BOZEMAN — The Jackrabbits came here an overwhelming favorite, the highest-ranked non-conference opponent to ever step foot in Bobcat Stadium. No. 4 South Dakota State left with a victory simply because the host Bobcats shot themselves in the foot repeatedly.
From an under-thrown ball in the first half that would have been a sure touchdown but instead resulted in an interception to two missed field goals by a previously steady senior to MSU’s old offensive line coach calling a fake field goal for SDSU, the missed opportunities out-weighted the massive progress made by upstart Montana State.
Despite the best performance of sophomore quarterback Chris Murray’s young career, a gritty defensive lockdown after halftime led by senior captain linebacker Mac Bignell and an offense that found its rhythm for the first time in the Jeff Choate era, No. 4 South Dakota State left Bobcat Stadium with a 31-27 victory here in front of 19,817 here on Saturday night.
“This one stings without question. You don’t get many opportunities like this. That’s the highest ranked team to ever come in here out of conference. It was an opportunity for us to really have a program-defining win. It’s hollow. This is a hollow feeling right now because our guys know the opportunity was there.”
MSU’s offense exploded for the first time under Choate as Murray transformed from a weak-armed but strong-willed teenager with wheels into a legitimate dual-threat quarterback firing strike after strike.
Murray, who rushed for more than 100 yards on five occasions last season but threw for that many yards just three times in 2016, blew all his previous best passing marks out of the water. Following his first-quarter interception, he showed improved poise and impressive velocity on his throws. He completed 23-of-42 passes for 311 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for 107 yards on 17 carries to lead an MSU ground attack that averaged 5.0 yards per carry.
“We responded well as an offense,” Murray said. “Once we got rolling and once the offensive line started playing, they gave me enough time to throw the ball and the receivers made plays today.”
MSU senior captain Mitch Herbert caught nine balls for 111 yards and two touchdowns, his first 100-yard game since Western Oregon last fall. Junior Jabarri Johnson shined in his Bobcat Stadium debut, catching eight passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns. His six-yard touchdown on a back-shoulder fade with less than minute left in the first half marked MSU’s first touchdown of 2017 after nearly six full quarters without a score.
“A year ago, I don’t know if we fight like we did tonight,” Choate said. “We didn’t have the ability to open things up (last year). Herby and Jabarri had great nights for us. Chris did a tremendous job of operating the offense. When we needed him to use his feet, he used his feet. He got out of bounds at opportune times. He was an accurate passer. He completed the shots we took down the field. I think he really too a huge step forward tonight for us.”
Murray’s previous career high for passing yards and passing touchdowns came when he threw for 199 yards and three touchdowns against Weber State in his first career start last season.
“I thought he did a phenomenal job throwing the ball,” longtime Jackrabbit head coach John Stiegelmeier said after his 138th career win. “We couldn’t get a pass rush on him because we are not Washington State. I thought their o-line did a tremendous job for him. And when we did have him covered, the son of a gun can run like a deer. I wanted to find him at the end and wish him the best because he’s a fantastic football player.”
Murray’s first touchdown pass came on a strike down the east sideline to Johnson, who got behind the cornerback in front of him for a 41-yard touchdown. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound transfer from American River JC’s second touchdown cut the SDSU lead to 24-14 and capped a 7-play, 75-yard drive.
Murray fired a bullet behind a defensive back into Herbert’s sure hands to cap an 11-play, 86-yard drive and cut the lead to three. That drive included a fourth down conversion run by Edward Vander on a try from deep in MSU territory. On the very next play, Murray ripped off a 31-yard gain before being blasted out of bounds. He sprang up pounding is chest as the stadium roared. He then ensured his team finished the drive with perhaps the best throw of his young career to Herbert.
“When we got that first down, I knew we were going to score that drive for sure,” Murray said.
“Football is a game of momentum,” Choate said.
Partially due to the first of two missed field goals by senior Luke Daly, partly because of Murray’s feebly thrown interception and mostly because of SDSU quarterback Taryn Christion’s clutch play with his arm and legs, Montana State dug itself a 17-0 hole in its home opener. Christion scored both his rushing touchdowns to cap long, sustained scoring drives on SDSU’s first two possessions.
