BOZEMAN, Montana — Jeff Choate said on Monday in a press conference that seemed part confessional, part therapy and totally honest that his team needed to “play to win.”
Montana State’s head football coach mentioned his Bobcats’ struggling offense needing to avoid “getting put in a box.”
The Bobcats burst out of that box on Saturday afternoon against Southern Utah, using an array of creative, explosive and brand new offensive plays operated by a group of new offensive players on the way to a route of the Thunderbirds.
Montana State scored 21 points in the span of four minutes in the first quarter, then scored 21 more points in the second quarter to take a commanding 42-0 lead into halftime against a suddenly downtrodden SUU team. With a six-touchdown cushion, No. 14 Montana State cruised to a 42-7 win in front 15,617 to snap a two-game losing streak in explosive fashion.
“One of the things we talked about was coming into this game was we wanted to be the most excited team when we took the field and I thought our energy was very good from the jump,” Choate said after his 23rd win at MSU and his team’s first win since October 5. “I think that momentum carried through.”
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Southern Utah’s offense did not earn a positive total in team rushing yards until its 28th carry of the game. Montana State finished with 14 tackles for loss and five sacks, including three TFLs and two sacks from two-way junior star Troy Andersen.
Montana State’s second and third scoring drives lasted just two plays as the hosts displayed a newfound explosiveness behind several emerging offensive threats, capitalizing on turnovers to put the Thunderbirds away early on.
“The defense is playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Choate said. “In the last two weeks, our starters have given up one offensive touchdown. Those guys swarmed to the ball, were physical tacklers and I was pleased with how they played on third downs.”
The Bobcat defense pressured SUU quarterback Christian Helbig to the point that he did not play in the second half, piled up negative plays and forced a total of four turnovers. MSU turned two of those turnovers into touchdowns in the blink of an eye, helping the Bobcats move to 3-2 in Big Sky play and 8-3 in the month of November under Choate.
“This was an attitude change, for sure,” MSU junior Buck end Amandre Williams said after rolling up three tackles for loss, giving him 10 this season. “The adversity we had definitely called for a change in attitude. That’s what we did: went out and capitalized.
“It feels good for sure, especially after the tough two weeks we had. It feels good to get back on track.”
The win helps Montana State put a disappointing 16-12 loss at North Dakota last weekend , MSU’s second straight with a bye week in between, behind the Bobcats.
“Last weekend hurt,” MSU senior linebacker Josh Hill said. “It was motivating for our team, especially. We are a better football team than this and we know it. We need to go out and show it.”
Southern Utah won the Big Sky Conference in 2017, Demario Warren’s second season as SUU’s head coach. That title marked SUU’s second league title in three seasons and led to the third playoff appearance since 2014 for the Thunderbirds.
Since then, Southern Utah has fallen to the basement of the Big Sky. The Thunderbirds went 1-10 last season, their lone win coming over a Sacramento State team that went 0-7 in league play. This season, SUU has struggled once again. The Thunderbirds lost six defensive starters to season-ending injuries before Big Sky play began, including All-American cornerback Jalen Russell and standout safety Kyle Hanneman.
SUU lost seven of its first eight games, including an 0-4 start in conference play before last week. But the Thunderbirds exploded for the first time in more than a year, racing to a 59-34 victory over Idaho State in Cedar City, Utah last week.
Southern Utah found no such success at Bobcat Stadium on Saturday. SUU trailed 14-0 after running just five plays. SUU trailed 21-0 after running just eight plays. Southern Utah had two first downs by the time it was 28-0.
“We didn’t come out ready to go,” SUU head coach Demario Warren said. “They came out and took it to us from the opening kickoff. They won field position, they won turnovers, they won all the things we try to win in a football game. We got our heads down early and it kept spiraling.
“I credit the guys for fighting in the second half and not letting it really explode, but it was not good enough today.”
And the scoreboard read 35-0 after Tyrone Marshall’s 18-yard touchdown, the first score of his career on his first touch as a Bobcat, third possession of two plays or less resulting in a trip to the end-zone.
“That was an interesting way to start the game; I didn’t really see us having that kind of outpouring of scoring in the first half and that certainly created some momentum for ourselves with our takeaways,” Choate said.
“The 21-0 lead changed the game, clearly. It made things a little less consequential perhaps in the second half, allowed us to be a little more conservative and allowed us to rest some guys, so that was very refreshing.”
The Thunderbirds were so overmatched Saturday, Andersen touched the ball just four times on offense, operating as MSU’s option quarterback and only keeping the ball one time. Travis Jonsen, a senior who has been a key cog in MSU’s mutilple yet sometimes one-dimensional attack, did not have an offensive touch. Sophomore running back Isaiah Ifanse did not play. Senior captain Kevin Kassis had just two catches. Starting right tackle Connor Wood went down with an injury that ended his afternoon just three plays into the game. Yet Montana State still rolled.
Marshall, tight end Derryk Snell and true freshman Jaden Smith each scored the first touchdowns of their Bobcat careers. Smith’s touchdown, a 47-yarder against busted SUU coverage, put MSU up 21-0.
