BBOZEMAN, Montana — By all accounts, Troy Andersen loves playing football as much as any collegian you will find. Even Montana State’s do-everything superstar is ready for something new.
“I’m sick and tired of hitting my teammates,” Andersen said in his unassuming way during MSU’s media day gathering on August 22. “I think everybody is sick of playing against each other. When you put on the game film against Texas Tech, it’s really exciting. It’s a real opponent out there and now we have to start breaking down tendencies and seeing what they can do.”
The grind of fall camp is over for the Bobcats. Now Montana State turns the page to begin a season ripe with expectations for a program with a rising regional and national profile. The 2019 season kicks off for MSU in Lubbock against Texas Tech of the Big XII on Saturday.
“I know everybody is really pumped up,” Montana State fourth-year junior offensive guard Lewis Kidd said. “It’s a big stage, a big proving ground for us to show how much we have grown these past few years. The last time we faced this big of an opponent was Washington State. And we all know how that one went (31-0). It’s going to be a big tell for how much we’ve grown and how much we’ve upped our level of game play.”
In the season opener for both teams, Montana State took on its second FBS opponent under head coach Jeff Choate. The Bobcats opened the 2017 season in front of 30,254 at Martin Stadium at Washington State in Pullman. MSU limited the explosiveness of WSU’s offense but could not move the ball. With sophomore Chris Murray playing quarterback, Montana State managed just seven first downs and only three plays of more than 10 yards. All three were runs.
Montana State hung tough with Idaho, then in the FBS, in a 20-17 loss in the first game with Choate as its head coach. But Saturday in Lubbock will present an entirely different challenge.
The Red Raiders never won more than the eight games the team posted in Kliff Kingsbury’s first season in 2013. Kingsbury went 35-40 overall before being fired and landing at the head of the Arizona Cardinals. Still, a 20-year tradition of throwing the football as prevalently and prolifically as any program in the country combined with the fertile recruiting grounds in Texas means the Red Raiders will have elite athletes on the perimeter and otherwise.
“The mindset shifts a little bit when it comes to scouting,” MSU senior captain offensive tackle Mitch Brott said. “Texas Tech is going to be a challenge for us. They obviously have 22 more scholarships than we do. They can have better recruiting. But when it comes down to it, it’s a mindset going into the game. Choate has done a good job of preparing us mentally for this game. I’m excited to see what can happen.”
Competition at almost every position group for starting jobs and time in the rotation trademarked Montana State’s recently completed fall camp. Andersen took plenty of turns on offense — he rushed for 1,421 yards and 21 touchdowns as an unorthodox quarterback last season — but also got his first extended training at outside linebacker. His presence on the edge combined with the return of intimidating, athletic end Bryce Sterk means MSU should have an edge combination unrivaled in the FCS.
A competitive battle at the other two inside linebacker positions played out over the last month. Senior Josh Hill and junior Chad Kanow both took limited reps as they come back from injuries that cost them part or, in Hill’s case, all of last season. Junior Michael Jobman, a starter for most of last season at Will, rotated with senior Walker Cozzie. Redshirt freshman Nolan Askelson took the bulk of the first-team repetitions at Mike with sophomore Callahan O’Reilly also asserting himself in the mix.
Brayden Konkol and Jahque Alleyne, Montana State’s talented senior safeties, should give the Bobcat defense a veteran presence on the back end. And Alleyne, who started his career at Virginia Tech, brings a rare aura of confidence to the entire defense.
“Coming in, everybody had to understand that the speed of the game is a lot different and everyone is a lot faster,” Alleyne said when asked about Texas Tech. “Even the linemen are faster. If we want to win, we have to prepare this week differently, differently than how we would prepare for an in-conference team. And if we can prepare for them in a great way and set ourselves up to win, I think that will set us up pretty well to win the conference championship this year.”
An injury during fall camp to senior cornerback Greg “Munchie” Filer III — Filer wore a sling and a cast on his arm on the sideline during MSU’s final fall camp scrimmage — will likely have the preseason All-Big Sky selection sidelined for the opener.
If Filer can’t go, Montana State will rely on a rotation led by senior Damian Washington and junior Tyrel Thomas, each starters frequently in their Bobcat careers. Redshirt freshman Ty’Rhae Gibson will also figure into the mix on the outside while redshirt freshman Level Price Jr. is slated to be the starting nickel back.
“As a DB, you gotta love the challenge of Texas Tech,” MSU sophomore Ty Okada, the starting nickel back last season and now a player competing at both nickel and safety, said on August 22. “Everyone as a DB has to want a good challenge, want them to throw the ball. If they are running it 80 percent of the time and you aren’t getting any action, you aren’t necessarily looking forward to that. As a competitor, we are looking forward to the challenge to see what we can bring to the table.”
Up front, Montana State loses three senior stalwarts in captains end Tyrone Fa’anono, tackle Zach Wright and nose Tucker Yates. But that group looks as physically formidable as ever with the return of Sterk, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound Adonis who led the Big Sky Conference in sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (17) last season along with the additions of fellow Washington transfers Amandre Williams and Jason Scrempos. Throw in the return of four-year starter Derek Marks, who moves from end to tackle, and the front looks fierce.
On offense, the Bobcats return an experienced offensive line with five players who started games last season, including Brott, a starter for the last 35 straight. The backfield is also stocked full with Andersen’s lingering presence, the return of explosive sophomore Isaiah Ifanse and the fifth year earned by senior Logan Jones.
On the outside, senior captain Travis Jonsen looks primed for a breakout season in his second year playing wide receiver. The former blue chip quarterback made the switch during camp last fall. He’ll be flanked by senior captain Kevin Kassis, a four-year starter who led MSU in catches and receiving yards last season.
The most pressing position battle in camp came at quarterback between redshirt freshman Casey Bauman and sophomore Tucker Rovig. Bauman earned the nod on August 12 and has prepared like the starter ever since.
“I feel like I put forth my best throughout the camp and I gave myself the best chance that I could,” Bauman said during his first official press conference as the starter. “It’s a good feeling but it just means there is more work to be done. We have a lot of big games this year and some high expectations so I’m excited.
“I think the nerves will be there for sure but at the end of the day, it’s just going to be another day. I know my teammates will be riding for me and I’ll give my best for them too.”
Earlier this month, Texas Tech announced that the opener would kick off at 3 p.m. Central Standard Time. The high on Tuesday is 109 but the high for Saturday is 89 with a chance for thunderstorms.
During their fall camp, Wells made a comment in a press conference that it was going to be 170 degrees. Upon hearing that assertion, Choate said “If’ it’s really 170 degrees on the turf, I’m taking my thermometer, sticking it in the turf and telling him I protest.”
“I’m sure there is a little gamesmanship there, talking about Texas tough, but at the end of the day, it’s not about Texas Tech at all,” Choate said. “It’s not about the 70,000 people that who show up to the game. It’s not about the scoreboard. It’s not about the guys wearing the Red Raider black. It’s about Montana State. It’s about us doing our job. It’s about us controlling what we can control.”
That is the message Choate has been trying to convey to his players. Jonsen, who started his career at Oregon, echoed Choate’s sentiments. Andersen, who grew up in Dillon and acknowledged watching players like Mahomes when Andersen was still at Beaver County High. On Saturday, Montana State gets its show against a Power 5 team in Lubbock, Texas.
“We have to prepare like we play anyone else,” Andersen said. “This just happens to be Texas Tech. We are excited to go down there. There’s going to be 60,000 people, it’s going to be hot but we are going to go down there and compete as hard as we can.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.