BOZEMAN, Montana — During Jeff Choate’s first and only season as an FCS assistant coach at Eastern Illinois in 2005, he was responsible for recruiting the Jayhawk League in Kansas.
Once when recruiting one of the top junior college leagues in the country with a matchup against Southeast Missouri State looming the following week, Choate drove to Cape Girardeau to “play a few rounds of Blackjack on the riverboats and exchange VHS tapes with one of their assistants.”
Nearly 15 years later, SEMO comes to Bozeman for Montana State’s annual “Gold Rush” game, a matchup ripe with intrigue. The Redhawks are ranked No. 12 in the country coming off last week’s 44-26 win over Southern Illinois. The Bobcats are No. 13 after last week’s 45-10 loss at Texas Tech of the Big XII.
“I think those kids have always had the reputation of being tough, hard-nosed kids and I think that’s just been enhanced by the coaching staff that is there,” Choate said on Monday. “I would describe this team as physical. I would describe this team as confident. You can tell they feel good about who they are.
“They return eight of 11 starters on defense and they play with some swagger. They led all of college football, any level, in takeaways last year with 36. They had 23 interceptions and 13 recovered fumbles. That’s something that is obviously huge part of their success a year ago. They scored 144 points off of takeaways last season.”
Saturday, Montana State struggled mightily to corral Texas Tech’s torrid tempo. The Red Raiders ran 95 plays for 697 yards as temperatures crept over triple digits. Montana State quarterback Casey Bauman endured his first start, throwing a touchdown pass but completing just 7-of-19 passes. The Bobcat defense held its own along the line of scrimmage but had a hard time covering on the perimeter as Alan Bowman completed 40-of-55 passes for 436 yards.
“I think our kids know that they could’ve played better and they all know that is the best team we’ve played by far since we have been here in terms of the athletic talent and speed,” Choate said.
Choate’s squad will have a chance to perform up to par with its home opener. MSU’s annual Gold Rush game is sure to be a sellout to see a team that enters the season with the highest expectations yet in Choate’s four campaigns at the helm.
“Game week on a college campus in a true college town like Bozeman, Montana, there’s really nothing like it and you can already feel it,” Choate said.
The showdown holds postseason implications. Last season, SEMO posted a 9-4 record that included a 6-2 mark in Ohio Valley Conference play. The Redhawks smacked rival Jacksonville State 37-14 in October, helping the team finish a game behind JSU in the league standings. SEMO posted a 28-14 win over Stony Brook in the first round of the playoffs before falling 48-23 at Big Sky Conference co-champion Weber State the following week.
Montana State won four straight games last season, including a 29-22 win in Missoula over rival Montana to clinch a playoff spot followed by a 35-14 win over Incarnate Word for the first playoff win by MSU since 2012.
The Bobcats and the Redhawks each have aspirations of advancing beyond the Round of 16 this season.
“That’s what I told our guys yesterday – these guys are going to climb in the polls and we are going to have a really, really good team coming in here, a team that made a deep playoff run last year and I’m sure they are wanting more,” Choate said.
“If you want to set yourself up for a run, a big part of that is having the respect of the committee. If they are ranking a team as high as 12 and you have the opportunity to play them, that gives you a chance. I’m sure Coach Tuke is saying the exact same thing. He’s telling his guys they have a chance to put themselves on the map. I’m sure they are thinking they want a first-round bye.
“It’s an important game. And if you don’t test yourself early, you are going to pay for it late. We are going to get better as the year goes on. I promise you that. That’s been our MO around here since I’ve been here. But having an early-season opportunity to get on the map and on the radar of voters and committee members is a huge part in taking the next step to building a program.”
Location: Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
Founded: in 1873 as Missouri’s first state normal (education) school. The university remains as a traditionally strong teaching school. The recent addition of the River Campus, housing the Holland School of Visual and Performing Arts, has increased the university’s commitment to education in the arts. The institution offers over 200 areas of study, including undergraduate degrees as well as master’s degrees and a cooperative Ed.D. program with the University of Missouri.
Enrollment: 11,071 with an endowment of $58.6 million.
Stadium: Houck Stadium holds 11,015. Built in 1930 for a cost of $150,000 on the site of a former rock quarry, the venue is named for famous Missouri resident who served on many boards for the university during his lifetime. The Redhawks averaged 4,498 fans during six home games last season.
The Coach: Tom Matukewicz, sixth season at Southeast Missouri State. Last season, Matukewicz led the Redhawks to the FCS playoffs for the second time since SEMO moved up to the FCS in 1991.
“Clearly looking at this team, Coach Matukewicz has done an awesome job,” Choate said.
“This guy, he’s a ball coach, man. I love looking at his resume. He was a guy who was with Jerry Kill a long time (2000 until 2010 at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois).
“He started out Division II (Fort Hayes State 1996-97; Pittsburg College 1997-99, Emporia State 2000-01), junior college (Coffeyville CC 1999-2000), FCS (SIU 2001-07), FBS (NIU, Toledo 2008-13), gets his opportunity to be a head coach (in 2014 at SEMO) and I have a ton of respect for the job he has done there.”
