BOZEMAN, Montana — Montana State’s offense has been so run-heavy and so dominant on the ground, even the cliché that the offensive line never gets any headlines cannot be applied to the 2019 Bobcats.
Senior captain Mitch Brott, a sure-fire All-American front-runner who has made 40 straight starts in his career, leads a unit that features two other players in their third seasons as starters and two more sophomores who started last season as freshmen.
That unit, which also includes junior honors candidate Lewis Kidd at right guard, certainly deserved a ton of credit for an offensive attack that has helped the Bobcats average a Big Sky Conference-best 264.7 rushing yards per game. MSU is churning out 292.2 yards per game on the ground despite the limited workload or complete unavailability of junior All-American Troy Andersen or sophomore workhorse Isaiah Ifanse.
Travis Jonsen, a do-everything senior who ranks second on the team in rushing yards and receiving yards by lining up at outside receiver and Wildcat quarterback, sometimes on the same drive, also deserves credit.
The most unassuming group contributing for Montana State’s bruising rushing attack is the tight ends and H-backs. MSU head coach Jeff Choate calls them the “moving blockers”.
Fullback/H-back R.J. Fitzgerald has established himself as one of the Big Sky’s most punishing lead blockers. Starting junior tight end Ryan Davis is still awaiting his first career reception. But his versatility, toughness and physicality are all key factors in MSU’s ability to run the ball seemingly at will.
And Derryk Snell, the former Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year, has caught two passes for 22 yards, the only offensive statistics registered by the group. Yet his ability to play out of the wing, go in motion fluidly and execute at the point of attack has also helped bolster the Bobcat ground game.
“I love the tight ends,” MSU second-year offensive coordinator Matt Miller said early in the season. “I think that’s something we did last fall was get the tight ends more involved all the way around. We are going to miss those three senior (Curtis Amos, Connor Sullivan, Wilson Brott) we had last fall but I really like this group, too. A lot of youth but a lot of talent.”
The production in the passing game is a poor way to gage the impact Montana State’s senior trio of tight ends had last season. Amos served as the quintessential H-back, a powerful blocker who helped pave the way for Andersen’s Big Sky single-season rushing record for a quarterback with 1,412 yards and a school record 21 touchdowns.
Sullivan provided blocking on the edge, motions pre-snap to deceive defenders and the best chunk play ability of the three. And Brott, who spent part of his career playing offensive line, played mostly in MSU’s heavy sets as a sort of blocking tight end or extra offensive linemen.
“Those guys left quite a legacy here so it’s like walking on the shoulders of giants,” Davis said in an interview in August. “I feel like they have prepared us younger guys that is far beyond their knowledge. It’s good to be able to get the chance to step up and try to fill those shoes.
“They set the standard and it’s only right to follow that. They taught us how things are done here at Montana State, what it means to play for Montana State, what it means to put on that blue & gold and what it means to play tight end here.”
Choate has frequently pointed out Fitzgerald specifically for his work ethic, toughness and ability to be a hammer pounding opposing defensive players since he arrived on campus before the 2017 season. A year after missing all but MSU’s first four games with an injury, the Dillon product is back to his lead-blocking and special teams terrorizing ways.
“He’s also one of our emotional leader,” Choate said. “He’s very much a quiet leader in some respects but very much on game day brings that emotion and always has great energy.”
The 5-foot-10, 225-pound former 3-sport athlete from Beaverhead County has carried the ball one time (as a true freshman in 2017) during live action of a game. The only other statistics he has notched have been the handful of tackles he’s registered covering kicks or punts.
But his role has been significant in the five games he has appeared in so far this season now that he’s back healthy.
“That guy is playing a lot of football for us. He might not show up on the stat line but when we are in 12 personnel or we are in 11, he’s in the game. He’s been a relentless blocker for us. He’s done a great job on special teams,” according to Choate.
“Between the kick game and offense, he is probably around 45, 50 plays a game, so he’s playing a significant role for us on our team.”
Even with Ifanse battling back from a knee ding and Andersen struggling with a variety of maladies, MSU has still been able to run the ball with authority. Six different Bobcats, including Andersen, Ifanse and Jonsen along with senior Logan Jones, sophomore Shane Perry and freshman Lane Sumner, have rushed for at least 100 yards in a single game.
Ironically, the one consistent presence over the last month in the Bobcat backfield has been Fitzgerald.
“I just love the physicality of it,” said Fitzgerald, who’s father Greg and uncle John played football at the University of Montana. “My family grew up playing football. It’s always been in my bloodlines.
“I’ve always been drawn to (contact). I’ve never really been one who is finesse at anything I’ve done. Just ask my basketball coaches about that one (laughs). I wasn’t really too much of a finesse player. But hitting is something I’ve grown up and been taught to do.”
The rest of Montana State’s blockers encompass and embrace a similar attitude and mentality. And Davis, who has also had several family members play college athletics, specifically for the Cats, takes great pride in continuing that legacy as well.
“As a unit, we have prepared and work hard,” Davis said. “I have nothing but faith in all the other guys.
“The hay is never in the barn, the work is never done. We have to keep playing with that chip. It wouldn’t matter if I had 15 brothers that played here. Nothing is given. You have to keep working and don’t take anything for granted. You don’t have to tell anybody what you are doing.
“What is done in the dark will come to light.”