BOZEMAN, Montana — Entering his team’s homecoming matchup with Sacramento State, Jeff Choate proclaimed that the Hornets would be the best team his Montana State Bobcats have played this season.
Sac State affirmed that notion true on Saturday afternoon at Bobcat Stadium.
“100 percent, that was the case today,” Montana State senior safety JoJo Henderson said after his team’s five-game winning streak went down in flames against the explosive, opportunistic and suddenly confident Hornets.
Sac State capitalized on a pair of short fields to build a two-score first-half lead. After halftime, the Hornets controlled the action on both sides of the ball and first-year head coach Troy Taylor’s innovative, diverse offense was on full display during a stretch of five consecutive drives as the visitors cruised to a 34-21 victory in front of 19,437 fans on a sun-kissed afternoon at Bobcat Stadium over the No. 6 team in the FCS.
“This is our first road win for our staff and our team this year and that is a really good football team,” Taylor said after his team moved to 2-0 in Big Sky Conference play, 4-2 overall. “We knew they were a physical football team and they were even more physical than we thought. But we hung in there and were able to hold on.”
The win is Sac State’s second straight over a ranked opponent, following last week’s 48-27 win over No. 22 Eastern Washington. Beating the No. 6 team in the FCS marks the highest ranked team Sac State has defeated since the school added football in 1954. The victory also marked Sac State’s first in Bozeman since 1991.
The loss snaps a five-game winning streak for the Bobcats, Montana State’s longest since 2012. This season MSU has figured out how to win in a variety of ways. But Saturday, Montana State moved the ball at will early only to fade late. The Bobcats found themselves in a 21-7 hole, then gave up touchdowns on each of the first two Sac possession of the second half to trail 34-14.
“That’s a very good football team that executed at a high level and we did not in really any phase in my opinion up to our capability,” MSU head coach Jeff Choate said.
“We were beat by a better team today. I don’t think that’s a question. I don’t think that’s the issue.”
Montana State’s first Big Sky Conference loss came in deflating fashion in front of a more than capacity crowd on hand to celebrate a weekend that was supposed to be filled with joy and celebration. Earlier Saturday, Montana State athletic director Leon Costello announced the completion of an $18 million fundraising effort to begin construction on the Bobcat Athletic Complex following the 2019 season. Instead, Montana State enters its bye with a 2-1 mark in league play and a 5-2 record overall.
“As I said all week, this is a really good football team. I think they out-played us in all three phases today,” Choate said. “We have some work to do.
“We did not play well today and that’s my responsibility as a head coach. Unfortunately, we will have to live with it for two weeks now. We have to go back to the drawing board, figure out what works for us and execute the next opportunity we have to compete.”
Taylor came to Sac State with reverence for his offensive acumen from across the country. Six games into his first season as a college head coach, that praise has been affirmed consistently and impressively, particularly on Saturday against one of the most talented defensive units in the Big Sky Conference.
Junior quarterback Kevin Thomson and the Sac State offense executed efficiently and nearly flawlessly, dicing Montana State with a variety of offensive concepts that renders the Hornets unpredictable. Thomson, a former UNLV transfer who is in his sixth of what will be a seven-year college football career, completed 23 of 30 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed 11 times for 74 yards and two more scores.
“He’s a really good player who has played a lot of football, a mature guy, a veteran guy,” Choate said. “I think the scheme fits him very well because he’s a capable runner and an accurate passer. They have a lot of weapons.”
The yardage stats were not a good measure of Saturday’s action — MSU sophomore Tucker Rovig threw for two more yards than Thomson despite struggling all afternoon to find any flow — because the Hornets operated with a short field so often. Sac’s first touchdown came on a three-play, 38-yard drive thanks to the first of three failed fourth down tries by the Bobcats, who went for it eight times on fourth down. Sac also had a 45-yard touchdown drive thanks to a botched punt snap by MSU senior Jered Padmos.
Short field or long, it did not matter when the Hornets had the ball. MSU came up with a stop on Sac State’s first possession, then gave up points on six consecutive possessions. The Bobcats second stop came nearly three minutes into the fourth quarter.
“This is a great offense to play in,” Thomson said. “The guys up front bust their tales. Another week, no sacks. Only six on the season so far. They are performing big time, high level. I love playing behind them and getting the ball in guys’ hands and watching them do their things.”
Montana State’s stout rushing defense stuffed All-Big Sky running back Elijah Dotson in the first half. The Bobcats allowed 18 rushing yards on 12 rushes. But Thomson completed 14-of-18 passes for 149 yards, including a seven-yard scoring strike to Pierre Williams. He also scored touchdowns on the ground of seven and one yard as Sac scored 21 points in the game’s first 20 minutes.
