Game Recap

Bobcats avalanche Toreros, surge into conference play

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BOZEMAN, Montana — In a first half filled with seemingly relentless pressure by Montana State’s ferocious defense, perhaps the biggest, or at least most impactful, hit incurred by San Diego’s battered quarterback came when Jeffrey Manning Jr. sprung Ty Okada for a touchdown Okada won’t soon forget.  

Manning, a safety transfer from Oregon State who is making waves for Montana State’s new-look, lighting fast defense, sprinted his way in front of Okada, a burgeoning fan favorite who had just snared his first career interception a week after getting his first pick controversially called off.

Manning’s effort to get ahead of Okada on the return and make the final block of USD senior quarterback Mason Randall helped Montana State’s avalanche of the visiting Toreros continue.

That kick out block showed at the same time the physical dominance of the host Bobcats and as well as just how tough Randall had it in a first half where MSU’s defense never took its foot off the gas, showing a variety of fronts and pressures in making Randall’s Saturday a living hell.

Okada’s 72-yard interception return for a touchdown — the first pick-6 for the Bobcats since Mac Bignell took an interception to the house against Idaho State in 2017 — put Montana State ahead 28-0 less than three minutes into the second quarter.

A Troy Andersen 40-yard interception return for a score 10 minutes later proved to summon the end of the day for Randall and effectively, the end of the day for the visiting Toreros of the FCS non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.

Montana State kept pouring it on after halftime as Isaiah Ifanse went over 100 yards for the 10th time in his Bobcat career, surpassing 2,000 yards in his career in the process thanks in large part to a 74-yard run that set up Jaharie Martin’s first career touchdown plunge from a yard out to give the surging Bobcats a 42-0 lead a minute into the second half.

San Diego backup quarterback Judd Erickson faired no better against a MSU defense that finished the game allowing 204 total yards, 13 first downs while rolling up four sacks and 13 tackles for loss.

From defensive touchdowns to explosive offensive plays to a display of depth with a great variety of Bobcats seeing action for much of the second half, Montana State’s 52-10 victory in front of 19,107 on Saturday certainly affirmed one thing: this version of the ‘Cats is locked and loaded for conference play.

Montana State safety Jeffrey Manning (5) celebrates with defensive lineman Chase Benson and Amandre Williams (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

“I look at the three games as a whole and the one thing we did was ask our guys to play really hard and they did that all three games,” Montana State first-year head coach Brent Vigen said following his second career win. “Team offense, team defense and count on each other, trust each other, do our jobs and we’ve done that.

“I feel really good where we are at three games in. Far from perfect but that’s why you go through practice and play the games. Really pleased with our effort. Playing really hard right and that’s the No. 1 thing you need to do.”

Okada’s defensive touchdown planted the final nail. Andersen’s pick-6 sealed the coffin as MSU moved to 2-1 in the non-conference.

“This one was fun; I dropped a pick last week so I wanted to make up for it and it’s always fun running into the student section,” Andersen said. “This new position has been a little bit of an adjustment the first couple of games but now playing with Cal (Callahan O’Reilly) and Ty (Okada), they are balling out and I feel way more comfortable. I am having a lot of fun.”

The win gives Montana State a pair of dominant victories over a pair of Pioneer Football League teams that have a hard time measuring up talent-wise to most if not all of the squads in the Big Sky Conference. Still, Montana State played fast and physical during its first two home games of 2021 and enter next week’s league opener at Portland State with noticeable momentum.

Between last week’s Gold Rush 45-7 win over Drake and Saturday’s win, Montana State out-gained its opponents 1,045 total yards to 432. The Bobcats had 45 first downs compared to 25 for its visitors.

MSU rushed for 305 yards Saturday and had a variety of big plays across its offense over the last two weeks, from senior Lance McCutcheon’s 45-yard touchdown under the Bobcat Stadium lights last weekend to Elijah Elliott’s 65-yard catch-and-run for MSU’s second touchdown in the first eight minutes of Saturday’s contest to Ifanse’s long jaunt to open Saturday’s second half, the Bobcat offense enters its first Big Sky game under Vigen with plenty of momentum.

Montana State linebacker Troy Andersen (15) tackles San Diego wide receiver Vance Jefferson (87)/by Brooks Nuanez

“We have to be about the team and no one cares who gets the credit, that type of mindset and we have a group of guys who understand that and are willing to do whatever it takes on any given play to do what’s called upon them on any given play,” Vigen said. “That play by Jeff to block for Ty is an example of that.”

By the mid-point of the third quarter, Andersen, Okada, Manning, senior defensive ends Daniel Hardy and Amandre Williams, senior defensive tackle Chase Benson, senior cornerback Tyrel Thomas and most of the rest of MSU’s front-line defensive players watched from the sideline. San Diego’s first and only touchdown came against what amounted to Montana State’s second and third-string defensive personnel.

Over the first three games of the season, the starting Bobcat defense has allowed 753 total yards (251 per game), 35 total points (12 per game) and 44 total first downs (14.6 per game). Montana State has nine sacks, led by Hardy’s 3.5 sacks. MSU has 25 tackles for loss, including five for Hardy, 3.5 for Williams and 2.5 for Andersen.

A unit that is operating new defensive coordinator Freddie Banks’ scheme with speed and explosiveness looks ready to roll as Montana State heads to Portland State next week to open league play.

