to its current situation at quarterback have been many and seem to never end. When Dakota Prukop bested Jake Bleskin, Quinn McQueary and Tanner Roderick for the right to replace Bobcat legend DeNarius McGhee, Roderick eventually ended up a forgettable wide receiver and McQueary ended up an All-American at Montana Tech. When Choate took over entering Prukop’s senior year, the All-American bolted, graduate transferring to Oregon.
Choate dipped into the transfer ranks for the first time, signing former 4-star recruit Tyler Bruggman as a transfer from Scottsdale Community College who spent a year each at Washington State and Louisville as well. By the middle of the 2016 season, Bruggman lost his job to true freshman Chris Murray, who ended up the Big Sky Freshman of the Year.
Last season, Murray ripped the league to shreds with his legs, rushing for 1,140 yards and 10 touchdowns. But he completed barely 50 percent of his passes. Choate pitted him against redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig during the spring in a competition that also would’ve included Jonsen if not for the former Oregon and Riverside Community College transfer slipping on the ice in Bozeman and breaking his foot.
By June, MSU learned Murray would sit out the 2018 season to concentrate on his academics. Jonsen’s foot injury has not fully healed and his favoring the old injury has caused a lingering issue with his hamstring as well. To navigate player-run practices in the summer, MSU moved Troy Andersen to quarterback, the position the 2018 Big Sky Freshman of the Year played as a start at Beaverhead County High in Dillon. Andersen played running back and linebacker last season but with Rovig struggling with his confidence and Jonsen struggling with his health, Andersen won the quarterback job outright out of fall camp.
The bruising 6-foot-3, 230-pounder willed MSU to a 26-23 win over Western Illinois behind 145 yards and two touchdowns on the ground on the opener for both teams. But he suffered a broken left (non-throwing) hand that limited him to less than 10 plays each of the last two weeks.
In his place, Rovig and the Bobcat offense struggled mightily in the first half of a 45-14 loss at No. 3 South Dakota State. The Bobcat offense managed just one first half first down and moved the sticks just six times overall. Last week against Wagner, Rovig was a revelation. He threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns while the balanced Bobcat offense piled up 556 yards of offense in a 47-24 victory. Still, this week Choate said the most pressing decision facing the MSU coaching staff is deciding who to start at quarterback as the Bobcats enter conference play.
Defensive Player to Watch: Tyrone Fa’anono, senior defensive end
Sterk is the flashy play maker that will likely pile up the glamorous numbers — the 6-foot-5, 255-pound physical specimen enters league play with three sacks and six tackles for loss already — but Fa’anono’s ability to set the edge, hold the point of attack, rush the passer from a power position and set the tone for the Montana State defense will be crucial if the strides of the unit under Choate and Gregorak are to continue.
The former 3-star recruit broke into the starting line up as a true freshman in 2014. He overtook heralded but controversial fellow freshman Garrett Marino midway through that playoff season. Since that point, Fa’anono has either played with injury, lost time to injury, played out of position or a combination of all three. Now he’s finally back playing his strong end position, a spot the 6-foot-3, 280-pounder is suited perfectly for and a position he has shown flashes of NFL potential.
In MSU’s season-opening win, Fa’anono wore out Western Illinois’ offensive tackles, leading to two fourth quarter sacks by Sterk. Fa’anono is third on the Bobcats with 17 total tackles, including a pair of sacks.
Senior tight end Wilson Brott: “If we would’ve scored 12 more points, we would’ve been an 8-3 team,” Brott said. “The work we put in during the off-season, spring ball, in the weight room in the winter, here all summer, we are on a good path to break through and score those 12 points, win those close games and overall have a great season.”
Conference opener: Montana State at Portland State, 3 p.m. MST