BOZEMAN — Montana State is back in the post season for the first time in four years. Incarnate Word is in the postseason for the first time in its football program’s history.
On Saturday, the Southland Conference co-champion Cardinals will take on the suddenly surging Bobcats at Bobcat Stadium in Bozeman at 1 p.m. in the first round of the FCS Playoffs.
UIW has only had football since 2009 and has only played Division I football since 2013. The San Antonio private Catholic school is in its fourth season of eligibility for the FCS playoffs. UIW went 1-10 last season. Incarnate Word won six of its eight games in league play to share the Southland title with No. 19 Nicholls State.
“It’s a program that’s only been around for a decade but a place that’s tried to invest in football,”MSU third-year head coach Jeff Choate said. “It’s like a lot of schools bringing a football program in to try to increase enrollment and profile for the university and I think it’s done that.”
Montana State has won three straight games after Saturday’s 29-25 win over rivalry Montana in Missoula. The Bobcats rallied from a 22-0 deficit to take its first lead with two minutes left, then forced a fumble one yard away from the end-zone to seal a third straight win over the Grizzlies.
“What a great college football game,” Choate reflected during his weekly press conference on Monday.
“That final turnover, that was epic, that was amazing. The will to win that those young men showed in that environment was pretty awesome.”
Montana State’s last playoff appearance came in 2014 following a 34-7 loss to Montana in Missoula, the only time the Griz defeated the Bobcats at home this decade. With a limping Dakota Prukop back in the lineup after missing two straight starts at quarterback, MSU could not slow down Zach Zenner and lost at home to South Dakota State 47-40.
MSU had advanced to the playoffs nine times since the forming of the FCS in 1978, eight coming since 2002. The Bobcats are 6-7 all-time in the tournament.
“It’s awesome to be playing playoff football,” Choate said. “There’s nothing like it.”
INCARNATE WORD QUICK HITS
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Founded: 1881. The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) is a private Catholic university whose main campus is located in San Antonio and Alamo Heights, Texas. Founded by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the university’s main campus is located on 154 acres.
Enrollment: 10,984 with an endowment of $120 million.
Stadium: Gayle and Tom Benson Stadium is a stadium in San Antonio, Texas. It is the home field for the men’s and women’s soccer, track and field, and American football teams of the University of the Incarnate Word. The stadium currently seats 6,000 people. It is named after Tom Benson and his wife Gayle, a billionaire businessman who used to own the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Coach: Eric Morris, first year at UIW. The former Texas Tech wide receiver is one of the youngest head coaches in college football. After playing inside wide receiver for Mike Leach in Lubbock between 2004 and 2008, Morris joined Kevin Sumlin’s staff as a graduate assistant at Houston.
Morris linked back up with Leach on “the Pirate’s” first staff at Washington State in 2012, where he worked alongside Montana State head coach Jeff Choate. In 2013, Morris returned to his alma mater, taking over as Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive coordinator and inside wide receivers coach. He was Texas Tech’s offensive play caller from 2013 until 2017, coaching a collection of future NFL players, including Kansas City Chiefs phenom Patrick Mahomes.
In his first year as a head coach, Morris led Incarnate Word to a 6-4 record and earned the Southland Conference Coach of the Year award after taking a team that finished 1-10 to the FCS playoffs for the first time in program history.
“I can’t speak enough about the job Eric Morris has done there,” Choate said. “He’s turned this program around in a year.”
THE OFFENSE – Players to watch
Jon Copeland, quarterback, 6-0, 195, freshman — Copeland was tearing up the Texas 7-on-7 circuits during the summer leading up to his junior year. He led Argyle Liberty Christian to second place at the TAPPS 7-on-7 state championship in the summer of 2016.
Despite his 5-foot-11 frame, he began receiving attention from college recruiters, including Montana State’s primary Texas recruiter DeNarius McGhee. After sitting at Liberty Christian behind Texas A&M quarterback Nick Starkel,
Following his junior season, Copeland transferred to Argyle High. He threw for more than 2,400 yards and 24 touchdowns during a 7-0 start that had Argyle look like a contender for its second state title in five years. But Copeland suffered a torn ACL in that contest.
Argyle head coach Todd Rogers had a relationship with Morris and asked him to come see the talented if undersized quarterback. Once meeting Copeland, Morris new he had his quarterback of the present and future.
