Game Recap

Bobcats overcome key absences, grind past Idaho State

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BOZEMAN, Montana — For the first seven games of the Brent Vigen era at Montana State, the Bobcats had been almost flawless.

MSU incurred very few injuries. The Bobcats accentuated their best play-makers and put their top-notch talent in a position to succeed during a 6-1 start.

Until a Friday night showdown against the four-time defending Big Sky Conference champion Weber State Wildcats in Ogden, Utah last week, Montana State was largely without critical error.

And even in the league game where MSU did not look crisp and clean, the Bobcats still rolled to a 40-7 win over Northern Colorado.

Senior Chase Benson has quietly established status as one of if not the best interior defensive lineman in the Big Sky Conference. Freshman right tackle T.J. Session has been good enough that few have talked about the off-season transfer of Connor Wood to Missouri.

During the 2019 season as a sophomore, Callahan O’Reilly led a salty Montana State defense in total tackles. And senior defensive back Tyrel Thomas has been a starter since he stepped onto campus as a hot-shot recruit out of national powerhouse St. John Bosco Prep.

None of the aforementioned four Bobcats played on Saturday against Idaho State. In the strangest of affairs, a tougher than expected Bengals team matched blows along the line of scrimmage against one of the most imposing set of fronts in the country, turning a presumed runaway into a fight.

But ask Montana State senior offensive lineman Taylor Tuiasosopo: the Bobcats love a good brawl.

“This was a slugfest, something we signed up for,” said Tuiasosopo, a four-year starter at guard who made his first career start at right tackle on Saturday in Session’s absence.

Montana State linebacker Troy Andersen (15) tackles Idaho State quarterback Mikey Zele (14)/by Brooks Nuanez

And on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium, with one of the most influential instillers of the brawler mentality into these ‘Cats — former head coach Jeff Choate was in attendance his current Texas squad took a bye — MSU proved it can win ugly for the second week in a row.

Although Idaho State controlled the clock and exploited the absence of Benson and O’Reilly from the interior of MSU’s defensive front, the Bobcats have play-makers most of the rest of the league doesn’t.

Short-handed Montana State turned to four of their best talents to carry the day, riding elite Bobcats to a 27-9 victory over visiting Idaho State in front of 19,297 Saturday afternoon.

“A tough game, at the end of the day, not the prettiest but excited to come out of it with a win,” Montana State first-year head coach Brent Vigen said. “Watching Idaho State over the course of this season, they have players and they are extremely dangerous. They showed up and today, they did some things that caused us some problems.”

BOX SCORE

Tyevin Ford rushed 26 times for 112 yards as Idaho State managed 213 rushing yards (3.9 yards per carry). Montana State has been so stout defensively; more than two or 2.5 yards per carry against one of the better fronts in the FCS has seemed like a success.

And Saturday, part of that success came, in part, because one of the best players in the league stood on the sideline on crutches nursing a reported back injury.

READ: Benson absence noticeable yet Bobcats make due

“Chase is an elite player in this conference and you take him out of the lineup, it’s going to have an effect.

“We were down a couple of guys and we had guys step up and to open that lead up and to come out with a win heading into the bye week, I’m proud of the guys to be sure today.”

With junior quarterback Matt McKay struggling — he fumbled on Montana State’s first possession, committing just his second turnover of the year, and then errantly threw on at least five more pivotal downs — the Bobcats turned to Isaiah Ifanse, a junior who is quickly solidifying a reputation as the best tailback in the Big Sky.

Montana State quarterback Matt McKay (1)/by Brooks Nuanez

Ifanse was a force once again, pulling his best Adrian Peterson by biding his time with efficient carries for adequate yards, all the while, building until the dam breaks.

Ifanse’s first touchdown of the game, a 10-yard burst to cap a 12-play, 85-yard drive, gave the bullish back 59 yards rushing with 6:25 left in the second quarter.

He surpassed the 100-yard mark for the 14th time in his illustrious career, finishing with 17 carries for 165 yards.

