BOZEMAN — With Milo Hall wearing an unexpected number and Keaton Mott unexpectedly at the controls of the Bears’ offense, Northern Colorado methodically marched down the field.
After Hall ripped off a 34-yard gain to the Montana State 31-yard line, MSU head coach Jeff Choate lost his cool. Choate launched on the sideline official, earning himself a 15-yard penalty that gave the Bears the ball in the red zone.
Three plays later, UNC Wildcat quarterback Dontay Warren beat the Bobcat defense to the left pylon for a score to cap a 7-play, 77-yard drive to put UNC up 7-0.
On Montana State’s first possession, Troy Andersen threw three incomplete passes, leading to a Jered Padmos punt.
With a winning season hanging in the balance and a showdown with rival Montana looming, would this be the trap game many dreaded in front of a Bobcat Stadium more than 3,000 fans short of a sellout?
A Montana State defense led by senior defensive linemen Tyrone Fa’anono, Tucker Yates and Zach Wright along with senior inside linebacker Grant Collins were not about to go out with a whimper.
Montana State corralled Hall, relentlessly pressured Mott by crossing up UNC’s quarterback with persistent and diverse coverage and cranked up the heat defensively. MSU forced four turnovers, turning the takeaways into 21 points and kept going back to its power run game in a 35-7 victory in front of 14,147 on a windy, frigid Saturday in Bozeman.
“I couldn’t pick a better way to go out,” said Yates, a four-year starter from Colstrip. “In front of the fans and all my family like that and my brothers on the defensive line and all the rest of the seniors too, there’s no better way to go out than a 35-7 win. It was a dream come true.”
On a day MSU celebrated 10 seniors playing their final home games, the Bobcats clinched their first winning season since 2014. Montana State enters the final week of the regular season with a 4-3 mark in Big Sky Conference play, 6-4 overall. MSU also remained in an ever-murkier FCS playoff picture with the 118th clash one week away in Missoula.
“It means we are winners and that’s important,” said Montana State head coach Jeff Choate after moving to 15-17 in his career. “That’s not the end game. The idea is to be in a constant state of improvement and keep pressing forward. We’ve got an opportunity to play another game and we’ll see what happens.”
Fa’anono nabbed his first career interception, Yates and Wright each had sacks and Collins had a team-high seven tackles for a Bobcat defense that gave up 302 yards of total offense. Senior captain center Alex Neale and the senior tight end trio of Connor Sullivan, Curtis Amos and Wilson Brott each played pivotal roles in a Bobcat run game that piled up 283 yards, including Andersen’s seventh 100-yard game this season.
“I knew that group was going to play extremely hard and they are a very prideful group of young men,” Choate said. “I’m really proud to send them out with a victory here at Bobcat Stadium.”
Senior wide receiver John D’Agostino, a walk-on from Bozeman High who’s dad, Mark, played for the Bobcats, also celebrated his Senior Day but did not dress out. He suffered a dislocated elbow in practice earlier this month that ended his career.
Offensive lineman Colin Hammock, a fourth-year junior eligibility wise but a Rhodes Scholar finalist closing in on graduating, also celebrated his final home football game.
“It was emotional man, I tried not to cry, with Tuck and them because those are the guys I came in with,” Fa’anono said. “After the game, Tuck told me to let everything sink it. It’s sad but it’s also a blessing how much we’ve grown as a team and how much I’ve grown as an individual and seeing us become the men we are today.”
Montana State started to swing the momentum on UNC’s second offensive possession. The Bobcats did a better job containing Hall, a junior listed on the roster as No. 16 who came out wearing No. 1.
After a pair of methodical first downs, Mott dropped back to pass and threw a ball that was tipped by Greg “Munchie” Filer III. Filer’s roommate, fellow junior and former transfer Jahque Alleyne snared the fluttering ball for his fifth interception of the year, the top mark in the Big Sky. The Virginia Tech transfer took the pick 47 yards to the UNC 7-yard line.
