BOZEMAN — Troy Andersen once again showed his prodigious speed by chasing Willie Patterson down from behind. Tyrel Thomas showed his acrobatic ability and his dedication to perfecting his craft after dropping a sure pick-six.
Other than those displays of athleticism by two of Montana State’s rising stars, Saturday’s Sonny Holland spring game at Bobcat Stadium did not contain any action of much consequence. Jeff Choate was the first to acknowledge exactly that.
But MSU’s third-year head coach accomplished his primary goal as the Bobcats put a bow on its third set of spring football practices under Choate’s guidance.
“I think in general, it was a pretty uninspired day,” Choate said. “The weather was great which is nice. I’ll be as frank as I can be: I’m glad it’s over. Didn’t really have a lot of aspirations other than we are obligated to do this so we did it.”
On the third and final scrimmage of what became a 12-practice schedule, sophomore tight end Ryan Davis pulled his hamstring and redshirt freshman outside linebacker Sal Aguilar dinged his shoulder but the Bobcats emerged from the nearly three-hour, 76-play glorified practice unscathed otherwise.
“We really did our bigger scrimmage last week,” Choate said “The defense came out with a little more focus and intensity early in the red-zone period. We had some good moments during the move-it period. But by and large, it was an uninspired performance on both sides and some of that is my fault. I wanted to make sure we got out of here healthy. That was my No. 1 objective.”
Neither quarterback looked particularly sharp on a day starter Chris Murray called “uninspired” but Patterson continued to emerge nonetheless. Senior Logan Jones owned the day on the ground but most of his 11 carries and 58 yards came against the second and third-team defenses. In his first spring playing linebacker full-time, Andersen continued to impress as did Thomas, a rising star at cornerback who broke up two passes and helped the first-team defense clamp down in the red-zone against MSU’s sporadic offensive units.
“As a whole, we struggled a bit,” Murray said. “A couple of plays we left off the board and some small things, we have to correct as a unit.”
Andersen’s play of the day came early on as the Bobcats began the spring game in a red-zone period with the offenses starting 12 yards from the end-zone. Murray ran a speed option from the left hash to the wide side of the field, pitching the ball to Patterson, one of MSU’s shiftiest and fastest players. Seemingly out of nowhere, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound reigning Big Sky Freshman of the Year showed the speed that made him a state champion sprinter at Dillon High School, chasing down Patterson from behind for a three-yard loss on the only non-sack tackle for loss of the afternoon.
“I came out there, saw Chris pitch it and knew Willie was pretty fast so I was hoping I could catch him,” Andersen said in his humble way. “Luckily I did.”
“That was funny because Chris turns around and says, ‘Well, it’s Troy. If it wasn’t Troy…” Choate said. “If a normal, mortal human being was there, it was a first down. I agree (laughs).”
The other most athletic play was actually a reaction to a missed opportunity. Murray fired a strike to Lance McCutcheon on a slant but Thomas read it all the way. The true sophomore from Compton, California nearly made the interception but the hard-thrown ball bounced off his hands.
In stride, Thomas did a full front flip into a roll into standing up, then immediately hit the Bobcat Stadium turf to bust out 20 push-ups for self-punishment.
“That would’ve been six too if I would’ve caught it,” Thomas said with a chuckle. “That would’ve been six. That bothered me a lot. That was a clutch period and basically, that’s for us, if we get the ball, they gotta go down and score and win it and that was to tie the game so that was a game-breaker.
“It’s basically a whole defensive punishment and since that was a pick-6 and everybody knew it, I had to bust out 20.”
During the red-zone period, Montana State’s defense stuffed bruising junior running back Tyler Natee on the goal line twice and forced errant throws from both Murray and redshirt freshman Tucker Rovig. In five tries from 12 yards out, Natee’s one-yard touchdown and one short field goal each from junior Tristan Bailey and redshirt freshman Jacob Byrne were all the offense could muster. Bailey missed from 22 yards out and Byrne missed from 32 yards out as a team that finished 12th out of 13 Big Sky Conference teams in red-zone offense continued struggling to manufacture points close to the goal line.
“Based on the stats from last season, we weren’t a real good red-zone defense last year and we did real good today,” Thomas said. “That’s where we struggled last year – red zone and third downs. We just have to make a turnover. Red zone is a big part we have to step up in and I think we did step up today.”