“We still have a lot of things to work on but I love the discipline we came into practice with this week,” Okada said. “We were really focused on what is the task at hand, how are we going to take care of business this week. We were laser-focused. On the field, there’s a lot of things we can correct but that’s what I’ve loved about our defense so far: our preparation and in turn, our communication in came.

“I was talking to the quarterback (Randall) and I was telling him that we were calling out half their plays and he was like, ‘Yeah, it sucks out here.’ When you prepare like that, it allows you to be one step ahead of the offense.”

Montana State running back Isaiah Ifanse hurdles a group of San Diego defenders/by Brooks Nuanez

Although San Diego doesn’t offer football scholarships, the Toreros have been one of the most successful and winning programs in the FCS over the last 15 years. Jim Harbaugh, who is now at Michigan, first helped put USD on the national map with consecutive 11-win seasons before taking the head job at Stanford in 2007.

In eight seasons under Dale Lindsey, the Toreros have won 68 games, including going undefeated in Pioneer League play for four consecutive years, qualifying for the FCS playoffs in 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. USD won the third-most games in the FCS over the last 10 years, including becoming the first Pioneer team to win playoff games.

San Diego knocked Cal Poly out of the 2016 playoffs and eliminated Northern Arizona the following year.

This season, USD has played an exclusively Big Sky non-conference schedule. San Diego lost 27-13 to Cal Poly in Beau Baldwin’s first game at the helm for the Mustangs. Last week, San Diego got drilled by No. 15 UC Davis, 53-7, to limp into Bobcat Stadium.

Yet Lindsey thinks Montana State is the best team his squad has encountered this season.

“That is a very talented team,” Lindsey said. “We’ve already played two in their conference – Cal Poly and Davis. Personally, I think they are better than Poly and I think they are on the same level as Davis, who I think has a really good team. Am I surprised what happened? No. Montana State has a really good team.

“They are just better up front that we were and we could never really establish a run game,” Lindsey continued after his team fell to 0-3, a rare occurrence for a program that went 64-18 between 2013 and 2019. “Our quarterback didn’t exactly light it up either. I didn’t see that they were exactly trying to trick him or fool him either. They just played good base defense and they knew exactly what they were doing.”

Lindsey, who played in the NFL from 1965 until 1973 before embarking on a meandering coaching career that included stops in the World Football League, the Canadian Football League and the United States Football League, before breaking into the NFL with the Green Bay Packers in 1986.

Montana State linebacker Troy Andersen (15) and Bobcat defenders celebrate an interception returned for a touchdown/by Brooks Nuanez

Lindsey coached Junior Seau as the linebackers coach for the San Diego Chargers from 1992 until 1996, Brian Urlacher while coaching linebackers for the Chicago Bears from 1999 until 2001 and may other great players in his nearly 20 seasons in the NFL before returning to the college ranks.

In other words, the 78-year-old has forgotten more football than most will ever know. He left Bozeman impressed with the Bobcats, particularly Andersen and the MSU front line.

“He’s a very good player and I think their defense is filled with really good players,” Lindsey said. “I think both sides of the ball, they are strong and that group could be a contender for the Big Sky led by a that linebacker group and No. 15.”

For Andersen, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior All-American with one of the most fascinating careers in Treasure State history, Saturday was a return to his past. In 2018, Andersen painted one of the most unique seasons in league history. The linebacker turned running back turned into a quarterback, rushing for more than 1,400 yards and 21 touchdowns to guide MSU to its first playoff appearance in four seasons, breaking Don Hass’s MSU single-season TD record along the way.

Saturday, he found the ball in his hands again for the first time since November of 2019. And his interception return for a 40-yard touchdown was his 34th career score, the second-most in Bobcat history.

“I’m pleased with Troy’s play,” Vigen said. “(Inside linebacker) is a new space for him to play in. He’s playing between the tackles well and then you also see his ability to cover ground on the perimeter and that was the idea of putting him in that position where it would be a little bit of both. His comfort level is getting better each week.”

Andersen rolled up eight tackles and a sack Saturday, giving him 26 total tackles three games into his swan song with the Bobcats.

“We’ve played well,” Andersen said. “We’ve eliminated explosive plays for the most part and we are making opponents earn everything they get. We get a lot to build on and a lot to get better at but it’s a good start.”

Montana State running back Elijah Elliott (13) breaks free for a 65-yard touchdown/by Brooks Nuanez

The last time Montana State traveled to Portland State, Andersen set a Big Sky Conference quarterback single-game record by rushing for 211 yards and two scores to lead MSU to a 43-23 victory in 2018. Since then, Andersen transitioned to the edge of MSU’s defense while taking spot snaps at Wildcat quarterback and running back in 2019, a season that saw Montana State advance to the FCS semifinals for the first time in 35 years.

And after two years away from the gridiron, a stretch that included off-season surgery, a redshirt year that never happened because of a global pandemic, a coaching change and another new position, Andersen leads the Bobcats back to the City of Roses.

“The mindset definitely matters; since we’ve been here, since I’ve been here, we haven’t won a Big Sky Conference title and that means a lot to us so it’s something we have to take week by week,” Andersen said. “We are excited to head out to Portland and get it going.”

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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