Three goal line attempts, including a pass to left tackle Mitch Brott that netted a two-yard loss, failed for MSU. Then Andersen took control of the moment.
The electric sophomore from Dillon took the snap on fourth down and simply outran every Northern Colorado defender to the goal line for his first of three touchdowns on Saturday.
“That was definitely important,” Andersen said. “I think that was a pivotal point in the game there early. If they stop us there, that’s a big momentum swing for them. For us to be able to punch it in, it meant a lot.”
Last week in UNC’s 48-13 loss to Eastern Washington, Mott hit his right (throwing) hand on the helmet of an EWU defender and left the game. Conor Regan finished that loss but earlier in the week, asked UNC head coach Earnest Collins Jr. if he could redshirt since he had only played in four games. The wish was granted, leaving UNC with just Mott as its only real option under center.
Sporting a heavy wrap on what appeared from close views on the sideline to be a surgically repaired hand, Mott struggled with his accuracy. Because of the blanketing coverage of MSU’s secondary, the sophomore held on to the ball too long a most passing plays by the visitors.
“I thought our secondary was phenomenal today,” Choate said. “(Safeties coach) Kyle Risinger, (cornerbacks coach) Mark Orphey, tip of the hat to those two guys. They had those guys dialed in.
“We mixed coverage enough that we confused him a little bit. That’s where he was holding the ball a little bit. I think (defensive coordinator) Ty (Gregorak) called a good game and I think our guys on the defensive side of the ball did a really nice job.”
Following Andersen’s first touchdown, the Bobcat defense began to stiffen. A 3-and-out gave MSU possession at midfield. MSU went to its one senior who was not celebrated on Saturday.
For the second straight week, senior running back Logan Jones scored a touchdown, taking advantage of his borrowed playing time. Because he missed the first seven game of the season, Jones will be able to redshirt this year despite playing the last four games of this season. The Kalispell Glacier product caught a short pass from Andersen on a crossing pattern, made the first defender miss before plowing through the final Bear on an 18-yard touchdown that gave MSU a 14-7 lead less than a minute into the second quarter.
“He adds a lot because Logan is really dynamic, quick back there,” said Andersen, who has two touchdown passes this season. “You try to get him the ball in space as much as you can. He makes plays.”
Less than three minutes after Jones’ score, MSU ran a zone blitz that pressured Mott while dropping Fa’anono into coverage. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive end showed his sneaky athleticism by leaping to make an impressive interception, the first of his career.
“I had a feeling the tight end was coming and I followed the quarterback’s eyes but for some reason, I don’t remember putting my hands up to get the ball but I had it,” Fa’anono said with a lei honoring his Polynesian heritage hanging from his neck. “I thought, ‘Oh shoot, I have the ball.’
“I thought I was going to do something like Reggie Bush did back at USC (laughs). But a 275-pound lineman, I have to hold the ball so I don’t fumble.”
The Bobcats could not turn this turnover into points but put Northern Colorado in a precarious position nonetheless. An Andersen quick kick pinned the Bears down on their own 5.
The Bears’ next eight offensive plays were run with their backs pressed up against the North end-zone of Bobcat Stadium. After a 3-and-out and a poor punt, MSU began with the ball at the UNC 32. A 14-yard run by Travis Jonsen on a quarterback keeper and a 10-yard burst by true freshman running back Isaiah Ifanse pushed the ‘Cats deep into the red-zone.
Northern Colorado stuffed the Bobcats inside the 10 four times, including stringing Andersen out and standing him up short of a touchdown on fourth down.
Yates appeared to have MSU’s first safety in nearly a decade when he stuffed Hall near the end-zone on UNC’s ensuing possession. That led to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on UNC offensive lineman Kyle Ergenbright after Hall appeared to get his right ankle twisted at the bottom of a giant pile and Ergenbright came to his defense.
“They are a chippy group and we are a chippy group up front,” Yates said. “I like playing like that. I like chirping back. It’s all in good fun. They played hard up front.”