During the play-it period, when the offense earned positive gains on first and second downs, the quarterbacks were able to push their respective units into up-tempo. Patterson, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound former star quarterback from Franklin Pierce High in Tacoma, proved again to be MSU’s best option moving the chains. He finished the day with four catches for 45 yards, including two first down grabs on a 62-yard drive that stalled inside the 5-yard line on the first possession for the starting offense and ended in a 25-yard Bailey field goal.
“Willie is a good player, a smart player and he understands coverages,” Murray said. “I would say one of the best receivers as far as understanding coverages. He knows when to stick and when to cut in those option routes. We are almost always on the same page.”
Patterson also rushed three times for 19 yards, including a 15-yard jaunt to spark MSU’s first true touchdown drive and a seven-yard gain on third down to extend a drive that Murray capped with a seven-yard touchdown strike to junior Kevin Kassis.
“Initially, it was tough but working with Coach Miller helped me transform into a wide receiver,” Patterson said. “Getting these reps this spring helped me gain my confidence and has allowed me to ball out.
“I definitely made the progress I wanted to make. I knew I had to step up this spring. Our offense is looking a little mean because we have ‘Big Bacon’ (Natee) back there and Chris is back there throwing some nice balls and Kevin and Lance, I feel like we are going to be really dangerous. And our line is coming back and we led the league in rushing last year. We are going to be dangerous as well.”
On the Kassis touchdown, MSU lined up with three wide receivers to the left. Murray instantly noticed the man coverage about to be played by the MSU secondary. Kassis ran a crisp post corner route to catch the score completely uncontested. Right when Murray threw the ball, Patterson yelled, ‘Oh yeah, that’s six.’
“I knew once they lined up in man straight across in trips, breaking route, oh ok, it’s over,” Patterson said. “I scored on that in the scrimmage last week so that’s touchdown. I was mad too because I was like, ‘Hey man, that was mine.’ But I guess I’ll let Kevin have one (laughs).”
The following two-point conversion play encompassed the casual nature of the day. MSU ran a play-action fake to Natee, then faked a jet sweep handoff to Patterson. Murray, completely facing the opposite end-zone, threw a two-handed pass directly behind his head to senior tight end Wilson Brott.
“My favorite moment of the day was the dipsy do for two. That’s why we are here,” Choate said with a laugh. “Have a little bit of fun and stay healthy. That was the two-point play we ran when I was a high school coach. We called it our 40/40 play; up by 40, down by 40, that’s what you do.”
On the next offensive possession — a before halftime drill that began with 1:15 on the clock — stalled out on the 36-yard line. With eight seconds left on the clock, Bailey provided the special teams highlight of the day on a sunny afternoon that saw the kickers finish 4-of-6 kicking field goals.
“Tristan has a very strong leg and for us to be able to make a decision whether we are going to kick from that far in a two-minute situation and have a legitimate chance of making it, that’s a much better feeling than we had a year ago,” Choate said. “Last year, we had to be inside the 25 to have a legitimate chance to make a field goal.”
Murray finished the day 9-of-20 for 87 yards. He was not credited with any official rushing yards, remaining the hardest part of gaging an MSU scrimmage when he wears a red non-contact jersey because of his peerless running ability.
“When the quarterback is not live and your quarterback’s legs are your best asset, that changes things a little bit,” Choate said.
Rovig finished the day 9-of-17 for 51 yards, continuing to struggle getting through his progressions or finding the proper touch on his throws. His final pass resulted in the one interception of the day as redshirt freshman Tadan Gilman stepped in front of Rovig’s throw and snared the pick.
“I think we have one guy (Murray) who has clearly separated himself from the other,” Choate said. “We are going to have to have (Riverside Community College transfer) Travis Jonsen come in and compete and we are going to have to have (incoming freshman) Casey Bauman come in and compete and Tucker Rovig is going to have to take the next step.”
Montana State practiced on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for most of the spring, experiencing true winter conditions most days. Saturday, the spring ball session wrapped up with sunny weather, temperatures in the mid-50s and no other elements to speak of.
MSU will have a player-run practice on Thursday to prepare for its summer conditioning and practice regime when the coaches can no longer be involved. Montana State hosts its annual Triangle Classic banquet Friday night in Great Falls with NFL Hall of Famer Rod Woodson as the keynote speaker. MSU will host a youth football camp Saturday at Memorial Stadium next to Great Falls High and will play some 7-on-7.
But Saturday essentially wraps up spring football for the Bobcats.
“All the guys who are going to play for us in the fall are going to play for us in the fall still,” Choate said. “Last year at this time, that wasn’t the case. You can appreciate my desire to make sure nobody got injured.
“Spring ball 2018 in the books.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.