SEMO struggled his firs four seasons, posting no more than five overall wins or more than three wins in Ohio Valley play. Last season was the breakthrough, a 9-4 finish that included six conference victories.
“He’s been there six years and they have gotten better, better and better each year. It’s not a place that is easy to get to.
“He’s built it into a championship program and I have a ton of respect for that.”
THE OFFENSE – Players to watch
Daniel Santacaterina, quarterback, 6-1, 208, senior — After starting as a sophomore at Northern Illinois, the hard-nosed and athletic quarterback transferred to SEMO and earned first-team Ohio Valley honors last season. At NIU, Santacaterina started four games, throwing for 712 yards and seven touchdowns.
Last season, Santacaterina was stellar, throwing for 2,844 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also rushed for 203 touchdowns and three scores.
“Santacanterina, he’s the guy who makes it all go,” Choate said. “Very tough kid. You can tell he is the undisputed leader of that offensive side of the ball, definitely has some swagger. He is a good runner and a willing runner. He is kind of like that point guard with the ball in his hands. With the clock winding down, he wants the ball in his hands. He is going to make some plays with his feet when he needs to extend big plays. He has excellent targets on the perimeter.”
Against Southern Illinois, he threw for 248 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 54 yards and two more scores.
“He has a lot of moxie, man,” Choate said. “He’s not like what you are going to see from the Bowman kid from Texas Tech. He’s not a 6-foot-3 pocket passer who was recruited to the ‘Air Raid’ offense. That’s not his deal. Really, you think about Northern Illinois, it’s like that, plus-one run game with the quarterback, RPOs, take your shots. He fits that mold very well.”
Kristian Wilkerson, wide receiver, 6-1, 214, senior — Wilkerson was one of the best receivers in the Ohio Valley last season. The strong, aggressive route runner caught 61 passes for 894 yards and 14 touchdowns, each the third-best totals in the league. He finished his junior season as the fourth-leading scorer in the conference.
The three-year starter and 2018 second-team all-conference selection enters his final season with 154 catches for 2,336 yards and 24 touchdowns. He caught six passes for 146 yards and a score in SEMO’s 44-26 win over Southern Illinois.
Aaron Alston, wide receiver, 6-4, 210, sophomore — As a freshman, Alston caught seven passes for 137 yards. In the first game of his sophomore season, Alston grabbed Choate’s attention with his ability to catch deep throws from Santacaterina. He hauled in five catches for 91 yards.
“Both of those guys can break the game open,” Choate said of SEMO’s wide receiver duo. “Santacanterina throws back shoulder balls, 50-50 balls and they go and get it. I think that’s awesome but they are primarily a run team with a three-headed monster at running back.”
THE DEFENSE – Players to watch
Zach Hall, inside linebacker, 6-0, 238, senior — Anyone that followed Big Sky football in Montana last season knows of the productivity put forth by Montana linebacker Dante Olson. The high-motor inside linebacker rolled up 158 tackles, setting a UM record and leading the league by a wide margin.
Yet those gaudy statistics were not enough to earn Olson the Buck Buchanan Award. Instead, the FCS Defensive Player of the Year honor went to Hall, a player who can be described much like Olson.
“They have the Buck Buchanan Award winner coming back, an extremely active, physical middle linebacker,” Choate said “He’s 6-foot, 235 pounds and he will hit the line of scrimmage with some intensity and some attitude.”
In 2017, Hall earned second-team all-league honors by rolling up 79 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Last season, he spearheaded a defense that led the nation in takeaways with 36. He himself set a school and league record with 168 tackles, including 67 solo stops, two sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He also forced four fumbles, grabbed four interceptions and broke up six other passes.
“In the box, he’s difficult to block,” Choate said. “Downhill, he’s very aggressive, what I call a hit and fit linebacker. Even more than that, you can tell he’s the emotional leader of that group. The passion he plays with, the physicality, the edge, he defines what that defense is about.”
Justin Swift, outside linebacker, 6-0, 229, senior — Swift also played a huge hand in the turnover forcing barrage. He led the team with four interceptions that he returned for a total of 121 yards. He forced four fumbles and recovered three more.
That’s not to mention his other defensive statistics. He ranked second on SEMO behind Hall with 114 tackles, including 58 solo stops, a team-best 15 tackles for loss and a team-best 8.5 sacks. He led the league in TFLs and forced fumbles, ranked second in total tackles, second in total sacks and tied for first in fumble recoveries.
Clarence Thornton, defensive tackle, 6-3, 268, senior — A year after earning second-team OVC honors, Thornton caught Choate’s eye on film with a solid four-tackle performance against SUI.
“He’s a problem,” Choate said. “Their defensive style is aggressive but they will play tight coverage even when they are playing zone.”
Last season, Thornton had 36 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.