BOZEMAN — It’s been nearly 30 years since Jeff Choate played in a football game. Yet the feeling waking up on Sunday morning following a game is still emblazoned on his mind.
“I can just can equate it to myself — and this is going to sound weird to say for a guy who is as old as I am but these are the things I remember about the game,” Choate said. “I remember waking up and feeling up like I could not get out of bed on Sunday morning. I remember feeling that way. By Tuesday, my young body felt ok. By Saturday, I was good and you did it again. And quite honestly, that’s how I knew I was alive on Sunday because I hurt that much.
“That’s the unique thing about this game. These guys, their bodies don’t feel right but there’s something about it, almost like a human instinct, you need to feel that sometimes. Our guys will embrace that.”
Choate can only hope his team embraces the grind that will ensue for the Bobcats in November. Montana State’s rally in Pocatello, Idaho fell just short last week. The Bobcats cut a 24-7 Idaho State lead to 24-17 but got no closer in a seven-point loss.
That defeat pushed Montana State to and possibly beyond the brink when it comes to the FCS playoff picture. MSU enters its first of two straight home games to start November with a 2-3 record in Big Sky Conference play and a 4-4 mark overall.
“The reality is we are a .500 ball club, we dropped two in a row. I knew going into this season that this three-game stretch was going to be a bear. You go Idaho (a 24-23 MSU win) and then back to back road games against the defending conference champions (Weber State) and Idaho State.
“We needed to go 2-1 in that stretch to really put ourselves in position down the stretch and we didn’t do that. We went 1-2. We played three really good football teams, three competitive games and now we’ve gotta go do it again. Nobody cares about our problems. Most people are happy we have them.”
A three-game losing streak to end the season — MSU hosts Northern Colorado on November 10 before finishing the 2018 campaign in Missoula against rival Montana — would put the Bobcats at 7-4 with a win over fellow playoff hopeful Western Illinois to begin the season. But even then, MSU will likely need help to get into the FCS playoff field for the first time since 2014.
That’s why Choate and his troops are not concentrating on the big picture. Instead, Choate hopes his Bobcats play for the love of the game, beginning on Saturday.
“We play for the next game,” Choate said. “I told the guys yesterday: crazier things have happened. You win that game (Idaho State), you win out, you get to eight wins, you control your own destiny because you are likely in. Now we don’t control our own destiny. Last year, there were two six-win teams and three seven-win teams in the FCS that made the playoffs. What we have to focus on right now is beating Cal Poly, get this taste out of our mouths, go 1-0 this week.
“The reality is we are a .500 ball club, we dropped two in a row. That’s what we are.”
Montana State can inch over .500 with a win over the Mustangs, a team MSU has not played since Choate took over as head coach before the 2016 season. The last time CP came to Bozeman, Dakota Prukop and the MSU offense ran circles around the Mustangs’ defense in a 45-21 Bobcat win.
Cal Poly is 2-3 in league play, 3-5 overall. The Mustangs went 1-10 last season, the lone victory coming over winless Portland State. Including Cal Poly’s 35-21 loss to San Diego in the first round of the 2016 FCS playoffs, the team lost 13 out of 14 contests when including a 49-3 loss at No. 1 North Dakota State and a 24-17 loss to Weber State in a non-conference contest in September.
By the beginning of October, Cal Poly sat at 1-4, losers of 15 out of its last 17 games. A rash of turnovers — CP fumbled four times in a 70-17 loss to Eastern Washington, three more times in a 48-28 home loss to Montana — derailed otherwise efficient execution of the Mustangs’ triple option offense.
A third playoff berth since joining the Big Sky in 2012 is out of the picture for Cal Poly this season. But the Mustangs can certainly thwart other teams’ postseason hopes, starting this week with Montana State. Cal Poly plays Idaho State (4-1 in league, 5-3 overall) next week.
“This is going to be a tough man’s football game on Saturday, no question about it,” Cal Poly 10th-year head coach Tim Walsh said. “The team that wins the toughness battle is the team that is going to win the game. They have a tough, tough task ahead of them. It’s going to be a physical game, the weather is not going to be great and neither one of us is going to the playoffs so let’s play the game for the love of the game and let’s see who does love it more. You’ll define yourself by how you play Saturday.”
Montana State will certainly be favored over Northern Colorado, a two-win team that lost senior quarterback Jacob Knipp early and has experienced some adversity in terms of the suspension of key players for internal issues lately. But to set up that game, MSU will first have to take care of business on Saturday in Bozeman.
“We put ourselves in a tough position here so to have any shot, we have to win out,” MSU quarterback Troy Andersen said. “That’s our new mentality: every game is the most important game, every day is the most important day. You have to prepare and play every day in practice like it’s our last opportunity. We want to go out and finish strong for our seniors and I think we can.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.