Seven days ago, Montana State’s starting offense moved up and down the field as the prophecy of quarterback improvement appeared to come true. A week later, Montana State’s defense counterpunched in MSU’s final scrimmage of fall camp, dictating the action with a ball-hawking performance on a smoky Bozeman Saturday.
With defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak prowling the sideline instead of sitting in the press box, the Bobcat defense played with energy and effort from the opening whistle. MSU’s defenders forced turnovers on the first two possessions of the 110-play scrimmage and took the ball away three times overall.
A week after operating efficiently, particularly in the passing game, the Bobcat offense struggled to find its flow. The MSU offense did manage 310 rushing yards, including a 50-yard touchdown run by sophomore quarterback Chris Murray, but it took the ground game 65 carries (4.7 yards per carry) to reach that total. Murray completed 13-of-18 passes for 141 yards but MSU’s defensive secondary used improved communication, disguised coverage schemes and better execution keep the offenses on their heels all afternoon.
“We couldn’t make the same mistake, we couldn’t come out here today and redo what we did last week,” said MSU senior Bryce Alley, who ended the second possession of the day with an interception of Tucker Rovig and nearly added a second later on. “Last week, offense came out and punched us in the mouth. This one, we flipped it around on them and put them in a bad situation early on with a couple of turnovers.”
Montana State head coach Jeff Choate did not hold his tongue when expressing his disappointment in his defense following his first scrimmage. He mentioned a lack of communication by the safeties and a lack of energy overall as main factors. A week later, the Bobcat defense dictated the pace, continuing the back and forth of what has been a highly competitive camp entering Choate’s second season.
“We did a nice job of cleaning things up in the secondary,” Choate said. “Communication was much better in the back end today. Guys competed for deep balls, made plays on balls in the red-zone. I was pleased with that.
“I felt like we simplified some things for them in terms of our coverage stuff and they played alot faster. I thought they competed. I didn’t see alot of blown coverages, especially with our 1s. Those guys were dialed into what we were doing, tighter windows for our quarterbacks to throw in. That’s what it needs to be.”
With senior captain safety Bryson McCabe playing sparingly plus junior nose tackle Tucker Yates and junior Buck end Grant Collins not dressed out, the Bobcat defense still looked improved from its first scrimmage. Junior college transfer JoJo Henderson took starter reps at safety next to Brayden Konkol, who looked much improved after struggling in the first scrimmage of his sophomore year.
A week after throwing for 322 yards and four touchdowns, MSU’s quarterbacks combined to complete 28 of 45 passes for 245 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“It felt good that we showed up today but we still have a long way to go to get where we need to be,” said senior captain linebacker Mac Bignell after notching a sack and a tackle for loss. “I still think we have a long way to go on the pass rush game. We still have to get more sacks with the ones and more turnovers too. Even though we had those three, we should be forcing a lot more.”
Redshirt freshman linebacker Sal Aguilar sacked true freshman Callahan O’Reilly on two consecutive snaps early on. Bignell, junior Walker Cozzie, true freshmen Travis Yates and Chad Kanow along Konkol each notched sacks as well. Murray and backup Brady McChesney wore non-contact red jerseys while O’Reilly, true freshman Tucker Rovig and redshirt freshman Callahan O’Reilly were live for the first time this camp.
Gregorak spent 12 seasons at rival Montana, the first seven coaching linebackers, the last handful as the Griz defensive coordinator. He exclusively called plays from the Washington-Grizzly sidelines during his tenure as UM DC. For almost of his time working for Choate, Gregorak has called his defense from the box, the fourth quarter of the Southern Utah game withstanding.
During the first fall scrimmage, just first-year defensive backs coach Mark Orphey and second-year defensive line coach Byron Hout, both under the age of 30, were the only defensive assistants on the sideline.
With Gregorak calling the plays from close by, Bignell said the communication improved. The All-Big Sky senior said he likes being able to directly talk to Gregorak about adjustments quickly. The presence of the veteran coach close by was noticeable.
“That was something we were a little bit concerned about after the first scrimmage,” Choate said. “When you lose a guy like (former secondary coach) Gerald Alexander (to Cal), who was a high-energy guy, and Mark’s personality is very different, we just felt like having Ty down would be a good thing for a young defense. A little bit of a calming influence when things aren’t going well and then give us an opportunity to get some juice going from time to time.”