On third down, Mott hit tight end Michael McCauley for first down yardage but MSU sophomore inside linebacker Michael Jobman popped the ball out and sophomore outside linebacker Jacob Hadley recovered on the UNC 9.
Four plays and 14 rushing yards by Andersen later, including a four-yard touchdown burst and the Bobcats held a 21-7 lead, an advantage MSU took into the halftime despite gaining just 107 total yards and passing for just 16. MSU didn’t need prolific ball movement because of the short fields provided by the senior-led defensive front.
“If you get four turnovers in a game and you get the ball, you should blow teams out like that,” Yates said. “That was a big momentum swing with Jahque and then Tyrone, when Tyrone got his pick that was a huge momentum swing.
The only real highlight of a stalemate and scoreless third quarter came in the form of Mitch Brott’s first career blocked field goal.
Early in the fourth quarter, Mott threw his best ball of the day, a dart to senior All-Big Sky receiver and track champion Alex Wesley. The five-time league champion and All-American 400-meter runner is one of just two wide receivers in the league with more than 1,000 yards. But he dropped what would’ve been his fifth touchdown this season.
Two plays later, Fa’anono smacked Mott, forcing a fumble that Yates recovered on the MSU 12. Andersen, Jonsen and junior captain wide receiver Kevin Kassis took turns playing quarterback in a crisp 11-play, 88-yard drive capped by a four-yard touchdown run by Jonsen, his fourth of the season.
The final turnover by Mott proved to be his last snap. Collins went with redshirt freshman Conor Martin for the final eight minutes of UNC’s season. The Bears have a bye the final week of the season. Northern Colorado finished 2-6 in league play, 2-9 overall in Collins’ eighth season at the helm.
Andersen, who became the quarterback in league history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing, had been largely contained for the first 56 minutes of action despite his two first-half touchdowns. The Big Sky Offensive MVP candidate made sure to cap MSU’s home finale with an exclamation point.
On a quarterback counter play, Andersen pressed the edge before sprinting to daylight like he has so many times this season. He 36-yard score with 3:12 left pushed him over the century mark for the seventh time this season, tying him with Matt Engelking (1996), Ryan Johnson (2001) and Steve Kracher (1975) for the most in a single season at MSU.
Andersen now has 1,092 yards this season, 154 yards from breaking former Cal Poly star Chris Brown’s 2014 quarterback single-season record of 1,245 yards. Andersen now has 16 rushing touchdowns, the third-most in MSU history in one season. Don Hass rushed for 20 touchdowns in 1966 and Cody Kirk rushed for 18 scores in 2013.
“We have a great group of seniors and we are definitely going to miss them next year but we still have a lot to play for next year,” Andersen said. “For the last guaranteed opportunity here, it’s awesome to send them out with a win.”
Like Montana State, Montana won for the second straight week after a tough October that included just two wins combined for the two proud programs. The Griz built a 36-6 halftime lead and cruised to a 46-27 win over Idaho in Moscow to move to 4-3 in league play, 6-4 overall.
The winner of the rivalry game next week will sit squarely on the playoff bubble as the Big Sky strives to get four teams into the 24-team field for the third time since the league expanded from nine to 13 teams in 2012.
But Montana State now has one sole focus before the playoffs enter their collective minds.
“I just love this week, especially being a Montana boy,” Yates said. “I loved this game growing up all my life, being a part of the game, going to the game all my life. To play in it is really special. I’m just going to give it my all and I know this team will too.”
MSU has not defeated Montana three consecutive times since 1983, 1984 and 1985. Only Jim Sweeney (5-0, 1963-67) and Dave Arnold (1983-85) have won at least their first three games against the rival Grizzlies. Choate is 2-0 against Montana.
“This is the game in Montana,” Andersen said. “This is the game. Everybody tunes in. Everybody watches it. This is the most important game of the year for us. We will be ready.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.