BOZEMAN — When Jeff Choate turns on the film of the Idaho Vandals, he sees one of the most explosive edge players in the league wearing No. 3, one of the stoutest running backs in the conference wearing No. 21, a hyperactive tackler wearing No. 50 and an athletic, competitive pass catcher wearing No. 2. As Choate digs into the players in the trenches, he sees an NFL hopeful wearing No. 74 and an offensive line that might be the biggest in the Big Sky Conference.
The Vandals have mostly struggled in their first season back in the Big Sky Conference since 1995. The season got off to a tenuous start in a 79-13 loss to Fresno State. In three Big Sky games, Idaho is giving up 37.6 points per game.
UI gave up 256 yards rushing to the best passing team in the league in a 44-21 loss at UC Davis, shut down Portland State in a 20-7 grind and got blasted by in-state rival Idaho State, surrendering 756 yards of total offense, including 492 yards and eight passing touchdowns by ISU senior quarterback Tanner Gueller.
With Idaho coming to Bozeman for the first time in 22 years to take on Choate’s Bobcats, Montana State is not underestimating a team coming off a 62-28 loss in Pocatello a week ago.
“I think they are a dangerous outfit and a team that is going to come in here with a lot of motivation and has talent and is dangerous,” Choate said on Monday. “A very, very talented group overall and they just need to put the pieces together.
“It’s not an outfit that is void of talent, I think they just haven’t found their rhythm consistently…I think personnel-wise, you look at it and they have some elite players. For whatever reason, it just hasn’t quite come together for them.”
No. 3 is Kaden Elliss, an athletic, high-motor edge player with NFL aspirations. The son of former Detroit Lions Pro Bowl defensive lineman Luther Elliss was a two-time All-Sun Belt Conference selection who piled up 16 tackles for loss last season.
No. 50 is Ed Hall, himself an All-Sun Belt pick last season who leads Idaho with 40 tackles from his middle linebacker position so far this season.
“The Hall kid as productive an inside linebacker as there is in this league,” Choate said. “Kaden Elliss is as a good a player period as there is in this league. Turn the tape on if you don’t believe me.”
No. 21 is Isaiah Saunders, a 5-foot-10, 234-pound workhorse running back who rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns in Idaho’s 61-50 win over Colorado State in the 2016 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. He has rushed for 102, 99 and 144 yards, respectively, in each of Idaho’s three Big Sky games thus far. Choate calls Saunders, “the guy who makes their offense go.”
Saunders carried the ball five times for 34 yards in Idaho’s 20-17 win over Montana State to open the 2016 season. Two other Vandals’ running backs had more carries, yet several Bobcats still mentioned Saunders when preparing for Idaho this week.
“Their one back is a horse and their OL is huge, probably the biggest offensive line we have faced with the exception of South Dakota State,” MSU defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said. “They are a big o-line and they have some dudes on the perimeter who can go.”
“He’s 5-10, 230, well built, stocky dude, runs hard, downhill,” added junior safety Brayden Konkol. “It’s going to be challenging tackling him for four quarters but Choate has been preaching it so we are ready for a physical game.”
No. 2 is David Ungerer, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound sophomore who leads the Vandals with 33 catches for 367 yards and has caught two touchdowns, second on the team to Jeff Cotton’s four TD grabs.
No. 74 is Noah Johnson, an All-Sun Belt selection at guard who earned preseason All-Big Sky recognition like Elliss and punter Cade Coffey before Idaho had even played a game in the league. The Vandals run a “strong-side, quick-side” run blocking scheme, Choate said, moving Johnson to different spots on the line.
“I’ve never really seen that before,” Konkol said. “I’ve heard about it but never played against it.”
“You think you would be able to key into what they are doing because they are moving that guy around so much but they self-scout too so they know,” added MSU senior defensive tackle Tucker Yates. “You think you are getting keyed in, you think a guard is going to pull but then he pulls the other way or the other guy pulls. It messes with you in that way to where you think you have them dialed up but you don’t.”
While the Vandals have struggled — the 20-7 win over Portland State in Moscow is the only Division I win for Idaho this season — Montana State has navigated a difficult schedule about as well as most expected the Bobcats would.
MSU beat Western Illinois, a playoff team two of the last three years, to open the campaign. Montana State lost 45-14 at No. 2 South Dakota State, beat Wagner 47-24 at home, won 43-23 at Portland State and lost 34-17 at home to No. 3 Eastern Washington to enter last week’s bye 1-1 in league play, 3-2 overall.
Choate has said multiple times over the last two weeks that he is happy with the strides his program has made since he took over before the 2016 season. Saturday, the Bobcats get to see just how big of strides with a rematch against Idaho.
In that 2016 matchup in Moscow, Montana State’s banged up defensive front — the Bobcats lost four defensive linemen in Choate’s first fall camp — played a factor in giving up a 43-yard touchdown run to Aaron Duckworth midway through the first quarter to give the Vandals a 10-7 lead after MSU had scored on its first possession of the Choate era.
Big plays in the passing game set up Duckworth’s one-yard touchdown run that put UI up 17-7 just 11 minutes into the game. Idaho stretched the lead to 20-7 with eight minutes to go in the first half but would not score again. Meanwhile, MSU running back Chad Newell willed Montana State back into the game, eventually finishing with 104 rushing yards and a touchdown that cut the lead to 20-17 with 9:22 left in the third quarter, the eventual final margin.
“I don’t get hysterical or historical like some of my old girlfriends, but it still bothers me we lost that game,” Gregorak said. “We gave up 17 points early and then really played well defensively. We went there and didn’t get a win but we played well enough.”
That 2016 Idaho team went on to win nine games, including the third bowl victory in the third bowl appearance in UI’s 23-year stay in the FBS. Since that run, Idaho has not been able to find its formula for success.
The Vandals played a collection of one-score games in their final season in the Sun Belt, eventually finishing with three league wins and a 4-8 record overall. The struggles have continued, particularly defensively. Despite the athletic abilities of players like Elliss and Hall, Idaho is giving up 206 rushing yards and 302 passing yards per game in Big Sky play.
“We need every single guy doing their jobs,” Idaho head coach Paul Petrino, a Helena native, said. “I wanted the whole Idaho State game with our defense and our defensive staff. We get beat on a deep route early in that game and we got beat on the 5-on-3 side, not even the one on one side. Guys are just not doing their jobs. Everyone has to do their jobs on each and every play.
“We are just not playing good enough right now, to be honest with you. We are playing a bunch of young guys on offense but it’s our defense that isn’t playing very well and we aren’t playing young guys over there so we have to get that fixed.”
Choate said Idaho looks similar stylistically on offense but neither junior Mason Petrino or sophomore Colton Richardson has been able to match the production or consistency of four-year starter Matt Linehan at quarterback. Defensively, Choate said coordinator Mike Breske is not using as much pressure as he has in the past, one of his trademarks in two stops as DC at Montana along with stints at Wyoming and Washington State.
The Bobcat team that played at the Kibbie Dome a few years ago had some salty seniors like Newell, All-Big Sky offensive lineman J.P. Flynn, running back Gunnar Brekke and linebacker Fletcher Collins. But by and large, many of the starters were sophomores who are now seniors. Those players are eager to see Saturday how they measure up to a team that spent most of their lifetimes playing at the highest level of Division I football.
“We didn’t really know what was going on, we had a lot of injuries up front, we had a lot of injures on defense and we didn’t really have a quarterback at that time,” Yates said. “I’m excited to get them here back at home and see what we can do.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.