Konkol, a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder built like an outside linebacker more than a safety, came on strong toward the end of last season, starting for the last month of the 4-7 campaign. He brings an added element of physicality to MSU’s back end but he’s struggled to find his stride during the first month of this season. On Saturday, he took a step to getting back on track, having one of the standout defensive performances of the afternoon.
“He was lights out today,” Alley said. “He got that one turnover, knocked the ball out and Khari picked it up. Konkol, he’s a hitter, man. He’s going to come down and smack somebody. It was good to see him play today.”
On the second possession for the offense, Konkol came down hill at Kevin Kassis, stripping the dynamic sophomore slot receiver. Senior nickel back Khari Garcia recovered, giving the defense its second takeaway in as many tries. He sacked Murray before ending the scrimmage by tipping a Murray pass that Cozzie intercepted.
“Brayden made a good play on the ball but that’s on me, not anyone else,” said Kassis, who finished with five catches for 60 yards. “I take full responsibility for that. I’m hard on myself and I’m not going to let that happen again. But good play by Brayden.”
Earlier this week, Konkol lost his No. 1 spot on the depth chart to Henderson, a smooth 6-foot-2, 195-pounder who has worked at both safety and corner since reporting. Saturday, Henderson and McCabe started the first two series before Konkol took over for the senior captain.
“One of the things I was particularly frustrated with last week was our safety play,” Choate said. “We challenged those guys specifically and I thought Brayden stepped up today, came out and played at a level we thought he was going to be able to play at in our system. After the last couple weeks of last season, we thought he was a guy who was really going to make a move and take the next step. Through the first scrimmage, we hadn’t seen that.
“I think the competition makes everybody better and I’m happy to see Brayden respond in that manner because honestly if he tanked it, we didn’t have the right guy. I’m proud of him responding to the challenge.”
Last season, Montana State started 2-1 thanks to an FCS-best 11 takeaways. During conference play, the tide turned completely as the Bobcats turned the ball over 23 times during a six-game losing streak to begin conference play. The Bobcats have reduced their turnovers significantly during the off-season, both in spring ball and the first half of this fall camp.
Saturday, the three turnovers brought back poor memories. The miscues also let the defense end the most difficult week of camp with the upper hand.
“Last week, we came out more ready to go, more fired up than the defense,” Murray said. “Today, I thought it was the complete opposite. We got going kind of toward the middle and the end but against a team like Washington State (MSU’s opener), if you come out slow, even on the first drive, that’s a loss.”
Although Murray threw a pick, he looked solid distributing the ball despite MSU attempting to disguises coverage schemes and confuse Murray before the snap. Murray finished with 74 rushing yards and likely would’ve had more if not for his red jersey.He threw a three-yard touchdown to true freshman Lance McCutcheon. Rovig lofted an 18-yard touchdown to true freshman Peyton Hanser following his interception.
“This week, they brought a little more pressure on third down, a little more zone but we need to get the ball to play-makers,” Murray said. “They were trying to play little games, Cover 2 invert, fake cobra, things like that. We just have to study the film, watch it later on today and get better.”
“Chris had his moments but I think he’s a lot better player than what he played today,” Choate said.
Following the Kassis fumble, the Bobcat offense moved the ball consistently mostly because of the production of freshmen running backs. True freshman Tyrel Burgess rushed for 58 yards on nine carries behind the first-team offensive line. Dillon products Troy Andersen and R.J. Fitzgerald each provided powerful carries for second and third offenses. Fitzgerald carried a scrimmage-high 15 times for 66 yards and Andersen added 55 yards on six bruising carries.
The rushing attack helped set up field goals of 35 and 38 yards by sophomore Gabe Peppenger. Senior Luke Daly drilled a 49-yard field goal for the first points of the day. Murray’s long gallop served as the only rushing touchdown of the day.
The Bobcats will engage in what Choate calls a “light little cleanup practice” on Monday before having game week-type practices on Tuesday and Thursday. Practice is light on Friday. MSU has a closed mock game on Saturday to practice situational football and clean up logistics. Game week for MSU’s season opener at Washington State is eight days from Saturday’s scrimmage.
“What we have to do,” Choate said, “is get our team, all 68 or 70 guys, whoever gets on that plane to Pullman, to play together with an edge. It’s no longer offense against defense or vice versa, it’s about the Bobcats. I think we’ve seen some good, positive things from both sides of the ball throughout camp, but by and large it’s over now. We’ll have a nice little cleanup practice Monday, then it’s (time to) game plan for Washington State.”
Photos by Jeff Krogstad and Colter Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.