BOZEMAN – Montana State remained one of the hottest teams in the nation as it dispatched Albany 47-21 behind an electric special teams display and the growing confidence of sophomore quarterback Tucker Rovig, who threw for 279 yards and three touchdowns on 24 for 30 passing.
Rovig didn’t throw any interceptions for the fourth time in five games with his lone pick coming versus Northern Colorado and being returned for a touchdown. The Bobcats (10-3) rolled to a 47-7 lead before taking their collective foot off the gas. The 47 points marks an all-time playoff record as Montana State won its eighth FCS playoff game in program history.
MSU is into the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs for the fourth time, including the first time since 2012. The fifth-seeded Bobcats will take on Austin Peay, a 42-28 winner over No. 4 Sacramento State. The Governors’ second playoff win in two weeks and second playoff win in school history ousted the Big Sky champions in Sacramento on Saturday night.
The Great Danes (9-5) scored on their first possession on a 58-yard touchdown by future All-American senior Juwan Green, but wouldn’t find the end zone again until the game was well in hand. Albany collected 155 of their 333 yards on their final two possessions as a Bobcat defense that has been stout the last month continued to stonewall opponents.
But the story on this day was the Bobcat’ special teams units. First, MSU, as it does so often, used a player from a different position to make a big play as sophomore running back Isaiah Ifanse was inserted on the punt return team. Ifanse broke through on UA’s first punt and blocked it out of the end zone for a safety to give MSU a 9-7 lead. The Bobcats would not trail again.
“This is how unselfish our team is,” MSU fourth-year head coach Jeff Choate said after the second playoff win of his career. “We go out there to punt, (Ifanse) jumps in there and works our guys over and finally I just said lets get him in there, because we can’t block him.”
Later in the first half, sophomore punt returner Coy Steel took over from there as he returned the next three UA punts for 105 yards, with each consistently over 30 yards. Two of the returns led to MSU scores as the game quickly turned into a rout.
Prior to the punt block, senior Travis Jonsen broke off a 47-yard TD run that tied the game 7-7. After the block, senior Kevin Kassis, who had 11 catches for 131 yards, hauled in a short swing pass from Rovig for another score and a 16-7 lead.
“Coy’s a fearless guy and often times when a team comes from back East or anywhere near sea-level they’re kicking in light air for the first time and he out-kicked his coverage,” Choate said. “I told the guys last night that this was going to be our edge today. I thought we had an edge in team speed and that really shows up on special teams.”
Albany, fresh off the first playoff win in program history last week, did not look afraid in pre-game warm-ups nor when Green torched the Bobcat secondary for his FCS-leading 17th touchdown. After that, Montana State’s edge on special teams and edge in the trenches were too much for the visitors in front of 12,947 at Bobcat Stadium.
“The kick game gave us trouble and they outplayed us by a huge margin in the kick game,” Albany head coach Greg Guttuso said. “They made some big plays. Credit their punt returner.”
The Great Danes got on the board right away when Green made a leaping, circus-catch between two MSU defenders and raced to the end zone from 58 yards out. The Bobcats, however, responded with 47 unanswered points on a variety of offense while Albany struggled to move the ball.
Ifanse capped an 85-yard drive with a 12-yard TD run and, with the clock running, MSU scrambled its kick team onto the field for Tristan Bailey to hit a 19-yarder with just :01 left in the half. Montana State held a 26-7 lead at intermission.
MSU senior cornerback Damien Washington snagged two interceptions in the first half for the Bobcats, including one on the MSU 16-yard line to thwart one of Albany’s rare opportunities to score. Bryce Sterk picked up a pair of sacks and MSU held Albany to just two first downs on 12 third down attempts before the break.
“They had some good receivers, especially (Green),” Washington said. “He really high points the ball and their receivers were one of the best units we’ve seen.”
MSU’s first drive of the second half saw junior Lance McCutcheon haul in a one-handed pass from Roving down the sideline for a 49-yard score. The second drive resulted in another sweet catch by McCutcheon, this time as he back-pedaled into the front corner of the end zone. In an offense that has used a variety of playmakers this season — 25 players have gained yards from scrimmage — McCutcheon had been quiet. Those two scoring catches marked the Bozeman product’s first two trips to the end-zone this season.
“It’s very nice when you can throw up 50-50 balls and know they can catch them,” Rovig said. “Some of those balls weren’t the best, but they go get them.”
The Bobcats would make it three touchdowns in three possession to the start the second half when senior Logan Jones scored from the 3, his eighth rushing touchdown this season.
Albany held Ifanse to just 39 yards on 16 carries and Jones had just 19 on six carries, but both ran for touchdowns. The duo combined for 292 yards and four touchdowns in their last game against Montana. Albany held an MSU rushing attack averaging 270 yards per game this season, including 297 per over its last nine games, to 203 yards and 4.6 yards per carry.
McCutcheon finished with 91 yards receiving on two grabs, both touchdowns, nearly matching his total of 106 receiving yards this season entering the game. Jonsen had 88 yards on just six carries, while Lane Sumner was the leading regular running back for MSU with 55 yards on 12 carries. MSU barely eclipsed 200 yards rushing as Albany put up the best run game defense it has seen since playing Texas Tech.
The Bobcats will host another playoff game since Austin Peay upset Sac State. Sac State beat Montana State 34-21 in Bozeman in October, part of a two-game losing streak for MSU. The Bobcats have won five straight since a 16-12 loss to North Dakota to end the month. But the Hornets are out and the Bobcats have the inside track.
Montana State is 13-3 in November under Choate, including 9-1 over the last two seasons. The lone loss came in the second round of the FCS playoffs at No. 1 North Dakota State.
This story will be updated.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.