Snell, an Alaska native who had all three of MSU’s tight end catches this season entering the game, had that many catches in the first 20 minutes of the game, including a 10-yard touchdown that capped a 50-yard drive and gave MSU a 28-0 lead.
And Marshall’s 18-yard touchdown run came one play after Josh Hill smacked Thomas Duckett, forcing a fumble that senior safety Brayden Konkol returned 35 yards into the red-zone.
“Three guys got their first touchdowns today and that was awesome,” Choate said. “We had things in the game plan for those guys and it was nice to see them execute.
“It’s that time of year. Travis (Jonsen) wasn’t healthy coming into this game and that brought Jaden Smith up. At the slot receiver spot, Willie (Patterson) goes down, Coy (Steel) went down for a couple of weeks and even Mark Estes, who played a significant role last week, has been nursing a hamstring. That was an opportunity for Tyrone Marshall in the slot. And it was nice to see the tight ends get a touchdown catch. It’s been awhile since we did that around here.”
With former Bobcat quarterback and college football Hall of Fame coach Dennis Erickson standing on the sidelines, talking to offensive coordinator Matt Miller between every possession, Montana State ran a variety of offensive concepts — shovel pass, a variety of screens, designed plays for the tight end — that have been unseen until Saturday. Miller usually sits in the press box.
“I thought playing aggressive, playing to win, calling the game to put the pressure on the defense, I thought (Miller) did a nice job of that,” Choate said. “I thought our communication in sudden change situations was better with him on the field as well.
“As many personnel groups as we operate with, there’s some organized chaos that goes on and we still had a couple of mistakes in the second half when we were shuffling guys that don’t normally play within those packages.”
MSU sophomore Lane Sumner set up Montana State’s first touchdown with a 34-yard catch and run on a shovel pass play that is new to MSU’s offense as of this week. He scored a 2-yard touchdown on the next play. Sumner, seeing elevated reps because of Ifanse and Andersen’s injuries plus the tender ribs of senior Logan Jones, scored MSU’s first two touchdowns, including a 25-yard burst that came two plays after Williams intercepted a poorly executed screen pass to give the hosts possessions in the red-zone.
“I approach every game like I’m going to play, know my spots and this week, my preparation was the same,” Sumner, a Huntley Project product, said after rushing for 90 yards. “Knowing that some guys were out, I knew I had to step up but I always try to have that mindset.”
Down five touchdowns after just 27 minutes of action, the Thunderbirds mounted a 13-play drive that gained only 35 yards and ended when Williams, who finished with three tackles for loss, sacked Helbig on fourth down.
“It came down to our fundamentals and the things we hadn’t done well the last two games that we needed to do well to win,” Hill said after finishing with eight tackles. “It came down to aligning correctly, making sure we had our right fits and tackling.
MSU’s final score came with Kassis playing Wildcat quarterback. The wide receiver ran a play-fake, looked like he might run, stopped abruptly and threw to wide open quarterback Tucker Rovig for a two-yard receiving touchdown.
Andersen, a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection last season after quarterbacking the Bobcats to the FCS playoffs, had a second straight standout defensive performance on Saturday. He had two first half sacks, three tackles for loss overall, a team-best eight tackles and his first career interception less than two minutes into the second half.
“Troy is always around the ball, flying around, making plays in the backfield,” Hill said. “He was in the quarterback’s face. He’s such a dynamic player, he is able to do all of those different things he needed to do today.”
Rovig, who has struggled more often than not since taking over the starting quarterback job six games ago, missed badly on his first few throws on Saturday. Rovig’s first two completions went to Snell, the second a seam thrown with velocity that showed a newfound gumption from the previously hesitant sophomore. After that completion, Rovig appeared confident and in command.
He completed six straight passes, including finding seldom-used targets like Snell, junior Lance McCutcheon and junior Davine Tullis. Rovig completed seven of his first 10 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns. He finished 13-of-23 for 197 yards before giving way to redshirt freshman Casey Bauman, who played the entire fourth quarter.
“(Rovig) kind of let the ball go at times today and I thought that was good,” Choate said. “There’s still some things to work on within that game but we need that progression to continue.”
Montana State played its offensive and defensive backups at many positions for most of the third quarter. The Bobcats put in their third string defense in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Daniel Hardy nearly had a pick-6 that he dropped. The ‘Cats went for it on fourth down and failed twice, helping keep the scoring down. And Blake Flovin smacked Gavin Eyre, forcing a fumble that Keaton Anderson for MSU’s fourth and final takeaway of the game.
Montana State will search for its seventh win next week at Northern Colorado. UNC beat Idaho State 26-20 on Saturday in Pocatello. SUU mercifully has a bye.
“Getting a win is always important,” Choate said. “We have another test going down to Northern Colorado next week. It doesn’t get any easier. They play very well at home. We can’t look ahead. This is a one game at a time type of mindset we have to have.”
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