Montana State head coach Jeff Choate and MSU defensive coordinator Kane Ioane have each expressed regrets about the shortcomings of the Bobcat defense in a 34-21 homecoming loss to Sacramento State.
That afternoon, Sac State quarterback Kevin Thomson did whatever he wanted. On the way to earning Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors, the fifth-year junior and Walter Payton Award finalist threw for 260 yards and three touchdowns while rushing in two more touchdowns against MSU as the Hornets continued their run through the traditional powers in the Big Sky.
Sac State handily beat Eastern Washington, Montana State and Montana in consecutive weeks on the way to the first Big Sky title in program history. Thomson and the Hornet offense had its way with basically every opponent last season. Yet Montana State still left that loss feeling like that Bozeman afternoon was filled with missed opportunities.
“If we take care of business that week or the next week, either or, we get a ring,” Choate lamented earlier this week.
The following week, Montana State looked dead in the water in an anemic 16-12 loss at North Dakota. But as the last three Bobcat teams have proven under Choate’s leadership, when the ‘Cats have their collective backs against the wall, that’s when they are at their best.
In the seven games following the Sac State loss, Montana State’s defense found its footing and blossomed into among the most dominant units in the FCS. Over those seven weeks, MSU gave up 14.1 points per game. Of the 99 points surrendered by MSU, 86 were actually allowed by the Bobcat defense. Of those 86 points, 28 came without Montana State’s starting defense on the field as the offense also found its groove. The 58 meaningful points allowed by MSU’s top defensive unit over a seven-week span means Montana State was allowing 8.3 points per game as the Bobcats surged into the semifinals of the FCS playoffs for the first time since 1984
Three plays — a wide receiver pass that resulted in North Dakota’s only touchdown that October afternoon in Grand Forks; a Marcus Knight touchdown that capped a 36-yard scoring drive by Montana that was set up by a 60-yard kickoff return by Malik Flowers; and a 58-yard Juwan Green touchdown on the third play of the game in MSU’s second-round playoff 47-21 playoff win over Albany — are outliers. Each score skewed the scoring defensive statistic, too.
Remove those three touchdowns from the equation and Montana State’s defense was been downright suffocating. Removing those 21 points from the sample size means Montana State surrendered 5.2 points per game entering a semifinal matchup at peerless powerhouse North Dakota State.