BOZEMAN – Jason Houghtaling has been as far West as Cheney, Washington but none of his players have ever been West of the Mississippi River. Yet the Wagner Seahawks remind Montana State head coach Jeff Choate of a team in a similarly unfamiliar situation that the Bobcats played in Choate’s first home game at MSU.
“I think (Wagner) are pretty similar to Bryant,” Choate said in his press conference on Wednesday. “Saint Francis came in that same year (2016) and gave Montana an excellent football game, too. I think this is an opportunity for those NEC (Northeast Conference) football teams to do something.”
Choate’s first home game as Montana State’s head coach came against Bryant, a rival of Wagner’s in the Northeast Conference. Bryant is in Smithfield, Rhode Island. Wagner is in Staten Island, New York. In the 2016 game between the Bobcats and the Bulldogs, MSU needed five turnovers to overcome 368 passing yards by Dalton Easton and emerge with a 27-24 victory, the first of the Choate era.
“I think back a couple of years ago, you turn on the Bryant film and how do you evaluate Bryant? Well, Bryant came in here and did some good things,” MSU third-year defensive coordinator Ty Gregorak said. “We took the ball away from them four or five times that day, which helped, but the quarterback made plays. We expect the same thing Saturday.”
Wagner makes its first trip to Montana to face a Bobcat team who left Brookings, South Dakota “licking our wounds”, Gregorak said. Last week, Montana State was on the wrong end of a 45-14 whipping at the hands of No. 3 South Dakota State.
The Seahawks have yet to play an FCS opponent this season. Wagner opened up its 2018 campaign with a 40-23 win over Division II Bowie State. Last week, Syracuse thrashed Wagner, 62-10.
“A couple of us have made the trip out to Washington when we played Eastern Washington,” Houghtaling said, referring to Wagner’s 29-19 loss at EWU in the second round of the 2012 FCS Playoffs. “But most guys on our roster have certainly never been to the state of Montana.
“Guys are excited about it. I’m excited to see it. We went to BYU in 2015 but no one really on this roster has been out that way.”
The Seahawks and the rest of the Northeast Conference offer 45 scholarships, up from 35 the last (and only) time Wagner qualified for the FCS playoffs. Montana State, the Big Sky Conference and the rest of the fully-funded FCS programs in the country offer 63 full scholarships.
Wagner is a liberal arts school of a little more than 2,200 students. Most attendees choose the institution for its rich intellectual reputation and class sizes that rarely exceed 15 students, Houghtaling said. Among the schools that offer Division I athletics, Wagner is the ninth smallest in the country.
“Coaching at Wagner, just what we can sell from a recruiting standpoint, it’s the best of both worlds,” Houghtaling said. “We sit up on Grimes Hill. We are in New York City. Staten Island is the fifth borough of New York City. We sit up here on this hill almost like a small-town feel with trees.
“Then all of a sudden, you are in your dorm room, you see the Manhattan skyline, you see the harbor and the bay. Just a really unique setting for our student-athletes.”
Houghtaling said the school pushes a “learning by doing” curriculum. With the heart of United States’ largest city just a ferry ride away, many Wagner players and students capitalize on the abundance of internship possibilities while going to school.
“We are really creating young professionals for the New York City area,” Houghtaling said. “The thing that separates us from a lot of the bigger schools is that number of internships really lets our guys learn how to communicate their opinions in a professional setting. “
Those sorts of opportunities are used heavily by Houghtaling and his staff in recruiting. The Seahawks roster is eclectic and far-flung with players hailing from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, Texas, Florida and California.
The roster features 18 kids who went to prep schools or military academies out of high school, delaying the start of their eligibility clock until enrolling at Wagner. Eight players started their careers in the FBS, including graduate transfer defensive lineman Pete Mokwuah from Notre Dame, quarterback Graham Lindman from Ole Miss, wide receiver Andrew Celis from Nevada and quarterback T.J. Linta from Brown of the Ivy League.
The roster also features five four-year transfers, including star wide receiver D’Erren Wilson and star linebacker Quintin Hampton, both formerly of Central Florida. Wide receiver J’Quan Napier started his career at Florida Atlantic while defensive back Anthony Walker started out at UConn.
Wagner also features seven junior college transfers and two players who began their careers at other FCS schools.
“You look at their roster and it’s just shocking,” Choate said. “Between graduate transfers and fifth year seniors, there’s one sophomore or freshman on their two-deep and he’s their place kicker and punter. It’s a very, very veteran team.”
One of those former junior college transfers is Wagner’s bell cow. Senior running back Ryan Fulse ranked fourth in the FCS with 1,306 rushing yards last season. He rushed for more than 100 yards seven times and more than 200 twice in earning All-NEC honors despite not starting the first two games of the season after joining the Seahawks mid-year from Monroe College.
“He’s big and he’s fast,” MSU senior defensive tackle Tucker Yates said. “He will hit up the middle, hit up the middle then all of a sudden, he’ll bounce it out, juice one to the house. You have to have good edges against him, good eyes against him, play with knockoff up front against their big o-line and you have to gang tackle too. He’ll be a good test because he’s a good player.”
Choate said he expects Fulse to touch the ball “25 to 28 times”, putting pressure on the Bobcat defense with inside and outside runs. A week ago, MSU gave up 512 yards of total offense, including 309 passing yards to SDSU senior quarterback Taryn Christion.
Montana State has talked all week about needing to put the SDSU loss behind them and put forth a strong performance in the non-conference finale. MSU opens up Big Sky Conference play at Portland State on September 22.
“I kind of expect it to be the same way as the Bryant game,” Yates said. “They are going to come into our stadium fired up ready to play in front of a good crowd. I think they are a similar offense, too, run the ball and boot off of it. I’m expecting a similar type game, a competitive game.”
“If we just come out and play hard like we can, line and assign everything right and get a couple of turnovers, get after the quarterback, hit the quarterback, I think we will be good. We are looking forward to getting back on track.”
Photos contributed or by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.