But MSU rallied from the deficit to trail 24-21 entering the fourth quarter. When Murray hit true freshman Lance McCutcheon in stride for a 59-yard gain into SDSU territory, then whipped a perfectly thrown dart to sophomore Kevin Kassis for a 30-yard touchdown, it appeared the Bobcats would bury the Jackrabbits with a wave of momentum.
“That (penalty) was devastating,” Choate said. “I think everyone in the stadium thought after Lance made that play, ‘here we go, we are going to score and take the lead.’ That’s just about being a mature team. We have guys out there making plays and now we have to be smart, finish drives and take points when they are given to us.”
South Dakota State’s next drive entered Bobcat territory but was halted thanks to a pair of huge tackles for loss by Bignell, including one on NFL-bound tight end Dallas Goedert, bringing the SDSU field goal unit onto the field. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound senior caught 11 passes for 132 yards Saturday.
Jason Eck, Montana State’s offensive line coach during the 2015 season and now in his second season at SDSU, went to Stiegelmeier and called a fake field goal. Chase Vinatieri, an all-state receiver in high school and the nephew of future Hall of Fame kicker Adam Vinatieri, took the pitch, made two moves in the open field and sprinted his way to pay dirt for what proved to be the game-sealing touchdown from 31 yards out.
“We had that call in all game and we were waiting for it,” Vinatieri said. “When they called it, we knew we would execute it.
“We knew early in the game it was there,” Stiegelmeier said. “Coach Eck coached here and it was his call, his design. The huge part of that deal was getting some yards where it seemed real and we were kicking a field goal. A couple of plays made the difference.”
Choate, a heralded special teams coach during his 11 years as an FBS assistant, gave praise to SDSU for the fake.
Trailing 31-21 after the fake field goal, Montana State took over with 4:26 left. Murray engineered yet another march down the field basically unseen in the first six starts of his Bobcat career. He converted a fourth down with a bullet to Kassis to enter the red-zone with 2:15 left, then found Herbert for a 26-yard touchdown to cut the lead to a single score.
Yet another special teams blunder bit the ‘Cats. On the ensuing extra point attempt, South Dakota State blocked the PAT, making it a four-point game.
Choate called an onside kick, Daly executed it and the ball trickled down the Bobcat sideline. Herbert tiptoed the white line and pitched the ball back to the field of play into a teammate’s hands. But the side judge ruled him out of bounds, a call Choate said was correct and “very good on his part” following the game.
South Dakota State took over at midfield. Bignell, who finished with nine tackles and two tackles for loss, ripped the ball straight out of SDSU running back Brady Mengarelli’s hands. The authority behind the strip caused for the ball to bounce off Bignell’s chest and right back below Mengarelli’s belly despite a host of Bobcats near by.
“I should of had had it,” said Bignell, who moved atop MSU’s career list for forced fumbles in a career with nine during the play. “I had it in my hands.”
MSU forced a stop and a punt. Kassis fielded the fair catch inside the MSU 15 with 50 seconds to play. A Murray scramble and a completion to Kassis that finished in bounds ate up 35 of the 50 remaining seconds. Murray completed a first down pass, then spiked the ball with eight seconds to play.
His final throw resulted in a 12-yard gain for Herbert, who heaved a lateral to Kassis, who tossed to Logan Jones who pitched back to Murray. The MSU quarterback threw a floater sideways to Justin Paige for an 11-yard loss and MSU’s second straight loss to start 2017.
“We are heart broken,” Bignell said. “We played hard, gave it all we got. We had opportunities but those guys are good. They are ranked No. 4 in the country for a reason. We gave it all we got and that wasn’t good enough today.”
Montana State has the next week off for an early bye — MSU finishes its non-conference schedule the first Saturday of November against Kennesaw State in Bozeman — before taking on reigning Big Sky champion North Dakota in Grand Forks.
“I’m glad we have a week to prepare but I’m angry, I’m disappointed,” Choate said. “Felt like we put ourselves in a position to win a game and we refused to take advantage of that. We have to take that step in terms of maturing.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.