On the other side of the ball, Montana State’s offense has been largely one-dimensional this season as Rovig has shared reps behind center with Wildcat quarterbacks Travis Jonsen and Troy Andersen. Saturday, Rovig through an interception after taking a crushing hit from Sac State senior defensive end George Obinna that ended MSU’s first offensive possession after an efficient opening drive.
“It was really just down to our preparation, where (defensive coordinator) Coach (Andy) Thompson puts us,” Obinna said. “He puts us in great positions to make plays. It’s really what we emphasize: make your plays and that’s how it is on defense every time.
“We did what we had to on defense, everybody executed, everybody did what we had to and that’s what it really came down to.”
Montana State averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the first half, rushing for 125 yards on 26 carries, including a 17-yard touchdown by Jonsen that tied the score 7-7 late in the first quarter and a six-yard run to convert a fourth down by Andersen that cut the Sac lead to 21-14 with 15 seconds left in the first half.
Sac State marched 75 yards in 11 plays and 4:02 to open the second half and push the advantage to 27-14. Thomson capped that drive by finding a wide open B.J. Perkinson for a six-yard touchdown that watched the running back walk into the end-zone.
On the second possession of the second half, Thomson engineered a 10-play, 94-yard again filled with diversity and spurred on by Thomson’s ability to run the ball between the tackles. The long march came to an end when Thomson ran a play-action, took an 11-step drop and lofted a perfect throw against the grain to Marshel Martin for a 26-yard touchdown.
“We went 3-and-out on the first drive, I missed a throw and that was tough but we executed really well offensively from there on,” said Thomson, who has now thrown 44 touchdowns rushed for 14 touchdowns and thrown just seven interceptions in 21 starts during his Sac State career. “Everyone was doing a great job, I was getting the ball in people’s hands and everybody was working hard. We were executing at the level we wanted to execute the next five drives.”
After halftime, Sac State’s defense allowed just 16 rushing yards on 15 carries. The Hornets held a ground attack averaging a league-best 268 yards per game entering the game to 141 yards and 3.4 yards per carry. Take out a 40-yard run by Logan Jones and the best rushing attack in the league managed just 2.5 yards per tote.
“That rushing attack is a challenge,” Taylor said. “We knew it would be an unbelievable challenge. The backs, they are so big and they are so physical and they were driving the pile but our guys hung in and did a great job.”
Without it’s bruising running game, the Bobcats had a hard time operating on offense. It also allowed Obinna and the Sac State defense to tee off on Rovig. Montana State had allowed just two sacks all season entering the game. Obinna, a first-team All-Big Sky selection two years ago before missing last season, had that many himself on an afternoon the Hornets notched four sacks to add to their league-leading total.
MSU entered the game with a reputation as one of the top defensive fronts in the league. After halftime, Sac rushed for 100 yards on 25 carries but still managed just 3.2 yards per carry for the game. Junior Buck end Amandre Williams had 1.5 of MSU’s six tackles for loss. Senior safety Brayden Konkol and Andersen each notched tackles behind the line.
After halftime, the Hornets found a soft spot in the Bobcat defense with the quarterback run game. Thomson rushed for 57 of his 74 yards in the third quarter alone, including a 24-yard jaunt on Sac’s final touchdown drive.
“We saw that a couple of the Q run plays were working really well with our motions, throwing them off guard,” Thomson said. “It was working every time so we stuck with it.”
But Montana State did not earn a sack, the fourth time Sac State has kept Thomson upright in the pocket for the duration of a game this season.
“It starts up front and Kevin does a good job of getting rid of the ball,” Taylor said. “We have done a good job of protecting him all year. I feel if we can protect the quarterback, we have a pretty good chance to be successful. Our offensive line has been stepping up.”
Montana State’s final score came on a two-yard touchdown catch from captain Kevin Kassis with 1:41 left. That score was set up by a 24-yard catch-and-run by the senior, who finished with six catches for 119 yards, including a 48-yard over the shoulder catch that adds to his already impressive highlight reel this season.
But that long gain of the afternoon by either side following Thomas’ interception was part of a drive that ended in disappointment on an afternoon highlighted by disappointments.
On the next play after Kassis’ long gain, Rovig found Jonsen for a 7-yard touchdown that was waved off because Sac had 12 players on the field. MSU ran four plays from the Sac 2-yard line. Dariyn Choates and Elijah Chambers came up with three straight tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage, and Chambers combined with safety Caelan Barnes to stuff Jonsen on fourth and goal to kill MSU’s rally and give the Hornets the ball again with nine minutes to play.
“That was the tale of the tape today,” Choate said. “Compliments to Sacramento State. I feel like they beat us on both sides. That’s something we have clearly hung our hat on around here and our inability to win those short yardage situations were a big factor in the game.”
Montana State has a bye next week before playing at North Dakota on October 26. Idaho State thrashed UND 55-20 on Saturday in Pocatello, Idaho.
“Maybe being exposed was a good thing for us at this point in the season,” Kassis said.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.