“Guy keeps his leg moving, I mean, gosh dang,” Idaho State head coach Rob Phenicie said. “He’s big and he’s powerful but he doesn’t come down on first contact and he’s been doing that for seems like forever.

“He’s a tough runner and he keeps going and has a low center of gravity and he’s a really, really good Big Sky running back.”

Ifanse’s 59-yard jaunt helped open up the ISU defense as MSU rushed for 242 yards and averaged 8.1 yards per carry. The Bobcats ran 26 less plays than the Bengals and Idaho State earned 42 minutes, 17 seconds in time of possession.

Yet Montana State is on a seven-game winning streak and alone in first place in the Big Sky Conference after Eastern Washington’s 35-34 home loss to Weber State on Saturday.

“I prefer that kind of game and fast games, too,” Tuisosopo said. “Their defense was pretty tough and that’s what you expect, that’s the identity of that team from the past few years we’ve seen them. It was a slugfest, something we signed up for.”

Montana State clung to a 10-3 lead after Ifanse’s touchdown that came on the heels of Blake Glessner’s 55-yard field goal, one of two field goals for freshman as the fourth quarter arrived with MSU up 13-6.

In the fourth frame, McKay finally hit a few throws. The former North Carolina State transfer finished 10-of-21 for 136 yards. His two fourth-quarter touchdown throws — a 29-yarder early to senior Lance McCutcheon and a 65-yard to Willie Patterson with 12:55 to play — helped seal the victory.

“That’s what we need from all our guys,” Vigen said when asked about McKay staying engaged. “It’s not always going to go exactly how you want it. It’s not always going to be perfect. You’re not gonna make all the plays, but can you rely on your teammates, can you make plays as the game does on and trust your ability?

“In Matt’s case, he’s front and center. Everybody can see when he misses a throw. But we need him to make throws and when asked in a critical part of the game, he was able to do that.”

And defensively, Montana State’s unit rose to the occasion despite not having two of it’s key cogs. Freshman Sebastian Valdez had 10 tackles and a sack in his first career start on the interior. Junior Byron Rollins also started today with Blake Hehl rotating in.

With O’Reilly on the shelf, sophomore Alex Johnson making his first career start and standout freshman Danny Uliulakepa rotated in to the tune of 10 tackles.

Montana State safety Tre Webb (2) tackles Idaho State running back Benjamin Omayebu (29)/by Brooks Nuanez

If Ifanse is the peerless talent that paces the Bobcat offense, senior linebacker Troy Andersen equals for the defense. In addition to running sideline to sideline and providing a devastating blitzing option from all across the front, the Dillon product also made a variety of plays at the point of attack.

He finished with 16 tackles, a tackle for loss and two pass breakups, one of which was almost a game-sealing interception.

“Every week, he brings it but this week with guys down, other guys need to step up and obviously Troy does that every single week,” said MSU senior defensive end Amandre Williams, who rolled up six tackles, a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. “He did it big time this week, and we needed that and we got it.”

Montana State goes into its bye week with as much momentum as any team in the Big Sky Conference. Eastern Washington also has an off week this week leading up to the Nov. 6 matchup between the Big Sky powers in Cheney.

EWU suffered its first conference loss Saturday. Montana had lost two conference games in a row before dispatching Idaho 34-14 on Saturday night in Moscow. Weber State remained alive by downing EWU, snapping its two-game conference winning streak. And UC Davis outlasted an upstart Cal Poly squad to avoid a second conference loss.

All of that to say that Montana State is 5-0, atop the Big Sky Conference with a No. 8 national ranking that is sure to rise and entering its bye week in as pivotal and perfect a position as one could hope for.

“We have confidence out the roof,” Tuiasosopo said. “Having the ability to still stay humble as a program, kind of really not look at the record and just think about going 1-0 each week, that’s what we want.

“We have this bye week to get the bodies back then one of the biggest games of the season. I think we’re ready to work.”

Montana State running back Isaiah Ifanse (22) vs. Idaho State/by Brooks Nuanez

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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