“Once I got around him and understood his focus and his mentality and that he wanted to be here and wanted to be our starter from the get-go, I knew that he was a guy I wanted to take a risk on,” Morris told the San Antonio Express-News.
Copeland and Morris have shared first season success. Copeland has thrown for a Southland Conference-best 2,984 yards and 22 touchdowns to earn league Freshman of the Year honors. The Southland’s second-team all-conference quarterback is a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award given to the nation’s top freshman.
“The quarterback operates at a really high level,” Choate said. “For a freshman, I think he is doing a great job. He actually came up to our camp a couple of years ago. DeNarius got him t come up so it won’t be his first time to Bozeman. He distributes the ball well.”
Copeland has thrown for more than 300 yards five times, more than 400 twice and more than 500 once this season.
“We think Copeland will be the Baker Mayfield of the FCS level over the next four years. He’s a great athlete, a leader and throws an accurate ball with a lot of velocity,” UIW offensive coordinator Cody Crill said when Copeland signed with the Cardinals.
Ra’Quanne Dickens, running back, 5-10, 195, senior — The Cardinals run a spread offense that throws for more than 327 yards per game. UIW’s passing attack ranks eighth in the FCS in passing yards per contest.
Yet Dickens earned first-team All-Southland honors by rushing for 1,054 and 14 touchdowns this season. Dickens rushed for more than 100 yards in fout straight games to start the season and five games overall, including a 35-carry, 213-yard, three-touchdown exclamation point in the final game of the regular season at Central Arkansas. Despite Morris’ coaching influences, the Cardinals put a high priority on staying balanced.
“That little running back, holy cow, 14 touchdowns, 105 yards per game…in an offense that features the passing game as much as they do, I think it says a lot of how committed Eric is to being balanced,” Dickens said. “They have some two-back run game they use, some gap schemes which is not something you see a lot of out of an Air Raid type system.”
Phillip Baptiste, wide receiver, 6-0, 186, senior — The former junior college transfer led the Cardinals in catches and receiving yards each of the last two seasons. This season, he had more than 100 yards receiving against FBS New Mexico (six catches, 112 yards, TD), Southeast Louisiana (seven catches, 174 yards, two TDs) and in Incarnate Word’s 40-27 win at Central Arkansas (nine catches, 158 yards, TD) that helped UIW sew up a share of the Southland Conference title.
Baptiste, formerly of Trinity Valley Community College, earned first-team All-Southland honors by catching 51 passes for 842 yards and nine touchdowns, all tops on the Cardinals this fall.
“It’s an offense that is high-powered,” Choate said.
THE DEFENSE – Players to watch
Justin Alexandre, defensive end, 6-5, 256, senior — The former junior college transfer — the Cardinals have 19 JC transfers and five more from four-year programs — was the only Cardinal to earn first-team All-Southland honors this season.
The long, explosive edge rusher had team highs of 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. He had 46 tackles overall.
“They are not unlike the University of Montana: a lot of post snap movement, twists almost every time you see them play, especially when they are in a four-down front,” Choate said. “They don’t blitz a ton. They make you earn it.”
Silas Stewart, linebacker, 6-3, 219, senior — The former Riverside (California) Community College transfer saw significant action at both outside and inside linebacker along with defensive end last season, his first at UIW.
This season, Stewart blossomed into one of the best outside linebackers in the Southland. The Wilmington, Delaware native earned second-team all-league honors by tallying at least eight tackles on six different occasions, including four games with at least 10 stops.
He leads UIW with 85 tackles, including 48 solo stops and six tackles for loss. He also has two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery and is tied wit All-Southland defensive back Malick Phillips with a team-high three of UIW’s 18 interceptions.
“No. 12 is an athletic guy, a rangy kid who runs well, good tackler,” Choate said.
Louis Otis, defensive back, 6-3, 187, junior — The San Joaquin Delta College transfers earned honorable mention All-Southland honors this season while operating efficiently at UIW’s boundary cornerback position.
Otis has 40 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack this season. He also has two interceptions and has broken up two passes.
“Their pass yards are deceptive. They are giving up a lot of yards in the passing game (307 per game) but this is a team that jumps out on teams a lot so teams are playing from behind,” Choate said. “That skews some of the pass numbers because of how explosive Incarnate Word has been on offense.”