BOZEMAN, Montana — Montana State’s fearsome defense showed glimmers of what they would become early on in the 2019 season.
The Bobcats pummeled Southeast Missouri State senior quarterback Daniel Santacaterina into submission on the way to a convincing 38-17 win over SEMO in MSU’s home opener. MSU gave up less than 250 yards of total offense to one of the best offensive squads out of the Ohio Valley Conference.
The MSU defensive unit held up their part of the bargain as the rest of the team struggled mightily against hapless Western Illinois the following week. MSU held WIU to 56 yards rushing and just 1.8 yards per carry.
Montana State gave up a season-high 251 (other than the 255 Texas Tech accumulated in MSU’s opener in Big XII country) against Cal Poly’s triple option. The ‘Cats gave up 3.4 yards per rush that evening in San Luis Obispo and tallied eight tackles for loss.
Even in MSU’s first of two straight losses, a 34-21 defeat on its homecoming to upstart Sac State, the Bobcats stuffed 2018 first-team All-Big Sky Conference running back Elijah Dotson, allowing him to tally just 28 yards on 16 carries, 1.8 yards per rush. Sac managed 118 yards that afternoon in a game where the field position favored the Hornets throughout because of mistakes and poor execution by the hosts.
The Montana State defense really turned the corner at North Dakota, allowing just 60 yards rushing, 2.3 yards per carry and 316 yards of total offense. But an anemic offense that could not function led to MSU losing its second straight game, 16-12 in Grand Forks.
The Bobcats have not lost since. And a defense that has steadily crescendoed — peaking by giving up zero yards rushing last week in a 24-10 win over No. 14 Austin Peay — has been crucial in helping No. 5 Montana State earn its first berth in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs since 1984.
“I hope they can continue getting to another level,” Montana State fourth-year head coach Jeff Choate said ahead of his team’s semifinal game against No. 1 and undefeated North Dakota State at the Fargodome on Saturday. “I don’t think you ever stay the same. You either get better or you get worse. I think our guys are hungry. I think we are pretty good on defense. But you are only as good as your last performance. We have to go take on a big challenge, a different challenge this week.”
Since the loss to Sac State, Montana State has given up 14.1 points per game. Of the 99 points surrendered by MSU, 86 were actually allowed by the Bobcat defense. Of those 86 points, 28 came without Montana State’s starting defense on the field. The 58 meaningful points equal 8.3 points per game allowed.
Three plays — a wide receiver pass that resulted in North Dakota’s only touchdown, a Marcus Knight touchdown that capped a 36-yard scoring drive by Montana set up by a 60-yard kickoff return by Malik Flowers and a 58-yard Juwan Green touchdown on the third play of the game in MSU’s second-round playoff game against Albany — are outliers. Remove those three touchdowns from the equation and Montana State’s defense has been downright suffocating.
Removing those 21 points from the sample size means Montana State has surrendered 5.2 points per game over its last seven.
“It shows you how teams evolve,” Choate said. “If we could turn back time, I don’t think the North Dakota game would’ve been as close as it was and I don’t think we would’ve lost it. But we can’t.
“And I’m happy how we are playing right now.”
The long touchdown to Green, a burner with NFL potential who led the FCS with 17 touchdown catches this season, showed Montana State’s ability to flush mistakes and lock in at an elite level. For the next 50 minutes and eight seconds, MSU gave up 103 yards on 43 plays, 2.4 yards per snap. The Bobcats scored 47 straight points to win going away.
Two weeks earlier, Montana State fell behind 17-14 late in the third quarter. From that point, MSU allowed 22 yards and one first down over the final 20 minutes of the game. That stonewalling helped spark the Bobcat offense. MSU finished the game with 177 yards on 31 plays, scoring 13 straight points on the way to a 27-17 victory over the defending Big Sky champions.
“We have taken the next step like we wanted to do talking all the way back to fall camp,” Montana State senior defensive tackle, senior captain and All-Big Sky selection Derek Marks said. “We lost those seniors last year but we have progressed and improved each week. We are playing good football right now. We just need to keep improving week to week.”
If you remove the Texas Tech game and the Cal Poly game from the sample size, the Bobcats are giving up 80 yards per game on the ground. Over the last seven games, Montana State has given up 59.5 yards per game rushing and that’s with UC Davis All-American running back Ulonzo Gilliam rushing for 133 yards.
Norfolk State sophomore speedster Kevin Johnson is only other rusher to surpass the century mark against Montana State this season. He had 112 yards on an afternoon Norfolk finished with 108 yards as a team. And Johnson needed an 84-yard touchdown run to do it.
The Bobcats have stuffed the run because of one of the nation’s elite defensive lines playing at an elite level in front of a much-improved linebacker group backed by a pair of the most talented safeties in the country.
Senior safety and captain Brayden Konkol (57 tackles, three interceptions) and fifth-year senior inside linebacker Josh Hill (57 tackles, seven tackles for loss) each earned first-team All-Big Sky honors this fall. Senior defensive end Bryce Sterk (15 sacks, 19 tackles for loss) and Marks (15.5 tackles for loss) each earned second-team All-Big SKy honors. Junior defensive tackle Chase Benson (53 tackles, three sacks) and former Washington transfer junior defensive end Amandre Williams (16 tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions) each earned third-team All-Big Sky honors.
“When our production as a d-line is good, we usually come out on top,” Marks said. “Sac State, we had a rough game and we lost. Those games that we struggle, the whole defense struggles. We need to have top production in the d-line room.”
The Bobcat front has been able to peak late in the season without one of Montana State’s most talented players . Troy Andersen, an unbelievably versatile junior who earned Big Sky Freshman of the Year as a running back and linebacker, unanimous first-team All-Big Sky honors as a sophomore quarterback and first-team all-conference accolades as a junior outside linebacker (6.5 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss), has not played in a month. He is unlikely to play against NDSU.
In his place, junior Daniel Hardy has been a revelation. The springy, explosive 6-foot-3, 220-pound Sam linebacker has 5.5 tackles for loss, including a stop behind the line of scrimmage three weeks in a row.
“He does a great job,” Marks said. “He is really gifted physically. He has a great skill set. He is long, he is twitchy, he is explosive. He just plays hard. That’s what we need out of a Sam: a guy who flies all over the field. He has a lot of potential and I think he is going to keep improving.”
It’s also worth noting the emergence of sophomore inside linebacker Callahan O’Reilly (MSU’s leading tackler with 80 stops) and the presence of senior safety Jahque Alleyne, a former Virginia Tech transfer who led the league in interceptions last season.
The whole defense has been solidified by the excellent play of the cornerback duo of senior Damien Washington and junior Tyrel Thomas. Entering the year, cornerback was a question mark as preseason All-Big Sky cornerback Munchie Filer ended up missing almost the entire season and Jalen Cole has still never returned after suffering a head/neck injury against Montana last year.
The cerebral Washington has evolved from a zone corner to one that makes plays on the ball. He has three interceptions and Choate has repeatedly said he is playing the best football of his career the last month.
Thomas, an ultra-competitive player who does not hesitate to engage in verbal combat despite his 5-foot-7 frame, is healthy for the first time in years. He had a pick last week against Austin Peay.
As the unit has melded together and flourished as one, it’s given the Bobcats unseen optimism and a high level of confidence entering Saturday’s game with the greatest juggernaut the FCS has ever known.
“One of our stated goals is to continue getting better and we did that every week and every month and it has come to a head during the most important time of the season,” MSU defensive coordinator Kane Ioane said the first week of December.
“We want to continue on our path of putting our best performance out there next.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.